Chinese American Arts Council gallery opens Xiaojing Yan's first solo exhibition in New York

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Chinese American Arts Council gallery opens Xiaojing Yan's first solo exhibition in New York
Xiaojing Yan, Nauturally Nature #53, 2020. Chinese ink and acrylic on Yupo paper, 24 x 36 inches. Courtesy the artist.

by Lilly Wei

NEW YORK, NY.- Ghostly landscapes wavering on silk, sculpture, and abstract paintings make up Xiaojing Yan’s first solo exhibition in New York. It features a site-specific installation, two unusual portrait busts of a young girl, and a few abstract ink paintings on paper, all from 2016-2020. Some of the materials she uses are surprising even if we’re accustomed to contemporary artists’ idiosyncratic, unfettered choices. Yan (born in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu, China in 1978 and based in Toronto, Canada) straddles two cultures, sourcing both although she is most deeply invested in representations of her native heritage. Her preference is evident in her subject matter, often based on traditional Chinese landscape paintings, aesthetic canons and its ancient folktales, legends, healing treatises, spiritual teachings, and philosophies. Landscape and the concept of place are central to her practice, infused with the émigré’s complicated sense of cultural and psychological bifurcation in which the displaced is frequently unable to feel completely at home in either culture. Yan was in her early twenties when she left China after graduating with a BFA from Nanjing University of the Arts in 2000. She then earned an MFA in sculpture in the United States in 2007, afterwards settling in Toronto where she has lived ever since. Even though she spent half her life in China and half in the United States and Canada (at least so far), the impact was not equivalent since the enormous influence, consciously and unconsciously, of our early formative years carried far greater weight.

The installation, Mountain of Pines (2017), was inspired by the imagined, impossibly serene landscapes of traditional shan shui (mountain sea) paintings, which emerged in the 5thcentury and are synonymous for many with Chinese painting. In her works, Yan pays homage to literati painting with its mists and idyllic views, a revered genre in China associated with the erudite and cultivated, linking her landscape with those of the scholars of the Southern Sung and Yuan dynasty whose practice focused on nature and meditative philosophical and spiritual inquiry. Yan says that some of her primary influences are painters from the Song and Yuan dynasty, such as the celebrated Ma Yuan (1140 -1225) and Huang Gongwang (1269-13540). These landscapes are not intended to be representational; instead, they are lofty conceptualizations of the world and humanity’s (humble) place in the scheme of things, derived in large part from Daoism and Confucianism which emphasizes nonaction or noninterference in the natural order of things as well as the cultivation of the self.

Yan fashions a richly imagined realm using scrims of silk organza. Her presentation is variable, contingent on the architectural configuration of the space. She threads dried yellowed pine needles through the sheer organza in patterns that will cast mirage-like mountain ranges mantled in pine trees onto the wall when the fabric is hung and lighted. Choosing its needles because of the symbolism of the pine tree, it is a pervasive motif in Chinese iconography, its hardiness and longevity emblematizing the great revolving cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.

Mountain of Pines contrasts a sequence of oppositions that includes the disparity between her insubstantial picture and the solidity of actual rocks, mountains, and earth. Paramount among them is transiency and immutability, a state of continuity and regeneration within a state of constant flux that ultimately refers to mortality and immortality. While she incorporates these stylistic conventions in her work, it should be noted that they are not simply nostalgic or recuperative. They also point toward our most urgent present concern—that of climate change and the precarity of the future of our ecosystem caused by our own reckless behavior.

Yan innovatively balances the botanical and the artistic in her work, perhaps most strikingly in sculptures made from mushrooms, specifically the lingzhi mushroom—not a usual medium but she was struck by its beauty: shaped like a fan and colored a shining lacquer red. It recalled the many Chinese folktales and legends about the lingzhi mushroom and its magical properties—that of healing, long life, and even immortality when consumed—that were told to her as a child and remain fascinating to her to this day. When she visited a mushroom farm in China in 2015 and saw the uniformity of the cultivated fungus, she thought about the more irregular flamboyance of its appearance in the wild. It made her think once more about how environment so strongly determines the fate of living things, including the consequences of human intervention in natural processes—for better and worse—and from that came the idea to use the lingzhi as a sculptural material.

The mushroom is worshiped by most indigenous cultures as auspicious, a sign of good fortune. It is also medicinal, used for over two millennia in China to boost the immune system and has become of great interest to Western researchers of late as a defense against cancer and other ailments. Certain psychotropic mushrooms have been much sought after, and the controversial author Carlos Castanada’s 1971 book, A Separate Reality, sent intrepid followers of the counterculture and him scrambling through the desert in search of magic mushrooms. It also made me think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice who shot up in size when she ate from one side of a mushroom and shrank down to almost nothing when she ate from the other. Yan recounted other stories; one is of Princess Yaoji, a Daoist goddess whose soul clung to the lingzhi and infused it with immortality. Another story, known by everyone who is Chinese, according to Yan (there are many versions) is the legend of the White Snake, or the White Lady who became enamored of Xu Xian, a mortal, and transformed itself into a beautiful woman. Their love violated celestial and natural laws and subsequently Xu Xian died but an Immortal took pity on the White Snake, after witnessing her inconsolable grief and gave her a linghzhi mushroom to restore him to life. In some (more feminist?) versions, she steals the mushroom herself and saves her lover.

From these facts and fables came Yan’s astonishing series, Lingzhi Girl, of which there are eighteen, made between 2016-2020, all life-sized. She thinks of her uncanny, haunting portraits as the mythological girls enshrined in these stories, with whom she fiercely identified as a child, considering herself one of them in spirit. They might also be thought of as the female version of the famous Xian terracotta army and Yan credits Maxine Hong Kingston’s acclaimed book, The Woman Warrior (1976), a memoir about a “girlhood among ghosts,” as another powerful influence.

Lingzhi Girl was a painstaking, suspenseful experiment that could fail at any point, and often did, since “all conditions had to be just right,” Yan explained. Although using only one mold, each of the eighteen sculptures is unique, due to a process in which chance plays a large part. Her substrate of sterilized woodchips is mixed with lingzhi spores, the blend incubated in a specially constructed mold. Carefully controlling humidity, temperature, and light, a lingzhi mycelium starts to grow if successful. Once it has assumed the proper shape and a viable state that will support the mushrooms’ growth, the mold is removed. At this stage, the sculpture is all white, as if made from papier-mâché and put back into the greenhouse. Later, when the mushrooms enter their mature stage and start to sprout spores, the surface becomes brown, seemingly dusted with cocoa powder. The bust is now left to its own devices as the mushrooms ripen, Yan relinquishing control, letting it assume a form determined by external forces and its own constituents in a “collaboration” with chance and nature. At another point, she will halt further growth, re-asserting herself as the artist.

The series Naturally Natural is another instance of Yan's exploration of collaboration between artist, materials, and chance, a variant on the theme of Lingzhi Girl and made during the same period. In this series on yupo paper, she permits the mediums she uses, Chinese ink and acrylic (ancient and contemporary, Asian and Western, respectively) to interact on their own to form elaborate, unexpected patterns with little directive from her. The process is not unlike the pour or drip paintings of modernist abstractionists, the influence, not noted often enough, going both ways as Western artists adapted Asian practices and Asian artists did the same—as, nothing new, has occurred over the centuries.

Letting the process take its own course, as Yan does, is both an empirical act and metaphoric. Her primary input is the choice of materials and their initial application to the paper. The one-off interaction of the ink and acrylic results in a stunning array of serendipitous fissures, crystalline spears, and tangled, filigreed and spikey threads that suggest roots and branches, and the speckled ground behind them is more space than solid, an infinite void conjuring details from Chinese landscapes. In the works here, she has added gold, to make them more opulent, luminous. And the series—with its rhythms, subtle details, textures, and landscape intimations—bring the exhibition back full circle to Mountain of Pines.

Yan’s investigations, in which metaphoric and physical worlds quietly interpenetrate each other, delve into the meaning of spirituality and metamorphoses, as well as raising other questions about being and becoming through the lens of art and nature, art and science, art and culture and their interconnections. Her project is particularly relevant at this moment as the pandemic forced us to rethink so much that we took for granted. It unequivocally showed us nature is far mightier than we are (a fact we sometimes forget), and that we must approach it with the proper respect and care or suffer the catastrophic consequences of our hubris.

Xiaojing Yan’s project is exemplary for these disorienting, unprecedented times. It reminds us that we must live in accord with nature and it, in turn, will supply us with curatives, solutions, what we need. Above all, it reminds us, since we are also nature, that it is imperative to strive to restore and maintain the dynamic and delicate balance that ensures cosmic harmony. Nature will survive without us; we will not survive without its sufferance.

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