Everyday Art Museum: An Interview with Yiri Living’s Creative Director Orton Huang
The moment I stepped into the foyer of the oﬃce, I knew there was something diﬀerent about the work they do here. The ﬁrst thing you notice when you enter is the overwhelming scent of essential oils enveloping your whole being. Then you are greeted by eclectic pieces of art hanging on the walls, antique objects displayed on the shelves, and people working on large desktop computers perched on top of hardwood tables. To call the place home would not do it justice. There were stacks of ﬁles and diﬀusers all around the room and the entire space seemed to be bursting with plants. Every object—however scattered they may seem—were exactly where they should be. Artistic liberty, so to say. And as I will come to know, Yiri Living (伊⽇⽣活) takes many of these artistic liberties. It is hard to label Yiri Living, as it has multiple brands and projects it oversees. From essential oils (cosmescents), to books (Yiri Books), to towels (Yiri Goods), to art galleries (Yiri Art), Yiri Living indeed touches upon every aspect of living. To get to know more about the artistic intentions behind these projects, I catch up with Yiri Living’s general manager and creative director Orton Huang.
Dressed in a simple black t-shirt and matching black trousers, Huang was an intimidating sight. His monochromatic look and towering height did nothing to alleviate my nervousness. It was only after he oﬀered me tea with a kind smile that I relaxed my posture. I was ﬁrst exposed to Yiri Living in 2018 when a friend introduced me to Yiri Art’s annual Free Art Fair (台北藝術⾃由⽇). The art fair left a great impression on me. Unlike other art fairs that are usually more serious in nature, the Free Art Fair was comfortable. Comfortable might seem like an odd word to describe an art fair, but comfort was what came to mind as I rambled the exhibition grounds. It was easy to walk around the diﬀerent booths and the relaxed atmosphere invited people to interact with the artists and the artwork themselves.
“The word “free” has three meanings that I tried to realize through the Free Art Fair,” Huang said, “free as in there are no entrance fees for the public; also free in the lack of application fees for the artists; and lastly, free in the form of art we showcase.” The art world is known to be restrictive—from ticket prices of galleries and museums to the daunting expectation of being able to interpret what “art” is, there are multiple barriers that prevent the general public from appreciating art. “Yiri Art aims to create the “Everyday Museum,” in which we can show people how art and life are closely related and connected,” Huang goes on, “we also want to help young artists get more exposure and facilitate more interaction between the artist, the art, and the audience. Art is meant to be appreciated after all.”
The inspiration behind the Free Art Fair was Takashi Murakami’s GEISAI (which roughly translates to “art festival”). When Huang ﬁrst visited the event in Japan, he was immensely touched. “The core of GEISAI was to show that everyone can be an artist, no matter if you are a 60-year-old grandmother or a 10-year-old child,” Huang explained. GEISAI made art accessible to all and provided a placorm for young artists to break into the market, which are both important to Huang. But the second time he visited the fair, he felt that the artists and artworks he saw were repetitive of the previous year. For GEISAI, artists only have to apply to get a booth, which means many of the same artists will show up for consecutive shows. “Our Free Art Fair is diﬀerent from GEISAI in that we wanted to focus speciﬁcally onto young artists. We took away the burden of the application fees because we would much rather they invest that money in their art,” Huang explained, “also, because such a large number of artists apply each year for our fair—around 300 to 400—we have judges ﬁlter through them to around 100 artists. This is also to make sure that the fair includes a balanceof diﬀerent art forms.” Huang needs to maintain this balance, especially considering how commercial galleries usually focus on 2D art that is more marketable to the general public. In the Free Art Fair, a healthy balance of performative art, sculptures, other 3D and 2D art can be seen.
Huang is familiar with commercial galleries, as Yiri Living started getting involved with the art industry through its own café-cum-museum. Three years before the Free Art Fair, Yiri Living opened Sonnentor (⽇光⼤道). “Usually, you see art hanging on the walls of cafés, but I wanted to do the opposite,” Huang said, “I wanted to create a Museum in which you can dine. I wanted art to be the focus and not the decoration in our space.” This unique vision became very successful and gained a lot of media attention. “The number of customers we had in one day surpassed a whole gallery show,” Huang admitted, “we had many artists—even successful ones—reach out to us to have their art displayed in our space.” Sonnentor not only gave artists more exposure to the public, but it also gave them a unique platform to sell their work. Often, art pieces are transported directly from the artist’s workshop to a storage facility or the patron’s home. But in Sonnentor’s case, they were able to be appreciated in a public space before entering a private collection, which changed the relationship between the artist, the art, and the patron.
Of course, some artists sold a lot of pieces through Sonnentor, but others were not as popular. “As someone with a unique taste in art, I felt a need to help the more unpopular artists that didn’t necessarily capter to the general public’s interest,” Huang chuckled, “at ﬁrst, I bought pieces from them myself, but I knew that my monetary support will not be enough. So, we started participationg in domestic and international art fairs and displayed their artworks there.” As a “non-professional” participant, Yiri Living struggled to be seen among other galleries. So, for Huang, the next step was to open their own gallery. Yiri Art galleries were opened in three places—Kaohsiung, Taichung, and Taipei. “Around 70% of Taiwan’s resources is in Taipei,” Huang expressed, “this uneven distribution makes it even more diﬃcult for artsts in the south of the island to show their work to the world. This is why I wanted to open galleries in Kaohsiung and Taichung to support them.” With the momentum garnered from Sonnentor and the art galleries, it seemed like a natural result that in 2014, the Free Art Fair was founded.
“Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, we have decided to postpone this year’s Free Art Fair,” Huang said, “but we are currently working on another project that we are excited to share called 8 ½.” 8 ½ is a series of print publications that can be seen as a portfolio of the artists supported by Yiri Art. The name 8 ½ was inspired by the ﬁlm 8 ½ by Italian director Federico Fellini. For Huang, 8 ½ is a “future progressive,” both a reﬂection of the past and a demonstration of potentiality. “I see it as a short history of everything we’ve done within this period of Taiwan art history,” Huang explained. Each volume showcases 8 artists’ work along with creative commentaries that give insight on the artworks. On this, Huang stated: “Each commentary is diﬀerent, some relate to the art through a work of ﬁlm, some give a literary analysis…I wanted the commentaries to be a piece of art itself.”
From Sonnentor, the art galleries, the Free Art Fair, and 8 ½, it is clear to me that Huang truly realized—and is continuing to realize—his vision for Yiri Living: demonstrating that art and life are inseparably connected and dependent on each other. Huang’s artisic vision and Yiri Living’s work is something to look forward to, especially in a time when art and life seem impossibly disconnected.