in conversation with: Yi To

Scenic abstractions in gradually changing intensity of pastels and earth-tones, RCA’er Yi To paintings are excitingly mysterious. The colours flow on the canvas and illuminate, opening up a spectrum of light and depth. In these breathtaking paintings, she explores the primordiality, the earliest stages of human life, the root of our existence which is an experience every human being shares with each other. In this conversation with the London based artist and where's the frame, we talk about her technique, what you will find in her studio, and what her practice is about.

What made you choose RCA more than any other colleges in London?

I guess it just happened at the right time.

Yi To, Information Superhighway, 51 x 71 cm.

Can you describe your studio to us? Do you have any weird figurines? Or a lot of plants?

I always have a few work-in-progress, or even finished pieces laid out in the studio all at the same time. I would choose one to work with - naturally they resonate with each other as they’re being with each other. I don’t have any figurines in my studio at this point, but my partner and I have collected plenty of unusual wooden, ceramic and metal objects at home, ranging from masks, figurines, candle holders, and animal-shaped vessels over the last few years from different places in London, those have informed the way I approach human bodies.


Yi To's Studio


As an artist, how is your mode of production different before and during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I have not changed the way I paint but the pandemic does have an effect on my rhythm due to the fact that now I will have to work across 3 different locations - home studio, my personal studio and the RCA.

Yi To, An Appetite, 70 x 90 cm.


Can you please describe your artwork as if you were talking to someone who can’t see?

The figures in my paintings are being thrown into a non-narrative circumstance and they act upon it. At the same time, they throw back at me a chain of cause-and-effect governed by a sense of everydayness that is carried within our bodies. They are our collective being.


You use a lot of soft and almost pastel color palettes in all of your work. Is there any particular reason that made you gravitate to the particular color palette?

I want my paintings to be as illuminating as possible so that light can come through. I’ve always been interested in the very moment when we’re naturally drawn to an illuminating source without unnecessary judgement - to open up a spectrum of light and depth, I use a lot of solvent and tiny bits of paint in each stroke I make. As paints are always thinned down and layered, a pastel colour palette seems to be a by-product of my approach.


Yi To, Cosmic Temporal Freight Train, 80 x 80 cm.


You seemed to play around with the idea of contortion of the human body, what is the main message or story of your works?

I don’t see my works as stories. The primordiality of our being hidden at the root of our existence is what I’m inquiring into. This pre-narrative state in our universal collectivity can be shared by each and every one of us regardless of gender, skin colour, or border. The same air that we breathe, the anatomy, the appetite for clarity, and the tendency to be drawn to light sources - I’m trying to grasp such rhythm by opening up the spaciousness in human bodies.


Yi To, The Geography of Nothingness, 140 x 170 cm.

If the pandemic is a song, what song do you think it will be?
Good thoughts, bad thoughts by Funkadelic

Do you have any idea of what is next for you after graduation?
I’ll have to wait and see.


To follow Yi To, you can visit her website and instagram.

All photos courtesy of the artist.

where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring London-based vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.