Brooklyn-based Chinese visual artist Sun Yunfan is one half of electronic music duo the Shanghai Restoration Project (SRP) along with Dave Liang. As well as producing music, Sun designs and illustrates the band's visuals, including posters, live performance visuals, animated music videos and album design. Her artwork for the band’s latest album, R.U.R. (seen here) – which comments on Google's artificial intelligence (AI) advancements – landed her a spot in the World Illustration Awards 2018 shortlist under the design category.
In this feature we talk to Sun about the concept of her shortlisted SRP album artwork and what inspires her style.
Shanghai Restoration Project was founded by Dave Liang in the mid 2000s. Sun met him in New York in 2011. She began collaborating with him on creating album covers, music videos and live performance visuals, which ultimately led to songwriting and music producing.
"As I become more involved in music making, I've realised that making album covers for your own band might be the 'sweet spot' of creative freedom in the fine arts versus applied arts spectrum," says Sun.
SRP’s sound varies from project to project, and Sun tries to create something completely different with each album cover or poster.
"Dave is more balanced and nuanced whereas my sensibilities are grittier and more dissonant," she says.
"The first album we co-produced, Life Elsewhere, is an electro-jazz album with Shanghainese vocalist Zhang Le. In 2017, we released an electronic album R.U.R.
characterised by complex polyrhythms, analog sounds, body percussion, and samples ranging from household objects to outer space sounds."
But there are threads of shared DNA, such as collage, figurative rocks and surreal and disorientating landscapes, throughout the album artworks. Sun has an array of varied inspirations – the paintings of Giorgia de Chirico, Henri Rousseau and Peter Doig, as well as the films of Jodorowsky and Apichatpong, the comics of Moebius, and traditional Chinese landscape paintings.
"There isn't much difference between these album covers and childhood doodles," she says. "I can put a lot of 'me' in them, which is great."
Her psychedelic, geometric album artwork for R.U.R. is what granted her spot in the World Illustration Awards shortlist for this year. Its concept imagines a future in which humans have been replaced by robots who are trying to understand what led to its predecessors’ extinction.
"The title comes from the 1920s Czech play – Rossum's Universal Robots – where the word 'robot' originated. The lead single from R.U.R., 'Alpha Go', pays tribute to Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) that recently defeated the world’s top Go champion, a reminder that the album’s imagined world could very well one day become a reality," she explains.
"For the cover of R.U.R., I wanted to comment on the implications of our technological
advancements while also giving nod to the history of the game of Go.
"In addition to the obvious AI references, the coral tree alludes to both a binary tree and neurons while the Chinese characters inscribed on the Go pieces represent 0 and 1, the fundamental elements of binary code. I chose to write out the numbers in Chinese rather than digits to reference how they were depicted in the ancient Go theory books."
Expanding further on this dark technological concept for 'Alpha Go' animated music video, Sun added speed, direction and style to the same objects seen in the static album artwork to achieve a frenetic "yet strangely cheerful energy". Take a look at the music video above.
"In every scene of the video, there are always multiple things moving in the background. I think the biggest problem of our time is that we’ve lost the 'off' button."
As a visual artist, Sun also creates paintings, collages, sculptures and installations. She and Dave are currently writing music for Chinese animation director Liu Jian’s next film. They had also contributed music to his film Have a Nice Day, which recently premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival.
SRP plan to release a new single in a few weeks, followed by live shows in Europe and Asia in the coming months.