Was there a specific moment when you decided to become an artist?
It was never really a question. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making art and it was always my intention to make a career out of it. That never changed; what did was perhaps my idea of what an artist could be. I grew up in the American Midwest where nothing much ever happened, so art was something to escape into and exercise my imagination. It was purely a form of self-expression. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of different creative outlets - music, dance, and writing as well - which I let go of when I went off to art school. Years later, once my definition of contemporary art had expanded, I realized all these interests could actually be integrated into my artistic practice and make it richer. Additionally as I’ve gotten older, my focus has shifted outwards from pure self-expression to how my work interfaces with people: what kinds of ideas, emotions, and beliefs can arise from experiencing the work, and how can I shape this to be something beneficial?
What’s your process when making work?
It always starts from an experience - being out in nature, a feeling, or something I’ve read or heard - where I’m looking internally and that triggers a vision of the artwork. I begin to turn the piece over in my mind, looking at it from all angles and figuring out how it’s made. At this point, I might sketch it out to have a record of it, and visually constructing it for the first time usually inspires different variations. I start thinking about what needs to be done to realize the work and research different materials and processes to use. I don’t limit myself to any one medium; I use whatever the work demands. After doing all this planning, I begin making the piece which usually takes several weeks to several months, depending on the processes I’m using. I stay responsive to the artwork as it takes form, making changes if something can be improved. It’s usually at this stage that I start to really understand where the work has come from within my subconscious, and I can start to verbalize the ideas behind it.
Your practice looks at the evolution of consciousness. A very current topic considering the cosmopolitan boom of Yoga studios and meditation workshops. Why does this theme fascinate you?
I suppose it’s because I underwent something that can only begin to be described as an expansion of my consciousness, because of a series of unfortunate experiences I had last year. In my artwork, I had always been interested in this sense of transformation but didn’t know how to consciously conceive of it much less begin to verbalize it. For years I had subconsciously been using imagery of different kinds of portals, gateways, and holes to examine that process of change - looking at the before and after, the unconscious to conscious, the past and future, and the exact moment of moving from one metaphysical or physical space to the other. I had also long been searching for some sort of deeper existential truth - my upbringing taught me how to cope with intense boredom so I learned to look more closely and behind the surface of things, which is why I am drawn to philosophy, theoretical physics, psychology, esoteric spiritual practices, and of course art. It was only after this transformative experience that I understood how all of these were related.
The more I researched the shift in consciousness I had experienced, the more I saw it appear across different fields - spoken about in different terminology, but the same thing nonetheless. I read Francisco Varela, “The Embodied Mind”, Jean Gebser, “The Ever Present Origin”, various books on Zen Buddhism and spirituality and saw that it is something that can occur both on the level of the individual as well as the entire species, which is why I think “evolution” is the most appropriate term. It seems more and more people are being drawn towards it because of the epidemic of disembodiment that comes from experiencing the world primarily through a screen. There is a disconnection between mind and body, between the self and the universe - hence why so many are drawn to more mindful ways of living including the practices you described. These practices can make someone more receptive to raising their consciousness, but it’s impossible to force and usually requires some sort of triggering experience where they must choose between breaking apart and breaking open. It’s also incredibly difficult to verbalize, which is why there have been so many attempts to do so. The works I make capture various aspects of this transformation, like “Balance” (2018) showing a sense of precariousness and possibility. The more works I make, the closer they get to fully describing it.
If you could possess any artwork in the world, which one would it be?
Olafur Eliasson’s “Vaer i vejret”. It’s a simple bronze ring that emanates fog whenever the direction of the wind changes. It’s quite elegant and ghostly, sitting in a clearing in a garden surrounded by trees.
Do you feel your work is influenced in a new way since you’re living in London, compared to when you were studying in Baltimore (USA)?
Certainly I feel more expanded in terms of the work I can make. The materials and processes I use have changed quite a bit and opened up new possibilities. For example, I started integrating digital processes like laser cutting and CNC machines into my work. It’s not that these things didn’t exist around me before, rather I didn’t have a reason to use them. I think the change in how I think about my work comes from being more connected to the world, being based in a city that's a global platform for contemporary art, and from meeting artists who are also as dedicated to their practice. Having access to some of the best institutions in the world and the people they attract keeps me accountable in a way, by opening my eyes to what’s possible and inspiring me to be more demanding and rigorous of my own work.
How would you define your practice in one sentence?
A contemplative search for truth across disciplines.
If you could choose a different career for a day, which one would it be and why?
A nun, preferably in a monastery somewhere deeply isolated in nature. I’d like to spend some time just reconnecting with the universe without distractions.
What's next for Yambe Tam?
I have a residency next year at the Muse Gallery on Portobello Road where I’ll be developing a project that combines sculpture, installation, and performance around ideas and rituals of Zen Buddhism. The sculptures are doubly functional as musical instruments that will be played during the performance - one of these will also be exhibited next month in a group exhibition called “The Salamander Devours its Tail Twice”. I hope to debut the completed project at the end of next summer.