Q & A - Xiaojing Yan
How has your artwork been influenced by living in Canada and your Chinese background?
Chinese culture, training, and traditions inspire my work. Here in Canada, adapting outside of my native culture molds and informs my work as I appreciate the richness of my multicultural background. Living in Canada for the past 19 years, I am motivated in my practice to find new ways to breathe life into these very specifically Chinese ideas, the traditions, rituals, and materials rich in religion, mythology, and culture. My current body of work focuses on how nature— an inherent force within traditional Chinese art— transcends culture through its references to eternal and natural geological time. I use lingzhi mushroom, pine needles, cicada exuviates, freshwater pearls, star anise, and many other natural materials to create ethereal installations that investigate the intersection between science, nature and culture, therefore, speak to global situations and concerns and the modern, post-modern, and post-human conditions.
Although my work combines stylistic conventions and iconography that are readily related to conventional Chinese art’s artistic corpus, they are not supposed to be purely nostalgia or recuperative. Instead, they are capacious and exist in the present moment, engaging in issues of great current significance, such as climate change and the challenges it presents to our environment and its future.
Why is lingzhi a significant type of mushroom from a cultural and scientific perspective?
Lingzhi is a distinctive fan-shaped, red varnished-looking fungus, also called reishi in Japanese, and scientifically known as Ganoderma. This type of mushroom is rare in nature and only grows on a small percentage of fallen, decaying trees. The remarkable features of lingzhi have drawn the attention of people across the world throughout the ages. On top of its distinguished appearance, lingzhi is also a herb used in Chinese traditional medicine for over 2000 years and thought to bring longevity and boost immune function. Chinese Sages and doctors also believed it to possess mystical properties. Therefore, it has been called ‘the mushroom of immortality,’ and viewed as a magic herb as well as an auspicious symbol with the meaning of good fortune and longevity. Numerous myths and literature mentioning people’s love, worship of, and belief in lingzhi can be found in Chinese history since ancient times.
Thus, the characteristics of good fortune and longevity associated with lingzhi became a unique component throughout Chinese culture. The symbolism of lingzhi has been immortalized and embraced into a variety of art forms. But by the 17th century, lingzhi as an art motif was so popular that it eventually lost its earlier religious connotations, gradually becoming a motif of botanical elements appearing on artworks on its own, and can be found in countless motifs and patterns taking the form of clouds and waves in traditional Chinese painting and drawing, textiles, crafts, and architectural design. Some indigenous cultures across the world also revere lingzhi. Lingzhi masks found in Peru and British Columbia, Canada are believed to have been worn for ritual events. Lingzhi provides us a window into the reciprocal relationships with nature that permeated every aspect of human life.
How did you create your lingzhi mushroom sculptures and what do they represent?
I packed a mixture of sterilized woodchips and prepared lingzhi spores into the mould I created. The light, temperature, and humidity are controlled to ensure the germination of the spores. The spores then start to produce mycelium. Appearing as a series of feathery webs, mycelium fills up the gaps between the woodchips, and it binds them together, acting as a binding agent. I then remove the mould, and
the sculpture is now structurally intact, thanks to the activities of the mycelium. I then placed it in a small greenhouse with a controlled growth environment. At this point, I stepped back and let the sculpture sculpt itself.
The sculpture continues to evolve as the mycelium develops under the surface, and in a few weeks, the pinheads of the lingzhi pop up, slowly fruiting into lingzhi fruit bodies. After about 3-4 months, the mushrooms mature and produce a coco-powder-like dusting of spores on the surface of the sculpture.
This hybrid bio-art experiment, which relies as much on science as it does on fate, seems to restore some kind of balance, with science and chance playing equal parts and with the hand of the artist, for the most part, at the sidelines. For me, it is important that each side of this equation has a chance to shine.
This body of sculptural works shows nature as the manifestation of uncontrollable phenomena supporting a cycle of life that is dynamic and inexplicable.
Please tell us about some of your other recent 3D art which have connections to science and climate change.
Many of my works have touched upon the topics of science and climate change. Cloud Cell (shown to the right) is a hanging work made by suspending 13,000 freshwater pearls to create a curvilinear form, which was inspired by Chinese scholar ’s rock, cloud, and smoke. Cloud Cell, as the title implies, the “cell” refers to the insertion of science into
nature, and its ever-more microscopic examination of its cellular makeup, which refers to the formation of cloud. The structural disintegration of Cloud Cell resonates with biology and cosmology imagery, leading to other paths of human discovery of the cosmos. Clouds have long been associated with longevity in Chinese culture as the habitat of the immortals. However, the form of the installation also resembles a mushroom cloud, the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Here, the duality of once peaceful yet destructive is presented to the viewer.
Mountain of Pines is a work made by piercing thousands of dry pine needles into silk organza to form images of mountain ranges. Pine is associated with longevity in Chinese culture. Since ancient times, mountains have also been imbued with spiritual strength in the Chinese imagination as expressions of the essential energy of nature. Inspired by the utopian scenes depicted in traditional Chinese Shanshui paintings, I assembled a contemplative landscape charged with symbolism.
Nature has played a more significant role in art in no other cultural tradition than in that of China. When we feel so powerless in the face of natural disturbance, looking back to our ancestors and their relationship to nature can help us to reflect upon and build resilience using natural means.
Xiaojing Yan fuses inspirations from a background in China with experiences settling in Canada, creating imaginative 3D artwork, such as her lingzhi mushroom bio-art sculptures which were in part sculpted by the workings of nature. Lingzhi mushrooms have a deep cultural history and symbolic significance in Chinese culture, but this does not mean her works are confined by cultural traditions. She brings her art into the modern times, highlighting themes in climate change and the worldwide environment through experimental practice, as we particularly see in the artworks Cloud Cell and Mountain of Pines.