London-based artist and urban wanderer
Having lived in Asia for over 20 years, Zilan Zhao felt it was time she moved abroad in 2021. She settled in the UK’s capital, and upon arrival, she was greatly shocked by southeast London, but in a good way. The area’s underground art scene and vibrant street graffiti were very exciting to her and played into her interest in psychogeography as a means of expression.
According to Zilan, these elements combined to transform her daily life into an exciting adventure. They also provided the creative spark for her to make Welcome To My Wicked Life, a short animation sculpted with Oculus Quest 2 and rendered with Cinema 4D and Redshift. Teeming with wacky and wonderful characters, this little film shows how Zilan sees the world in all its bizarre glory.
Boasting cars with faces and flowers with eyes, Welcome To My Wicked Life draws heavily on the world Zilan found herself dropped into. And rather than shy away from the gritty nature of London’s streets, she embraced them by exploring them in person.
“I enjoy observing things in flux,” Zilan tells Creative Boom.”Walking is a slow, continuous and flexible movement — when you walk along a wide street, you can pause in front of a courtyard or suddenly turn into another alley. The space has depth, and walking in unfamiliar surroundings feels like a journey of discovery. I enjoy the constantly changing landscapes on such journeys.
“The encounters on walks are discontinuous, spontaneous, unexpected and random, which appeals to me. My creative process is, therefore, primarily based on disjointed things that I discover on walks. I improvise and mix them with my personal experiences and feelings to create a space between reality and fantasy.”
As for the project’s title, this came to Zilan from a conversation she had with one of her friends. “He often uses the slang ‘wicked!’ which can mean evil, wrong or unpleasant as well as surprisingly wonderful at the same time,” she reveals.
“The use of negative words to convey positive concepts, I think, fits well with the feeling I want to express: a world that is random, sometimes chaotic, unsatisfying and yet full of surprises. So, welcome to my wicked life.”
Speaking of randomness, the strange characters that populate this animation come from photos Zilan took while walking through the streets of East London. When composing her shots, she would try to envision symmetrical points as eyes, which led to things like door handles on vans becoming expressive cartoon characters.
“Imagine standing on a street corner waiting for the traffic lights to change, and the noisy road is full of these tired little monsters,” Zilan adds. “They pass in front of you individually, and it’s just so amusing. Once a certain number of these photos were accumulated, life became quite entertaining. I felt compelled to do something with these discoveries, so I started designing these monsters.”
Nondescript, boring, shabby objects, such as the back of a rubbish lorry or plates in a neglected sink, would also become monsters. “I appreciate things that are shabby and unorthodox,” Zilan explains. “I always find work created from discarded materials exciting.
“I think it’s a remarkable insight that people develop in their struggle against the complexity of life, and it’s more moving than an aesthetic that serves to show a sense of superiority. Maybe it’s like our lives— we mend things, stumble forward, and strive for life. I try to embody this vitality.”
This positive outlook on the messiness of life helped to keep Zilan going when navigating the lonely creative process of making the video, not to mention the fears and doubts that would emerge. “Since it’s a completely personal project, it feels like throwing oneself into the wilderness, attempting to integrate fragments collected from life to create connections,” she concludes.
“The production process is also tedious; I spend most of my time alone, eating, working, sleeping, day in and day out. During this lengthy process, doubts and negative emotions about oneself often arise.
“To counter this, I try to regulate my daily routine, create daily schedules, stay in touch with friends for mutual encouragement, and periodically participate in offline art events. This helps me adjust my emotions and maintain a healthier mental state.”
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