Taiwanese artist YuLiang “YuYu” Liu and his partner Alex Aravantinos are making the cryptoart scene are more diverse place with their LGBT-inclusive takes on historic artworks. The Berlin-based couple speak to Nina Knaack about reforming popular culture, making a positive impact, and why they needed blockchain — and each other — to make it happen.
Delving into the heart of Western cultural history, YuLiang Liu’s masterful works dissect and reframe iconic masterpieces, while shining a contemporary light on the issues of racial inclusion, gender representation, and the enduring stigma attached to the nude form.
Known by his artistic name YuYu, the Taiwanese native explores alternative cultural and historical moments alongside his partner and manager, Alex Aravantinos.
The pair have been working together since they met on a dating app in 2018. YuYu was running a solo show at Soho House Berlin and Alex, who has a Fine Arts degree, was happy to oblige. “It was an opportunity to meet other people with shared interests and to network in the industry, since I was new to the city,” the Greek recalls. “This all naturally progressed into sharing more thoughts and coming up with new ideas together.” Before they knew it, they had become both a couple and creative collaborators.
YuYu has been following his creative process since 2015, when he first moved to Berlin. Exposed to art through pop culture and comic books, as well as formal training as an architect, he was constantly aware of cultural diversity (or the lack thereof) in his chosen mediums.
Also a hobbyist photographer, he was determined to break the tokenistic mould that he believed to define the medium. “Photography began as a pastime, but I soon recognised its power to convey stories that resonate with people instantaneously,” he shares. In particular, he wanted to tell his own story. “I was one of the only Asian male photographers and models around,” he recalls, noting how stepping into the role of director would grant him the liberty to explore his identity in a more personal and captivating manner.
At the time, social media was in its heyday. Fuelled by low interest rates and a booming economy, Facebook had acquired Instagram for $1 billion, whilst enthusiasm for social media was near an all-time high. Influencers were flooding to the image-sharing site, and Alex notes that “photographers were in demand since influencers wanted to build their presence on the platform.” YuYu seized the opportunity. He began creating content as both a photographer and a model, addressing the topic of inclusivity and raising awareness about ethnic diversity.
Alex explains how the pair began by creating innovative and accessible events. “Primarily focused on storytelling and providing an experience,” their plan was to bring experiences typically reserved only for wealthy patrons and well-connected collectors to a broader audience. And keen not to emphasise “selling and building customers,” Alex and YuYu’s events would feature an avant-garde fusion of live performance and other creative arts, “breaking down the barrier of high culture that often intimidated many.”
“We are very determined to make an impact, and that is what keeps us motivated to keep building.”
— Alex Aravantinos
That aim to shun the conventional high-end aesthetic is the fundamental focus of YuYu’s work. “In the beginning, I only did portraits, but at some point, they felt too polished and restrictive in terms of artistic expression,” he explains. But as he explored alternate styles, for both their events and his own practice, Covid struck, rendering their work almost impossible, and leaving them feeling disheartened and uninspired.
It was during this challenging time that the pair stumbled upon NFTs. “We were not quite familiar with them at first, but we soon discovered the immense potential they held for artists to establish their own brand and make their voices heard,” Alex recalls, adding that joining the web3 ecosystem also provided an alternative income stream to replace what they had lost to the pandemic. Either way, both YuYu and Alex were captivated by the novel market for digital art and began to develop a strategy around it.
“Blockchain provides creators with tools we never had before.”
“We decided to build a brand around YuYu,” Alex says. Together, they embarked on a new creative journey, exploring the possibilities of this emerging way of distributing art. “Blockchain provides creators with tools we never had before,” YuYu says. He had already been experimenting with incorporating his identity as a gay Asian man into firmly-established cultural traditions, questioning prevailing beauty standards and the aesthetic of mainstream photography. But blockchain allowed him to do that in a more permanent way. “Throughout history, queer art has been subject to erasure,” he explains. “But now we not only have the ability to monetise our work directly [rather than via, for example, a gallery], but to ensure its lasting legacy.”
YuYu’s approach is seen most clearly in The Swing. For the Taiwanese artist, it is his most important work, as it represents his true identity as a “gay Asian person who is not afraid to show himself.” All highly conceptual pieces, YuYu expresses disappointment that his work is sometimes seen as a thirst for attention, rather than real engagement with themes of race, gender, and sexuality.
Promoting diversity and inclusion on a conceptual level as much as on a visual level is critical for YuYu, for whom Alex is an essential thought partner. “Every idea I have,” YuYu says, “I discuss with him.” Together, they carefully consider which projects to pursue and how to launch them effectively. Always with an eye on the future, the pair constantly think about how their work fits into the bigger picture of the messages they are trying to promote.
“We are very determined to make an impact, and that is what keeps us motivated to keep building, even when times are tough,” Alex explains. “We aim to use our combined strength to our full advantage: YuYu with his creations and me building the brand around it.”
“I do not think I would have been able to achieve the same by myself,” YuYu adds. After all, behind every successful man, is a partner critical to making that success happen.
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