The tour begins in the research and development area. Pinned to the wall, a large sheet of white graph paper is inscribed with neatly arranged ink drawings of … well, things. Some look like scissors or Swiss Army knives, others like deformed sandwich cookies or mutant hotdogs.
“This is where I explore the drawings that I’m compelled to make,” says Han Yu, director of the R&D division. In fact Yu is director of all the divisions of “Han Yu: Factory.” She is also the sole employee.
“These shapes are part of a vocabulary that I’ve been drawing since as long as I can remember.”
“They look like doodles,” the interviewer suggests.
“Yes, you could very well call them doodles.”
The difference between Yu’s doodles and those that decorate the borders of many people’s notebook pages and memo pads is that she has made the decision to manufacture hers. Her “factory” consists of a series of stations devoted to various stages in the manufacturing process. There is the materials area where supplies of paper, foam core, felt, and vinyl are stored in discrete stacks. There are workbenches where the shapes are cut, glued together, and finished, and finally, a section at the end where the completed pieces, now three-dimensional but no less ambiguous, accumulate in rows of cardboard boxes, waiting to be shipped out.
“Han Yu: Factory” is Yu’s senior thesis in Visual and Environmental Studies (VES). The factory is essentially Yu’s studio, relocated to the long narrow space along one side of the Carpenter Center’s Sert Gallery. She continues working here daily, dressed in a black, military-style jumpsuit that gives her slender form a Ninotchka-like severity. She even logs her hours on a time card and keeps a metronome clicking to maintain a brisk tempo.
“The factory idea appeals to me,” she says. “I like the concept of efficiency.”
The factory also embodies the idea of the division of labor, which Yu believes says something about the nature of the artistic process.
“Since I’m the only person in the factory, there can’t be a real division of labor, but I’m trying to divide the process into its component parts. Making anything can be broken down into a series of repetitive gestures, even the most sublime objects.”
It would be a stretch to call the objects Yu manufactures sublime, but then for her it’s not the product that’s important but the process. She sees the entire setup as a metaphor for artistic activity, taking what normally goes on in the privacy of the studio and transforming it into performance art.
Yu was born in Fujian province in southeast China and moved to this country at age 6 when her father came to Boston University to study theater design. Now a painter of murals and theatrical backgrounds, he has been supportive of his daughter’s artistic aspirations.
“My work is really different from my dad’s, but it’s really great that he’s an artist. He understands that it’s a difficult career to pursue, but he’s not discouraging.”
A graduate of the Boston Latin School, Yu says she is glad she came to Harvard rather than a school specializing in studio arts because Harvard is better suited to her own intellectual and conceptual approach to art.
“Harvard has been very supportive, but in some ways you’re very aware that you’re in an art department within a liberal arts curriculum. VES has to justify itself much more than an art school would.”
Yu’s art factory is by no means her first conceptual installation at Harvard. In 2004, she created “The Crawlspace Gallery” under the eaves of her attic dorm room in Adams House, and in 2005 with fellow student Bea Camacho she built “The Inflatable Museum,” a portable fabric institution inflated with high-powered fans in the Adams House Arts Space.
In recognition of her artistic activities as an undergraduate, Yu has received the Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts. Her senior thesis has been recognized with the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize.
After graduation Yu plans to move to New York City to pursue her artistic goals, but she has no illusions about supporting herself with her art, even allowing for her metronomic work habits. To pay the bills she is relying on another skill she has acquired at Harvard – Web design. Largely self-taught, she has designed Web sites for Dudley House, the Signet Society, and the 2005 conference “Unite Against AIDS,” to name a few.
But Yu is determined to continue making art and exploring its relation to her own life and to society.
“I see Web design as a way to support my art rather than a replacement for it,” she says.