Xiaojing Yan and Wen-Li Chen: Between Worlds

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Xiaojing Yan and Wen-Li Chen: Between Worlds

By Helen Wong October 30, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Living in a post-truth era has heightened conversations about cultural differences, delineating clear sets of borders for both individual and collective identity. The topics of immigration and conflicts over shared land have become mainstays of newspaper headlines. Wen-Li Chen, a Taiwanese American artist, and Xiaojing Yan, a Chinese Canadian artist, both explore the formation of the self through the use of cultural images and tropes in their respective diasporic communities. In concurrent exhibitions at the Richmond Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia, these artists examine the forces of culture and how they contribute to a sense of self.

Xiaojing Yan. Lingzhi Girl, 2016–17; cultivated lingzhi mushroom and wood chips; 19 x 20 x 18 inches. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

Yan’s exhibition, In Suspended Silence, is grounded in Daoist mythologies, philosophies, and folklore, representing her lived experience as a Chinese immigrant in Canada. Her piece Lingzhi Girl (2016–17) is a series of female busts created through the cultivation of a specific mushroom. Yan has displayed several of these busts on plinths around the gallery space. Hanging among them are Mountains of Pine (2017–18), tapestries made of silk organza. Delicately placed in the organza are tiny pine needles that have been meticulously arranged to evoke traditional ink-painted mountain landscapes (shan shui).

Xiaojing Yan. Mountain of Pine, 2017–18; pine needles, silk organza; variable dimensions. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

It is not unusual for Yan to incorporate traditional Western and Eastern tropes to symbolize her displacement within these two cultures. Associated in Chinese culture with immortality, lingzhi mushrooms are used as the foundation for her busts, a popular Western sculptural form. Pine needles, commonly found in British Columbia, are arranged in a way that evokes a traditional Chinese art form. It is through the use of these traditional Chinese materials and art-historical references that her work navigates a transformative space between culture and identity. She expands on this idea by noting, “As an artist migrating from China to North America, both my identity and my work pass through the complex filters of different countries, languages, and cultural expectations.”1

Wen-Li Chen. To My Unborn Child, 2018; projection. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

Operating in a similarly liminal space, Wen-Li Chen, who lives between her native Taiwan and the United States, navigates her inheritance of Kavalan and Sakilaya Indigenous cultures and her Han Chinese background in her installation. In To My Unborn Child (2018), Chen uses image making to represent how memories and shared histories can be transferred and contribute to the identity formation of her unborn child. Family photographs are projected onto screens on which 4-by-6-inch archival snapshots of her childhood home and neighborhood have been ironed. Chen creates both literal and figurative layers of images that refer to the intergenerational knowledge that has been passed down in her family. Complementing the installation is the artist book, Zhu Pu (2018), which consists of a blend of letters, images, and stories that explain her ancestral lineage. However, central to Chen’s work is her ambivalence toward her ethnicity, as someone who has struggled to inherit many of her cultural traditions.2 This is embodied in the juxtaposition of historical artifacts and the fictional elements in her work, which blurs memories, biographies, and local histories together. Viewers are left to surmise that it is due to an obligation to her family that Chen attempts to impress these tropes onto her child.

Wen-Li Chen. To My Unborn Child, 2018; projection. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

Chen’s work is reminiscent of Post-Partum Document (1973–79) by the conceptual artist Mary Kelly, wherein Kelly documented and studied the first six years of her son’s life to examine his mastery of language and his exposure to a language rooted in the dichotomy of masculine and feminine. Chen has created a document in the form of Zhu Pu to acknowledge the relationship between image and identity, but instead of deconstructing language as a system, Chen has approached her work by looking at the signifier—that is, how meaning is given to an image or icon. By contrasting English text with Chinese characters, Chen demonstrates how meaning can be imparted onto images to construct notions of the self. Kelly’s work utilizes Lacanian psychoanalysis, which conceives that social structures are mediated by one’s acquisition of language, and Post-Partum Document laments the loss of her son as he masters the patriarchy of language and begins to embody forms of being that are defined as masculine. In contrast, Chen prepares for her unborn child and uses Zhu Pu as a decoder, a manual in which to transfer knowledge through images. Thus, as her child becomes familiar with symbols associated with his heritage, so will develop his mastery of the Kavalan, Sakilaya, and Taiwanese cultures.

Wen-Li Chen. Zhu Pu, 2018; artist book. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

Similarly, Yan’s hybridized images carry meanings that represent the value of a culture or identity in flux. Yan manipulates materials that refer to the West and the East into icons of multivalent beings that sit in a transitional state. The linguist and theorist Roland Barthes hypothesized that the proliferation of images can be used to impose cultural values. Yan expands on this notion by making references to symbols that have been culturally adopted, such as pine trees and lingzhi mushrooms. She uses culturally familiar objects and art forms to layer past and present experiences.

Wen-Li Chen. To My Unborn Child, 2018; projection. Courtesy of Richmond Art Gallery. Photo: Michael Love.

In a sense, Yan and Chen both use their work as magnifications and manipulations of the self. Although their works are aesthetically different, the artists share a history of being from a generation of Chinese immigrants. In an interview, Chen explains that her work captures the “myriad concerns I have about how future generations of Indigenous descendants will cope with the unstoppable changes that make continuity and perseverance of culture and identity complex.”3 In their exhibitions at the Richmond Art Gallery, these artists adopt image systems to impart and challenge values that embody their lived experiences. In Suspended Silence and To My Unborn Child demonstrate the intergenerational character of culture and how this transference can be a means of art making, removing borders, and offering an opening toward shared histories and identities.

Xiaojing Yan: In Suspended Silence and Wei-Le Chen: To My Unborn Child are on view at Richmond Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, through November 10, 2018.

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