It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s so instantly beguiling about Can Yang’s work: the gorgeous juxtaposition of Chinese characters and Roman lettering, perhaps? The endearing character designs and apparent fascination with that most redundant and tired of formats, the CD? Her knowing mix of cutesy motifs and thoughtfully rendered signifiers of spiritualism? Of course, it’s all of those things and more that make her work so charming, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that she’s yet to graduate from undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design.
Now in her senior year, Yang moved to Providence to attend RISD from her native China. “I wanted to find an art school that had more freedom,” she says. “The culture and the things I’ve learned here are totally different than in China. It’s more open and you can express what you want to say.”
Yang’s mode of expression is one that veers neatly between sincerity and playfulness. Her projects frequently marry autobiographical elements with historical and theological investigations, as well as musings on wider ideas like generational differences or failure.
The latter is brought to life in one of Yang’s school projects, Failurism Manifesto, with a mix of vivid yellow, millennial pink, and nods to the commercialization of our collective internal chaos. The brief was for all students to come up with their own manifesto, and Yang’s drew on composer and artist John Cage’s work around the nature of chance and creating something through spontaneous, apparently random decisions. Cage’s work with chance was informed by the I Ching, a classic Chinese text that uses a system of symbols to try and identify order in “chance” events. He began to incorporate such a system in his compositions, using the book to create music as others use it for divination.
For Yang, these ideas of chance aligned with ideas of failure: how sometimes things that are unintended can form something brilliant. “Failure is the kind of thing you can learn a lot from,” she says. “It’s a good chance to arrive at something really new that you haven’t done before.”
The project took the form of a small exhibition showcasing a booklet and products including T-shirts and a CD, the latter of which appears normal on the outside but reveals a shattered disc when opened. Her statements around the project reveal the serious interrogations into process and meaning that are belied by the niceties of the color palettes and the saccharine characters: Failure, she writes, reminds us “that our control of technology is an illusion… digital tools [are] only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them.”
The aesthetics across the show’s printed ephemera and product designs are heavily informed by the “new ugly movement,” says Yang, namely Japanese designer Masanao Hirayama, and “those designers who can be really brave and create something not in the traditional graphic design hierarchy that’s very clean and concise, but [instead something that is] really personal and creative.”
This notion of the personal as a key touchstone in design work is seen throughout Yang’s projects; she frequently explores ideas around Taoism, a religion common in her birthplace but often practiced as a sort of talismanic, traditional gesture rather than a doctrine-led religious lifestyle. Such explorations are showcased in Yang’s 2018 Internal Alchemy Calendar, a personal project printed and hand-formed in an edition of 50 as gifts for friends and family.
“I really like the sort of diagrams used in Taoism and how they are so full of mystery,” says Yang, whose family background is predominantly atheist. “But the religion still serves an important function in contemporary society where most people aren’t actually religious, but still obey some of the rules of Taoism.” By this, she means practices like Feng shui, which sees people organize their interior spaces according to certain philosophical ideas around luck. In the design of the project, she aimed to align the social and historical contexts of Taoism—”the ‘old’ world of superstitious associations, full of danger, unscrupulous behavior and irrational fervor”—with newer impulses within contemporary society.
“These things are passed on from the older generations, and when you’re young you can’t understand why your parents or grandparents are doing things like burning paper money or going to temple by the first day of the new year,” she says. “But when you grow up you have more fear about things like failure, or you need best wishes for health or fortune or wealth, so you trust in that sort of thing more.”