This is the first solo exhibition of the artist Shen Yuan’s work in the UK which is jointly curated and produced by Arnolfini, Bristol and the Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA).
The show comprises past and newly commissioned installations and individual sculptural works, presented across three UK venues:
Arnolfini, Bristol 21 July-9 September, Chisenhale Gallery 25 July-9 September, ending at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool 14 December – 2 February 2002.
A fully illustrated monograph accompanied the exhibition, including text by Caroline Collier, Shen Yuan, Martina Koppel-Yang, Gilane Tawadros, Hou Hanru and Evelyne Jouanno.
About the project:
Shen Yuan’s sculpture and installation combine references to Chinese and Western cultures and symbols with her encounters with everyday life. She uses a wide range of materials in surprising and beautiful ways to create atmospheres, provoke thought and explore ideas concerning migration, language and communication.
Shen Yuan’s processes of planning, experimenting and making are a fascinating part of her practice. Examples of her drawings and works in progress can be seen at the nearby artist space STATION.
The Dinosaur’s Egg in the DOWNSTAIRS GALLERY, a new commission for this exhibition, consists of a large outline map of Asia. China is filled with a chocolate-like pool spreading from a broken egg. Moving away from this is a host of playful characters, based on a series of Chinese toy figures found inside Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs. Why are they migrating? And where to? It is unclear, but all are depicted as happy and joyful, carrying the tools of their trade. The whole work can be seen as symbolic of the world-wide movement of people, as well as the global economies that companies, such as kinder, are part of.
In the LARGER UPSTAIRS GALLERY, two works use the powerful imagery and associations of the tongue. Like the figures downstairs these tongues resemble cartoon or toy versions of the real thing, but their ongoing transformation reveals another, unsettling side to their meanings.
Perdre sa salive (Wasting One’s Spittle) presents four tongues around the central column, each made of flesh-coloured ice. They appear to be drooling, as the ice melts and drips into the metal spittoons below. This reveals the sharp kitchen knives which support them. For Shen Yuan, this melting is “the process of transformation from one image into another. An image of unassumingness is transformed into an image of menace – the knife. Furthermore, the word ‘tongue’ is, in many languages, the word for ‘language’ or stands for language.” The disappearance of the tongues can, therefore, be seen to signify an inability to communicate.
Her interest in language and translation is also explored in the titles of her works which often refer to phrases and sayings. Perdre sa salive (Wasting One’s Spittle) is a translation from Chinese, meaning to be excessively modest or submissive. Shen Yuan inverts this meaning by combining it with imagery with a disturbing revelation.
When curled up in the corner of the gallery the large inflatable sculpture, Diverged Tongue, is unobtrusive, perhaps silenced like the melting ice tongues. When suddenly extended, it is revealed as a forked tongue – a less playful and more sinister image. The title refers to a Chinese saying that defines such a tongue as the mark of a person with a distinctive regional accent who attempts (and fails) to speak two languages with one tongue. Through her experiences of migrating to Europe, Shen Yuan knows this difficulty of moving between two languages.
Extending in plaits from the back of an antique two-seater chair, the hemp in Banquette Jaune resembles flowing hair. The chair takes on a human form and the Chinese silk used in its reupholstery becomes like skin. The Untitled work made from a lone slipper and the artist’s own nail clippings refers to the body by using real, discarded parts with associations of the mundane and the everyday as well as dirt and grime.
In the SMALLER UPSTAIRS GALLERY, Feel Just Like a Fish in Water creates an environment of washed-up objects. This is a new work, developed during the artist’s residency in Bristol, and within this work, there are many contradicting and contrasting images. The Chinese word for fish (yu) also means wealth and comfort and the title of this work (using an inversion of the equivalent English saying) is a translation of a phrase meaning ‘perfectly at home’. There are live fish swimming in the boat contrasting with those cast in Bristol Blue Glass and laying stranded in the sea-salt.
The work also suggests different senses of time and place, evoked through the combination of real objects and the dream-like expanse of sea-salt. As with other works in the show, the artist’s fascination with different materials as well as her migration from one place to another has influenced these contrasts between the everyday with the out of place.