What does it mean to be a maximalist? Lydia Chan explains to us, it has to do with celebrating the power of the collective rather than the individual. More is never enough. The multidisciplinary artist takes us through her immersive and colourful world made with beads that altogether create an impressive bold narrative full of fantasy creatures. Her unique aesthetic is the key to making her one of the newest and most interesting set designers in the present moment. Don’t miss your opportunity to experience Your Ship Has Landed at London’s Now Gallery, until 6th March. 
Lydia Chan became interested in beads during her early childhood, and later on, found her way into experimenting and creating pieces of art made with this material. The result of Chan’s creative mind was some fantasy beaded characters that remind us of creatures from outer space. Your Ship Has Landed is her first solo exhibition show, which aims to connect the physical world with AR technology, thinking of those who may not be able to visit it in real life. “It was always very clear to me that if people can’t come to the fantasy, I have to bring the fantasy to them. AR, and utilising the power of digital tools seemed the most logical and obvious solution”, she explains to us. The multidisciplinary artist also works as a fashion set designer creating unique spaces on store windows.
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You are a multidisciplinary artist that focuses on set designs but you have also defined yourself as a maximalist. How would you describe this specific style for those who may be unfamiliar with it and how do you use it in your work?
For me, maximalism is more than just a style it’s who I am and how I think. Maximalism is essentially my belief that more is never enough. It’s about celebrating the power of the collective rather than the individual. I love the power of a large quantity of objects repeating and vibrating together creating a powerful experience, each individual object being unimportant without the collective. It takes the focus off of each object so they don't have to be perfect.
I would like to think of my work as being very narrative-based. I use sets to help tell the story of a shoot or imbue fashion objects with emotion and character. For me, a story cannot exist with just one object, it’s about the collection of entities interacting with each other that creates the narrative. That’s how maximalism plays a role in my work.
Previously, you mentioned that experimenting with beads was part of your childhood. When did you realise the enormous potential that this material could offer in your creative and artistic ventures?
I think that my imagination and my desires are limited by the tools and techniques that I have available to me. Beading is one of the techniques that I have from my childhood that I attempted to manipulate to achieve something that I imagined. I think the beauty of making is that I imagine a thing and the confines of the making techniques that I choose then binds and shapes the final result. In this way, I relinquish certain amounts of creative control and inspiration to the making process and the result always surprises me.
The story about the beads is that I started beading when I was around 8 or 9 years old back in the early 2000s. One day around 2013 after having not beaded for more than a decade, I was on the bus and thought, “I would really love a giant monster necklace, maybe I could try to make it with some beads.” With that thought in my mind, I cracked open my very dusty tackle box full of beads and started experimenting with the shapes until I created my first beaded monster.
Your solo exhibition Your Ship Has Landed transports us into a futuristic fantasy universe that connects the newfound digital habits and our renewed experience of the world after lockdown. What were some of the necessary elements you used to construct this joyful but surreal narrative?
The exhibition was built with CNC cut pieces of MDF. I started with creating a scaled digital model of the gallery, then sketched out the shapes that I wanted to create. Once the shapes were decided, I converted them into a digital model which was then cut out in the CNC machine. Everything was built to scale to the space of the gallery and then hand-painted. The realisation of this exhibition is definitely a marriage of digital and physical elements.
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Taking a glance at your work, the contrast of materials, different shapes or forms, and eccentric colours with your interest in childlike monsters, creatures, toys and cartoons is very noticeable. Do you view it as a way to evade the pragmatism of adulthood?
My obsession with cartoon shapes and childlike monsters and creatures is definitely an escape from the pragmatism of adulthood. Mostly though, I think that's the part of me that never grew up. I’m still attracted to the bright colours to the graphic bold shapes. Without having any express purpose of escaping anything that’s just the colours, shapes and stories that I naturally gravitate towards.
You have stated that one of the aims of your exhibition is to explore the idea that even if lockdown is over, the perception of isolation will remain in our subconsciousness. Have you changed your mind after accomplishing this installation?
I think perhaps I overestimated the effects of lockdown and coronavirus on our collective subconscious. It seems that with the lockdown restrictions lifting, people are back to partying and socialising as if Miss Rona never happened. That being said though, I think for me personally the coronavirus experience has made me much more wearier of close physical proximity with strangers. So in that sense, there is perhaps a greater emotional barrier to breach before experiencing emotional connection.
In addition, your hope for this exhibition is to get the public more interested in science fiction, reinterpreting science as fun. Could you give us some of the inspirations or references that you find in fantasy and science fiction?
The main source of inspiration comes from space and alien planets. I love pouring through the background art of my favourite cartoons before I even start watching or paying attention to what is happening to the characters in the show. I really love the popular show Rick and Morty, but what attracted me to it first was the background art of the alien planets that they depict in the show. Samurai Jack - the newest season - also has a really distinct blocky characteristic that is quite charming.
Some of the things that always draw me back into science fiction are the gooey, gummy, bubbly, jelly shapes and chrome or glossy textures. There is something so seductive about a reflective and transparent material. I think that’s something I’m seeing a lot in cinema 4D renders. It’s very easy to add a shiny texture to elevate what is quite a basic model.
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Viewing your work, I could spend hours discovering the little details in it. As a maximalist artist, when do you consider that your creation is finished?
My experience with maximalism is that I always have to be careful with how much I put into a piece of work. Even with a large quantity of details and elements, I still have to curate the experience and be mindful of giving the pieces that I create, some space to breathe. A lot of my work is about leaving things a bit raw and unfinished. I like that the elements of imperfection emulate life, and also allow the making experience to dictate the final result. In short, sometimes whether or not something is finished is a negotiation that I have with my pieces.
For this project, you collaborated with digital artists Songyee Kim and Thibaut Evrard to create a series of augmented reality filters. How did you come across this idea that commends the immersive experience? Did you have any previous approach to AR technology?
The original brief from Now Gallery was to create an immersive performance space that also took into consideration the potential lockdown restrictions that could prevent visitors from leaving their homes. With those limitations in mind, it was always very clear to me that if people can’t come to the fantasy, I have to bring the fantasy to them. AR, and utilising the power of digital tools, seemed the most logical and obvious solution.
I have not had any previous experience with AR technology besides the use of AR filters on Instagram. But I’ve always appreciated that technology is very powerful in its ability to negate the confines of the physical world.
As a set designer working primarily for the fashion industry, how is the creative process? Do you envision it the same when it comes to your own personal creations? Did you feel a bigger sense of freedom working for your solo exhibition?
The creative process usually starts when I get a brief from a client. These briefs range from a loose seed of an idea to a very specific setlist of what they would like me to build for them. I take the brief and negotiate what I can and can’t do based on the resource that the client has available to me. Once we have reached a consensus about what I will deliver I produce some drawings and send pictures of the build. They approve and give me feedback until everything is completed. Sometimes there’s quite a bit of a change that happens on set during a shoot, so as a set designer, I often have to improvise and adapt to the needs of the image.
I think in creating this solo exhibition I had more freedom to do what I wanted. The brief that came in from Now Gallery was much looser and had information that entailed what the exhibition had to do rather than what it needed to look like. I created a very elaborate and complete design proposal to pitch for this exhibition. Once it was awarded to me I no longer had to negotiate anything because it was my exhibition and I had the freedom to make adjustments the way that I liked. Ultimately though, because the design work was done with such meticulousness in the beginning there was much less need for adjustments down the line.
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You have mentioned that for this exhibition, for the first time as a set designer you had the opportunity to create work that the audience could enjoy in a 3D context. How did you conceive it? Does working with 3D objects offer a more immersive scenario?
I have previously done fashion week presentations, and store takeovers which people could experience in a 3D context. I think my main interest is to create physical spaces and objects that people can experience in a 360-degree capacity. Something that lasts longer than a 3-second scroll on a 3cm x 3cm box on their phone.
Whether 2D or 3D medium each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Images while oversaturated on social media is a permanent documentation of your work and provide you with an opportunity to strictly curate the experience for the audience. The 3D experience I am after though while not as permanent, I am hoping provides the audience with a larger scale immersive experience that allows the objects to last longer in physical space beyond the duration of image creation. I think with a large scale physical space you can take the fantasy and really envelop the audience and they can see first-hand how things are constructed and enjoy the charm of the making process.
I am mesmerised by the creative use you give to beads, which now is a characteristic technique in your work. Through developing this, you met a professor at the National Taiwan University who was exploring molecular aesthetics through beadings. Could you explain to us a bit about this? What did you learn from this perspective?
In developing this beading technique I found a professor’s blog on the internet that documents his students work in Molecular Aesthetics. Through observing his work I had to emulate certain beading patterns and add them to my work to create large spherical shapes and add certain curves to the monster shapes I was creating.
Before finding his work my beading technique was quite intuitive. My work is based on the use of beading patterns of 4, 5 and 6 clusters of beads. I would often have to try various combinations and then take them all apart again because I didn't like the shape. But having seen the way his shapes develop helped me see the sort of patterned repetition of the clusters on a large scale.
You trained as an interior designer before studying fashion communication and promotion at the prestigious Central St. Martins. Do you consider your academic background has shaped your aesthetic and creative vision? Or perhaps your authenticity and originality come naturally to you?
My academic background hasn't shaped my aesthetic or creative vision at all. It has provided me with the tools and the persistence necessary to realise my vision. At interior design school, I learnt how to use a lot of software and skills which I use to this day to help me communicate my ideas, it also taught me a system of creating technical drawings that can be easily understood.
I think what I create now has been things I’ve wanted to create for a very long time but was unable to or lacked the opportunity. It almost feels like there is a bit of lag in chasing an aesthetic from my past.
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Sustainability represents a significant part of your practices as a set designer. Which is your role as an artist that cares for the environment? Do you use recycled materials?
Sustainability represents a significant part of my practice. Set design is in my mind one of the most wasteful parts of a shoot. Whatever elaborate set that a client wants, once they’ve got the shot, from the most precious set up it immediately falls from grace and becomes the large quantity of trash that needs to leave the studio.
Sustainability isn't about anything other than being more considerate about what you use. Consider the opportunity of regular objects, use your creativity to find the possibility in the mundane. In the context of the shoot, I often take the broken down sets back to my studio to repurpose the materials or to recreate them as a memento. It’s my dream one day to have a set designer museum that's like a graveyard of all of my favourite set design pieces that people can explore.
To finish off, do you have any future projects we should be expecting in the upcoming year? Will you continue exploring other AR technology?
In this upcoming year, I would really love to work on more physical retail spaces and installation exhibitions. I have recently come off of working on a store take over with Ed Curtis x Stella McCartney, and I also have some large scale thrones that I’ve created for Adidas to be displayed in their stores around the world.
I would really love to continue to work on store windows and create spaces where my work can be experienced in real life in a more immersive and impactful way.
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