When famed art curator RoseLee Goldberg of Performa reviewed Yu Cheng-Ta’s performance proposal, she was initially uninterested. But upon second inspection, her initial disinterest seemed to have been swept away. She went straight from her office to the PR team and exclaimed, “Promote it, on a Times Square billboard if we can.”
Her acumen was on the mark, in hindsight.
On November 21, 2019, FAMEME, the artistic alter-ego of Yu, made his Times Square debut for the Performa 19 Biennial. He appeared as a durian-selling businessman in front of EDITION Hotel at Father Duffy Square.
A clip of Taiwanese artist Yu Cheng-Ta was screened every 10 minutes for 24 hours on a Times Square Billboard on November 21, 2019. Image of Yu Cheng-Ta’s Times Square reveal via Performa
With only two weeks of preparation, Yu’s avatar lured the hearts of New York City residents with his campy attire, Asian mashup accent, and bright, sunny energy.
The audience turned to a frenzy as spectators were eager to take photos with FAMEME during that first performance. So began Yu’s life-altering creative pursuit — his talents split into two parallel universes: one as an award-winning multimedia artist, the other as the flamboyant and eccentric persona known as FAMEME.
Born on the island of Taiwan in 1983, Yu’s talent in abstract performance art was spotted early: He was selected to represent Taiwan Pavilion for the 53rd Venice Biennale at the age of 26.
Yu would go on to participate in the Performa Biennial, Taipei Biennial, Shanghai Biennial, Berlin International Film Festival, and many more shows in the years to come.
His interest in reality shows and ‘body as medium’ performance art can be seen in his 2017 solo exhibition “Tell Me What You Want,” where he created and played the role of a fictional character named David.
As the persona of David, Yu befriended pimps in the red light district of Malate, Manila, to film their daily lives in the neighborhood. Yu edited these ambiguous interactions into narratives that invite audiences to explore the complexities inherent in cross-cultural communication.
Through these experimentations, Yu found himself to be “good at animating personas with multi-faced perspectives.”
The banner for Yu Cheng-Ta’s “Tell Me What You Want”
When the Performa Biennial invited Yu to participate in 2019, he was up for the challenge. He created the character FAMEME to explore the cultural phenomenon of influencers on Western social media and examine celebrity and food trends through live performance.
The character FAMEME is an Asian billionaire drawn to New York City to promote durian — the thorny, odorous, and beloved tropical fruit from Southeast Asia. He is on an outsider’s quest for fame and acceptance in American culture.
With Yu having received critical acclaim for his act, producer and director Esa Vincenty Nickle of Performa was ready to continue promoting FAMEME. Unfortunately, the project was interrupted due to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, Yu continued to develop the eccentric character, making appearances in various art institutions throughout 2020. For example, he established the “Durian Exercise Room” in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art and ‘launched’ “Durian Pharmaceuticals” at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
The “Durian Pharmaceuticals” video installation and performance in 2020. Image via FAMEME and Taipei Fine Arts Museum
In 2021, Yu decided FAMEME needed to move beyond art institutions and engage with the public. He wanted to holistically develop FAMEME’s identity and allow real-world participation with — and reaction to — the character.
A series of collaboration opportunities began to pour in near the end of the year.
On December 8, 2021, FAMEME released the single “Rub a Dub Charlie’s Angel in the Tub” with Taiwanese hip-hop artist Chunyan. The track has received more than 47,000 views.
Vicky Chen, founder of TAO ART, collaborated with Yu to open FAMEME’s latest pop-up store, “Durian Duty To Be Free,” at The Hall, an art gallery in Taipei’s Da’an district. The month-long collab began on February 10.
“Durian Duty To Be Free.” Image via Judy Chu on Facebook
According to Chen, “Yu Cheng-Ta’s artistic endeavors contain lots of public engagement and humor, which is a fresh take in the Taiwanese contemporary art scene.”
Taiwanese fashion blogger Judy Chu with FAMEME at the “Durian Duty to Be Free” launch party. Image via Judy Chu on Facebook
With media and businesses alike interested in FAMEME and the mind behind the avatar, and interviews and collaboration proposals abound, the complexity of dealing with two conflicting identities became apparent to Yu.
Traditionally, the determination of what constitutes art is like a pyramid, with elites, critics, historians, and institutions at the top.
While FAMEME is a performing avatar of Yu, what FAMEME does is ‘in fluidity.’ Yu coined this term to describe the space in between point A and point B within a capitalist system, with the goal of being known by the art world and the public alike.
In other words, Yu is interested in the dialogues brought about by the idea of art inserted in an ongoing, improvised persona operating in a commercial setting.
Yu Cheng-Ta becoming FAMEME for a magazine photoshoot and interview. Image via Allie Wu
This is a challenging task comparable to that of dialectics, in which the existence or identity of a situation depends on the co-existence of at least two conflicting conditions that remain dependent on tension.
“My brain lives in two parallel universes right now, one as an artist, one as a performing persona,” says Yu. He seems to find the idea of FAMEME becoming known rather funny.
“I am excited to think about what FAMEME will turn into in the public eye, even without awareness of it being viewed as ‘art,’” says Yu as he bursts into laughter. “I am curious to know what people think and eager to celebrate the misunderstandings that come with it.”
As digital media allows the meticulous crafting of personas to shift between different accounts, one can present as many faces of themselves as they choose.
Yu offers insights on how his crafting of FAMEME has affected his own character: “FAMEME is my superpower. As I improvise being FAMEME on how to engage with the public, I gradually become more forward-looking and positive in the process.”
View this post on InstagramA post shared by FAMEME (@famemenyc)
A post shared by FAMEME (@famemenyc)
He adds that this is particularly true during the pandemic, “when many performance artists I spoke with seemed to face new challenges in their artistic pursuits, especially being stagnant in a fixed space.”
Throughout 2022, FAMEME will explore possibilities in filmmaking, children’s songs, and much more. Still, Yu emphasizes, “even though my aim is for FAMEME to survive in the economic system and create more value, it is only with an artistic motivation that we discover the humor in this performing scenery.”
Cover image via Performa
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