Xiaojing Yan’s hanging work entitled Cloud Cell features an astounding 13 000 fresh water pearls suspended by clear filaments.
The artist, born in China before moving to Canada, presents this idea of different cultural identities, a journey she has personally experienced. Yan’s work combines the ideas of two extremes: the Chinese garden, or Scholars’ stone with the mushroom cloud shape produced by a Western nuclear bomb. We understand the tension in the opposing meditative Chinese tradition versus the new destructive Western technology. While part of the idea behind Yan’s piece is about damage and devastation, I only felt serenity as I observed the thousands of delicate pearls floating in space.
Photos of Cloud Cell certainly do not do justice to the unique experience had while moving about Yan’s piece. It is an odd sensation as you move around as well as towards and away from the work; the density is curious, almost like being underwater. As I chat with Yan she tells me to stand across from her on the other side of the hanging pearls. I’m surprised to learn that I am unable to see Yan through the strings. The piece as a whole seems translucent as you are able to see the pearls all throughout its form but oddly it conceals an object on the other side.
Her process included first a much smaller clay form to see what it looked like and then building this three dimensional form on a computer. This gave her the outline of each layer so she could put pearls on according to the line, then positioning together all the layers, gradually building up the volume. Yan tells me she originally created double the work – 26 000 pearls! But the density felt too heavy so she removed every other row. And how long you might wonder would it take to put thousands and thousands of tiny pearls on clear filaments? Almost two years.
The artist joked that she couldn’t look at people wearing pearls while she was working on this piece. Fortunately for myself who was coincidentally (I swear!) wearing pearl earrings when I met with Yan, she said she has come to peace with pearls now that her work is completed and all has been resolved.
Text and photo: Carter Brown
*Exhibition Information: January 7 – 31, 2015, The Red Head Gallery, 401 Richmond Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed–Sat 12–5 p.m.