Exploring Paradoxes of Place

Senbo Yang | MLA 16 Landscape Architecture

Since arriving in Providence from South China three years ago, Senbo Yang MLA 16 has developed a complex understanding of “home.” Cutting a path from Providence to NYC to his current home in Berkeley, CA, the recent graduate of the master’s program in Landscape Architecture has enjoyed a variety of creative opportunities while also struggling with feelings of rootlessness. One constant? At each stop, Yang has bought the exact same bed from IKEA—an ironically interchangeable marker of security.

Artist/landscape designer Senbo Yang in residence at I-Park in Connecticut.

A summer artist residency at I-Park in East Haddam, CT gave Yang the opportunity to articulate these paradoxes in Drifting, a site-specific meditation on “a cultural nomad’s life… that is both physically and metaphorically unstable.” For the project, he installed the familiar IKEA bed throughout I-Park’s eastern Connecticut grounds, suspending it from trees, placing it at the center of a vast clearing or setting it afloat along the surface of a pond in order to create “surreal spaces [that evoke] feelings of home.”

Drifting represents an important milestone in Yang’s emerging fine art practice, something he began to explore at RISD. The interpretive and responsive approach to design embraced by faculty in Landscape Architecture proved to be especially inspirational since it contrasts so markedly with his engineering-based background in the field. By choosing electives in oil painting, bookbinding and pottery, he further refined this new and inspiring way of seeing the world. “This is a great school,” Yang said when he recently returned to RISD to speak with current students, “because you have the freedom to try everything here.”

“[RISD] is a great school because you have the freedom to try everything here.”

In exploring where landscape design meets other forms of making, he launched the Hidden Food Project when he was still a grad student, looking at relationships between food and place. Beginning in 2016 with donuts in Providence, these sprawling installations invite people to search for ceramic versions of regional specialties as a way of encouraging interaction with public spaces and—via Instagram—members of the urban community. Yang especially enjoys how the social media component of Hidden Food—which he has continued with salmon in Seattle and California Roll in San Francisco—generates an additional layer of connection between the public and public art.

Currently a project designer at TLS Landscape Architecture in Berkeley, Yang admits to sometimes feeling unsettled—and sleep-deprived—working as a landscape designer while also pursuing a fine art studio practice. But in speaking with fellow landscape architects, he noted that the trade-offs are acceptable if he’s able to achieve his personal vision. After completing the I-Park residency, he expanded Drifting into Fuyou, a series of installations and mixed-media works that he exhibited in October at BIGGERCODE in NYC. With plans to show in Beijing and St. Louis in the near future, Yang says he enjoys replicating outdoor phenomena—like the reflection pools and rising mists he encountered at I-Park—within a gallery setting.

“Landscape projects should always emerge from the site—and return to the site.”

During his visit on campus, Yang told current students that one of the most important things he learned from the Landscape Architecture program is that “landscape projects should always emerge from the site—and return to the site” and highlight a true sense of place. In extending that notion to his fine art practice, that means visualizing a place that is also not a place—a home as ephemeral as fog and as solid as a bedframe.

As for those IKEA beds? Yang didn’t buy one for his current home. “It was time to move on from that.”

Robert Albanese