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Terence Dick
Xiaojing Yan at the Varley Art Gallery
November 21, 2017

When I hear people scoff at abstraction in art, I ask them to consider the fascination we have with bonfires or the movement of clouds. We get lost in these natural forms, sometimes resorting to the game of guessing what other objects they might resemble, but oftentimes simply delighting in the unresolved flux that makes it difficult to ascertain any one identity. They are objects of change and, as such, events as well. Artists who attempt to capture them on canvas or film only hint at what they are like in the world. Only in rare instances can nature retain its essence when handled by a human who traps it in a space designed to hold life still.

Xiaojing Yan, Spirit Cloud, 2017, freshwater pearl, filament, aluminum

Xiaojing Yan’s Spirit Cloud sits at the heart of her otherworldly exhibition at the Varley Art Gallery. The complex assemblage of hundreds of suspended pearls doesn’t move, yet it somehow evokes the nebulous and fragile character of the atmospheric entity it imitates. From up close it could be a mathematical model of gaseous geometry or a pixelated animation slide of one moment in the lifespan of a puff of smoke. Just like a cloud, it dissipates when we approach and gathers itself into a distant unity the farther we stand back. As its outline comes into focus, hints of organic growth patterns become recognizable as echoes of the other unresolved materials in the gallery.

Xiaojing Yan, Lingzhi Girl, 2016-2017, lingzhi mushrooms, woodchips, wood

A collection of busts and a small gathering of animals around a young girl are relatively mundane sculptures except for the matter of what they’re made of and its behaviour long after the artist has completed her work. Each one was created from a mould planted with mushroom spores. Once the fungus filled the interior space and took on the shape of the sculpture, the mushrooms continued to grow, branching out in searching tendrils or forming broad flaps to decorate or deform the features of the host creature. Add to that a dusting of spores that drop from the emerging gills and the limits of the work become one with the space and potentially travel past the gallery on or in the bodies of exiting visitors.

Yan already invaded our senses when we entered the gallery and immediately absorbed a smell that was eventually revealed to come from a landscape drawing created from pinning star anise to the walls. The references to her Chinese-Canadian past are most explicit here in the style of mountains depicted, but they wend their way through each of the pieces to link Chinese medicine and legends to contemporary concerns about the environment and the hybrid sense of identity that comes from the immigrant experience. Metamorphoses are also invoked with a staircase created from thousands of gold-painted cicada husks, but the final form is too literal to let the work transcends its elements. The inclusion of winged fairies amongst the fronds of a laser cut stainless steel willow tree makes the inverse mistake of being too whimsical to match the material force of the strongest of Yan’s work. Despite these criticisms, there is more than enough to behold here when nature enters into a collaboration with artifice and survives intact.

Xiaojing Yan: Out from among the tranquil woods continues until January 7.
Varley Art Gallery:
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.



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Posted by , on 2017-11-23 18:52:25
So real and luminous are your comments !