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Shuyi Cao

memory My background is in political science, and I did my undergraduate and graduate studies in public policy. During my second year of graduate school, I participated in an exchange program at Bocconi University in Milan. I traveled around Europe to different cities and countries, and as you know, European cities are like living museums of different periods of art history. It was in Paris and Berlin that I was first exposed to contemporary art. I remember first seeing a retrospective exhibition of Jeff Koons at the Centre Pompidou 10 years ago. I didn’t even know who Jeff Koons was. 

The eight months in Europe provided me with an intensive crash course in art history, and I was living it rather than reading about it. Growing up in China, and with my upbringing, being an artist was never on the table. However, I was so enchanted that I decided art is something I wanted to dedicate my life to, realizing that it is never too late to start anew. Motivated by my newfound passion, I applied to the MFA program at Parsons in New York. I chose New York because it was a place I had never visited before, among all the major art cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin. In that program, I ended up taking many courses in the design and technology departments. I was influenced by the artistic exploration of bio-design, technology, and physical computing involving living materials, and I was growing mushrooms and making installations with fruit flies in my studio. Many exciting things happened in those early experiments. 

After graduation, I taught myself how to make glass and ceramics. I also worked at different fabrication studios and artist studios as an assistant, which familiarized me with a very wide range of materials like casting with silicone resin and cement. Learning these sculpting techniques in an informal environment gave me a lot of expressive freedom and I slowly crafted my voice in the process.

lines My interest in decay, fossilization, and mineralization naturally occurred. I researched and have been teaching at Parsons and Pratt about sustainable materials and bio-design for a few years. From 2016 to 2020, a lot of my work and interests were centered around living organisms. If you work with living materials, you work with this life cycle of growth, decay, and decomposition. In Western culture, there is a stigma around decay and decomposition as something repulsive. But in other cultures and cosmologies, decay is the passage to something new and is a generative force for everything in life.

In recent years, I started to reflect on the overemphasis on living things and the dichotomy between living/nonliving in dominant Biodesign discourses. For certain objects we think of as non-living, like rocks for example, we just think that way because human existence is very ephemeral compared to the lifespan of a rock. If you consider these features from a deep-time perspective, rocks, volcanoes, and mountains are ever-transforming on a larger timescale. My recent sculptures and moving image works mainly focus on sand, clay, earth, matter, rock, and stone and render them as living vibrant matters. I am also interested in things that exist in an “in-between” state, such as coral, fungi, or many of the organisms that I work with. Many of the sculptures that I make capture that status of uncertain transition. They look like multiple species or organisms growing together. I think in nature, and by nature, everything should be ever-changing, growing, and evolving instead of fixed to certain categories. 


I describe my art-making as research-driven, material-oriented, and synthesizing various processes. I am not married to any particular medium. In general, I like working with materials with transformative potential. I work with glass and ceramics because they simulate the geological formation of the Earth's material. When I work with living materials, especially with my biomaterial and sustainable design curriculum, I consider the life cycle and the growing phase of these materials. If you work with a living organism, you have to work with some respect for the law of growth. 

My materials are my collaborators, my creative partners, and my teachers. I always ask the materials, “What do you need? What do you want?” and the materials never cease to surprise me. For example, the kinds of glazes I use in my ceramics react to the kiln atmosphere, so they develop natural gradients and weird transitions of colors that resemble fossils and living life forms. This creates an ambiguity, making you question “Is this fossilized or is it living and metamorphosing?” When I sculpt with glass, I am dancing with temperature and gravity. The process is very immediate and spontaneous. It is the embodied memory of how to work with this material. Sometimes your hand is faster than your eyes and your eyes are faster than your mind. There are a lot of unpredictable elements in my glass and ceramic works, which makes them different from digital work. When I make a simulation, I will get precisely what I want. With physical sculptures, especially involving glaze and different minerals, I get something different and unexpected every time. 

The moving images and video add a new dimension to the physical objects. I think of my moving images as temporal sculptures. Many of the visuals and themes that I work with in videos are extensions of the physical universe that my works exist in. All of these mediums live cohesively together in the worlds I built. 

All of my works respond to non-linear temporalities, offering alternatives to the one-dimensional, accelerationist, modernist view of time that supposes we’re progressing toward one single point in the future. Looking at rocks, I see how geological formations present the discontinuity of time. These formations are shaped by glacier winds, changing climate, and flora and fauna. This process involves multiple, incompatible scales and temporalities of various life forms. For example, flies only have a life span of weeks, but geological formations take eons to become apparent. Over vast periods, countless life forms co-exist and lifespans work together to shape the landscapes and formations we see now. When I think about time and space, instead of a line, I think of them as different dots forming a constellation of all of these realities and happenings. Then, depending on which dot you land on, you start seeing a landscape around that. For example, as a human, I land in New York, and this is my nature and the environment I’m seeing. 
Swirling, 2023
Mossy, 2022
Soft Moon I, 2022
Slough, 2023

Images courtesy of the artist and Orlando Javier Torres. 
Shuyi Cao (b. 1990) is an artist based in New York City. She received a Bachelor of Laws and M.A. in Public Administration from Fudan University in Shanghai, and an MFA in Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design.

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