Objects in motion

Society & Culture

Yu Chenrui imbues the inanimate with life

Mo Chung Fights The Tiger

This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

The interests that captivated our childhood imagination may seem a bit trivial nowadays. Most of our waking moments as adults are spent within the routines and humdrum of the rat race. This isn’t quite the case for Yú Chénruì 俞宸睿, a Chengdu-born artist.

For as long as he can remember, Yu has loved getting involved with hands-on creative activities. As a kid, he’d even pluck loose strands off of the straw mats at home and reassemble them into the likeness of various animals. In school, he was captivated by arts and crafts classes where he cemented his love for handmade knickknacks. This affinity for handicraft stuck around into his college years, where he stumbled upon automatons—mechanical objects that can operate with relative independence once set in motion. In all of China, there are probably less than ten artisans dabbling with these kinetic objects. Even outside of the Middle Kingdom though, it’s not a particularly popular medium.

“Forbidden Fruit Plate” detail
“Forbidden Fruit Plate” detail

Items such as mechanical watches, crankshaft musical boxes, or wind-up toys are probably the most commonly known automatons. But this mechanical craft stretches much farther back in history, with mentions in Greek mythology and even a period of renewed interest during the Renaissance. Early iterations of cuckoo clocks, mechanized fountains, and clockwork puppets have captivated the imagination of people throughout the decades. The evolution of these mechanical objects are a testament to human ingenuity, and in a way, markers of technological progress. Today, many of these earlier mechanical designs reside only in museums, and only a niche few remain interested in creating automata.

Tofu Counter
“Tofu Counter” detail

In 2015, Yu was studying graphic design at the Communication University of China. At an elective woodworking course, he learned about the existence of automatons and was hooked. The lack of Chinese-language resources on the craft meant a lot of trial and error, as well as online research on Western sites. He even decided that his thesis paper would be dedicated towards the lesser-recognized craft. A background in motion graphic design meant that he had a better understanding of the expressive capabilities of movement, which still applies to the primarily wooden material he now works with. Since 2015, he’s created more than sixty pieces of original automata.

“Two Cows Fell in Love” detail
To Observe the Autumn
The New Year of Buffalo

Most of Yu’s works are either based on myths or the minutia of everyday life. For example, Tofu Counter, a piece inspired by a traditional tofu shop right next to his studio. The piece replicates traditional tofu making process with fidelity, and at the bottom of it is a person with their mouth wide open, ready to gobble up a piece of delicious tofu. 

A newer piece, titled Forbidden Fruit Plate, is based on the story of Adam and Eve. As the crank is turned, the two characters take turns reaching out toward the apple as they take furtive glances towards one another. It’s unclear whether they’re too shy to hold hands or are tempted to take a bite of the apple for themselves. It’s left open-ended, up for viewers to decide for themselves.

Humor is essential to his automatons. He believes that eliciting a laugh is the best way for audiences to connect with his work. “I believe that life is ultimately made up of a string of seemingly trivial things,” he says. “Some things may seem boring at first glance, but it’s still a part of life, and I enjoy taking it all in.” 

The ability to set aside time for soaking in and appreciating life’s trivialities is perhaps something embedded in Chengdu’s way of life. Yu believes the city has been tremendously influential to his creative endeavors, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than strolling through the streets and seeing what the surroundings to offer. “Whether it’s the city or nature, I love Chengdu for its laidback vibes,” he says. “It helps me stay relaxed, and when I’m relaxed, it’s much easier to pepper my work with a dose of humor.”

“Mr Frog’s Magic” detail
“Mr Frog’s Magic” detail

Creating one of these mechanical constructs can be incredibly tedious and time consuming. A lot of focus is required in seeing it through from start to end. Plenty of time is spent on experimentation and adjustments. From ideation, to early sketches, structural design, carving, coloring, and assembly, no single step of the process is more important or less important than the rest. It can take anywhere from a week to several months to fully complete an automaton. In assembly, Yu even employs mortise and tenon, a traditional Chinese carpentry and architectural technique in which components would be conjoined with interlocking fit and no additional fasteners.

Fantasies About Carrot
“Fantasies About Carrot” detail

Ji qiao is a unique Chinese term that can be roughly translated as “mechanical ingenuity,” and its coinage can be traced back to the Warring States period. Yu believes this is the most apt way to describe his work—these methods of animating his designs isn’t something that can be replaced by modern methods of automation. “This ‘ingenuity’ is related to the maker’s emotional commitment, expressive intent, and design thinking, but it’s also the joy brought about through the creation process, the juxtaposition between the inanimate state and its dynamic state, plus all the surprises the artisan may hide within the piece.

Yu mostly works with cherry wood, seeing it as a material that can withstand, and even evolve, with the effects of time. “An automaton is a time capsule, and cherry wood will oxidize and change color with the passage of time—the longer the piece lasts, the deeper the color of the wood becomes.”

Fantasies about the Fireplace
Fantasies about the Fireplace

For Yu, his creative process and everyday life go hand in hand. Through his creations, he’s found that an appreciation towards the whimsies of life through a new perspective. In fact, the moving gears of his automatons can be seen as a metaphor for life—it’s self-powered, sometimes perhaps moving a bit too fast, but once slowed down a bit, the details are breathtaking. It’s a philosophy that’s left an impact on him. “Slow is the new fast,” he says. “Creating an automaton is tedious work, but even if there is a new piece that I really want to finish I’ll take my time to iron out every detail to the fullest extent. That way, it not only meets my  personal standards, but is able to stand the test of time. To me, life is the same, I believe that if you live each day to the fullest and keep an open mind to all it has to offer, you won’t live with any regrets.”

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Contributor: Pete Zhang