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Meng-Yu Yan in 2017

OCCULERE
26.05. - 17.06.2017

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This exhibition derives its title from the Latin word meaning to “conceal”. The artist was captivated by the similarity this word displayed to the word “ocular”, relating to vision and the eye. The correlation between seeing and concealing is what Meng-Yu Yan investigates through video, sculptural, aquatic, and photographic experimentation with reflections. The artist is confronted by the dichotomy of the mirror in its tendency to both reveal and deceive. Influenced by the art of scrying (water or mirror gazing), the artist translates this traditional form of occult magic into a body of work that contemplates selfhood as liquid. Scrying is a process of searching for answers, yet often the visions revealed are blurred or distorted. As a result the artist plays with distortion to emulate the shape-shifting, fluid essence of being. Other influences include Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror”, Roni Horn’s discussion of androgyny, and Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” which incited the artist’s inquiry into the origins of self-awareness.

`OCCULERE: Vision & Concealment’

Exhibition essay by Virginia Rowlands

Occulere:   “cover over, conceal,” from assimilated form of ob “over” + a verb related to celare “to hide,” from PIE root *kel- (2) “to cover, conceal, save.” Meaning “not apprehended by the mind, beyond the range of understanding” dates from the 1540s. The word is associated with the supernatural sciences (magic, alchemy, astrology, etc.) dating from the 1630s.

The experience of ‘Occulere’ involves a peculiar kind of opacity.  First of all, the work is drained of colour, the entire exhibition is black and white. The title suggests an apparent paradox – to allow both vision as well as concealment. An encounter with any work of art involves a kind of mirroring. Neurology confirms that human mirror systems operate unconsciously or subconsciously, as well as in ways that are more obvious. We regard another person’s art both as the other and the self. So how do we regard work that involves mirror, self-portrait and video? How does the work of ‘Occulere’ reveal itself to the viewer? Photography makes the erroneous suggestion that time can stand still. The viewer experiences a singular moment of art creation. It represents a particular set moment in time; the death to the process of the art making, that is unable to recall other parts of the process.  However, it is with that finitude that the artist plays. The art extends into the infinite by means of mirroring, referring to many states at once. Just as the mirror can hold more than one reflection at once, the artist’s work forces us to move back and forth in time through inner and outer selves.

‘Scrying pools’ connects the viewer to the ancient practice of future divination through visions in the water, a practise on the opposite end of a linear time scale to photography. Both may deceive, yet it is regarded with the same disdain people reserve for superstitions and the supernatural. The face is made strange; the viewer is drawn to the dark eyes of the artist on a background of waves in water. The image is hypnotic; it feels echoic of the rhythm of waves as they consume the beach. The face is rotund, moon–like and strange; in place of a mouth, windows or perhaps reflections of windows. But is the eyes that draw the viewer, they are both still and not still and seem to follow the gaze of the viewer back towards the image.  In ‘Mirror Gazing’, the image is an almost doubled face.  It allows the viewer to see what the scrying pool may see when the face peers into it.  The image evokes the many-headed Goddess Kali. Hands are multiplied. The gaze is meditative. This is a superbly balanced portrait that draws its subversive character from the imbalance: both the headlessness of the faces and the distortion and multiples of the fingers and hands that surround the faces.  The artist’s concern with the multiplicity of self is reflected onto the viewer.

References to Sylvia Plath always imply her death. Her poem ‘Mirror’ recalls Narcissus and Echo, the apparent ‘truth’ of a mirror and the experience of regarding oneself on this permeable surface. The artwork  ‘Eye of a Little God’ suggests the self-importance and narcissism of looking in the mirror, the ability to recreate oneself that the mirror grants, and the apparent vanity of the selfie. But Yan has deliberately smudged the portrait.  The eyes warp and smear. The reflection of the hand is intact but the face is not. A dysmorphia is suggested. This work points to the psychological, what is concealed under the surface of faces and bodies, the volatility that may lie under these surfaces. The work also points at the possibility of  ‘seeing things’; it questions rationality and exactitude, making blurry the sensibility of what is known.

Similarly ‘Self Portrait as a Liquid’ questions the stability of what is known. While bodies are mostly liquid, merging with environment, the removal of boundaries should mean death.  Yan’s suggestion is that bodies can and do exist in a variety of states and form. The work recalls Bachelard’s  ‘Water and Dreams’ rejection of rationality, and calls to mind Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, in particular the interdependent relationship of the body to the world. This inter-relatedness “does not mean that there was a fusion or coinciding of me with it: on the contrary, this occurs because a sort of dehiscence opens my body in two, and because between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we may say that the things pass into us, as well as we into the things.”[1]

Yan is interested in the mixing of boundaries and the unsettling nature of the extreme metaphor. ‘Now I am a Lake’ positions the artist, like the narrator of Plath’s ‘Mirror’ as a reflective body of water. The photograph is beneath water and the eyes are closed, the viewer becomes voyeur, the body is gazed upon.  The focus shifts intermittently between the photograph and the photograph’s reflection of itself.

The two images in the tanks mirror each other in an inexact parallel, then continue to be mirrored by the inner walls of the tanks. According to American artist Roni Horn, ‘water’ is always a verb, not just a noun. The movement of the water in the tank creates an illusion that the artist’s body is moving, the wrists and hands dance.  Water, also referred to as a body, suggests the presence of the classically elemental in the work. Through this deconstruction, there are questions asked around depth and volume.

The images in the tanks suggest Shakespeare’s Ophelia and her painted likenesses, female suicides, insanity, beauty and water.  The artist’s face is expressionless, it is blankness that feels calm, yet there is something more. There is a noh-mask like quality to the expression that implies trickery and the supernatural.  The eye is drawn to the tattoo over the artists heart that is derived from the mu that translates roughly to “no”, “not”, “nothing”, or “without” in Zen Buddhism.  The artist points the gaze towards this triangular shape and invites the erosion of the possibility of only one meaning.  Here and in all her work, Yan invites the distortion of a simple or singular interpretation. One recalls that ‘I see’ is also used to mean ‘I understand’, so if I see but do not understand, can I really be seeing? The use of the tanks recalls notions around captivity, of the artist, refugees, resources, and animals. Yan opens a window for the viewer to consider vision and blindness. Who and or what are visible or invisible.

Convex mirrors are used for road safety because of the phenomena called a ‘blind spot’, places of literal invisibility. The curved mirror removes the blind spot and allows for greater perception.  Yan uses a convex mirror with the words ‘Penetrable space’ printed across the surface.  The convex mirror distorts the objects reflected. The statement confounds.  This work is evocative of the infinite, or the boundlessness of space. Like Plath, Yan regards the mirror as a permeable space, a place of unfixed form and mutability.

The artist refers directly to Michelangelo ‘s ‘The Creation of Adam’ (Sistine chapel 1510) in the video work ‘Creating Adam’.  The fingers are constantly in motion and endlessly repeated. One hand holds the mirror and the other hand points to the mirror.  The artist partakes in the dialogue around the relationship between artist and god, the comparison of god to artist and visa versa.  When the finger connects with the mirror there is a moment of creation – the mirrored finger touches back, the finger is both the touching and touched. The disembodied hand repeatedly points to itself.  The artist points to her own awareness of the creation in art making, the conscious act to which there is no end.  There is a component of humour in the work, gently parodying the possibility of arts outside of the western patriarchy to which it refers. There is an absence, erasure and disconnection. The artist draws attention to what is missing, the parts that have been cut off, the bodies and labors that are outside the screen.  The finger and hands are also tools; the body is both of and about the artist’s work. The artist also draws deliberately away from vision to the sense of touch and touching.  I am touched can also mean I am moved.

When the ocean, or any large body of water is gazed upon from a distance, the surface is not transparent, though water is colourless; it mirrors the colour and shapes of the sky.  ‘Beneath’ reveals a coral landscape that runs vertically against a wall then extends onto the floor via a rectangular mirror beneath the photograph. The underwater landscape is disconcerting because it resists immediate recognition. Both the surface of the image and the mirror beneath recalls the glassy surface of still water. The work suggests a nearly unthinkable silence. The stillness of the work is contradicted by what is, in actuality, in constant motion. The artist evokes ancient Chinese landscape paintings that illustrated the painter’s inner world rather than the land itself.

Yan’s work plays with the idea of the multiple as well as the double. Occultist William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) spoke of his own ‘double vision’. Tibetan Buddhist Longchenpa says: ‘Every time I zero in on my own mind I find billions of worlds and other beings.’ [2]  One may be comfortable with the idea that the self may contain multitudes, but what of the multitudes containing our selves? The works that have created “Occulere’ invite another way of seeing that draws attention to what is concealed as well as to the concealment itself.  The artist suggests, through layering many possibilities of meaning, that what is beyond and ‘out of this world’ may be hidden right in front of our eyes.

[1] Hass Lawrence Reading Merleau-Ponty , Humanity Books, 2000 NY

[2] Berry Philippa Shadow of Spiritualism Postmodernism and Religion Taylor and Francis Hoboken 2012


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