Interview with Xinran Yuan at ROOMSERVICE Gallery, New York

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

Xinran Yuan’s first solo exhibition in New York is now at ROOMSERVICE Gallery, a project space established less than a year ago in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Upon our visit to the gallery, we asked Xinran a few questions about her project on show, Water As Burden: Map.
Matilde Soligno: In your research, you focus on the ocean’s phenomenological possibilities, against the backdrop of a worsening ecological crisis. The title of your installation, Water As Burden: Map, seems to recall oceanography. This discipline lies in the realm of science, while your approach has a poetic quality – how did you interlace these two aspects?

Xinran Yuan: The ways in which we define science and oceanography have a lot to do with our ability to see, which is aided by technology. For instance, Sonar was invented just before WWI, during which it was widely used. It then quickly furthered the commercial deep sea fishing industry, allowing it to trawl or cast net at the exact location of the fish schools as visualized on the sonar. Our ability to map the ocean and continents has also evolved over time. Old maps reveal our understanding as well as our imagination and desire. Hence, to me, science and poetry aren’t necessarily on opposite ends of the spectrum.

My installation Water As Burden: Map inquires into scientific understanding of the ocean, its organisms, and the network that we’re very much part of. In particular, this text-based piece, titled Night/Herring/Late/Fishing (Ten Years), was made by tracing over 10 years of scientific reports on herrings in the North Atlantic Ocean. The research, led by a collaborative team of international scientists, was trying to find out why the herring population had been declining so drastically since the end of the 1950s. Then, over 10 years, they patiently monitored the number of herring left in the ocean by using a method called tagging: they would catch a netful of fish, tag them (make marks on them), and release them; later, they would capture another netful of fish. Over time, they would use proportional calculations to assess the number of fish left in the ocean. During this process, industrial fishing was not among the major variables that were being observed by the scientists – such as temperature, oxygen and plankton level. It was considered an external factor. However, the annual quota given to the fishing industry was defined on the base of this estimate.

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view of “Night/Herring/Late/Fishing (Ten Years)” at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

My approach was led by curiosity, doubts and an attitude toward openness. I traced words from the report over blue carbon paper; examples are: “inhabitable,” “likely places” – that make you think about co-inhabitance and seasonal changes. “Decreased,” “ceased” – to what extent may a population decrease before it is declared it ceased to exist? Another example is the pairing of the words “herring” and “according” – a poetic repetition, but also: according to what? According to what do we conclude anything about herring?

While going through the research papers, I was thinking a lot about our beliefs in abundance, and hence our right to capture, and occupy. Scientific writing is often both determinedly authoritative yet hypothetical, which I find extremely interesting. I think this piece reveals such duality, but is oriented toward speculation.

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view. Detail of “Night/Herring/Late/Fishing (Ten Years)” at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

MS: In a way, it feels like your approach points out to the fact that the scientific method can be a failure sometimes, and leave out substantial instances.

Xinran Yuan: In this case, I’m less interested in criticism, and more in offering and pointing to an approach that is more open, and thus might be more productive. It is like breaking down an authoritative writing, and presenting an interlocked network of fragmented knowledge instead – a sense of existing, being together.

 

MS: Why is the network so important?

Xinran Yuan: Without gaining more awareness about this state of being together, we’re going to continue with our self-entitlement, claiming certain hierarchies in the ecological network, while unaware of our act of occupation. Poetry to me is a possible mechanism to acknowledge the unknown and new possibilities: what we co-exist with.

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

MS: What about the materials you use, in this case natural materials together with photographic prints on different papers – is this your usual modus operandi?

Xinran Yuan: I’ve always felt the freedom to use raw, found, made, and processed materials together. In a similar way, I treat text and images as materials equal to those that have physical body and weight. It is a way to acknowledge the materiality of language and images. This installation originated from a piece of stone, a fragment of a beacon from Rejkjavijk, Iceland [the yellow stone weighing down one of the pine poles]. A beacon is a brightly painted pile of rocks that was used by seamen as a point of reference when navigating into the harbor. The ancient technique was to align one’s boat to a set of 3 beacons. When I brought this piece back from Iceland in 2011, I was thinking about issues of dislocation, and about the difficulties in navigation as we look for an exit from the worsened ecological crisis. I was thinking abstractly about a boat that has been so self-interested and self-focused that now has a yellow beacon attached onto itself. Thus, it will never be able to navigate into the harbor.

I trust the way things work, and highlight this trust in my installations: I let them weigh and balance according to the laws of physics. I also highlight the pragmatic knowledge we have of materials. For instance, in this piece, six wood boards of three different species – pine, cedar, poplar – are piled in the way wood is kept in a lumberyard while being aired out. This is my way of acknowledging the physicality of things, their existing in the world despite my attempt to create symbolic meanings with them. The same concept applies to the two pine poles of slight different thickness, one being weighed down, the other being propped up. Things are limited by their physical strength, thickness, length, and weight… And the fact that milk paint does not stick to non-porous surfaces, and will continue to crack and break down is also why I would use it in the middle of the water panorama circle as opposed to other types of paint. Ultimately, things are grounded in their own rights of existence in three-dimensionality – and I guess this is my loyalty to sculpture.

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

MS: A surrender to this physical aspect – it feels like you respect it and you don’t wish to intrude or disrupt it completely.

Xinran Yuan: There’s definitely a tendency to withdraw from intervening too much: to be with materials, as opposed to using materials.

 

MS: Where did you take the photos you used in your installations?

Xinran Yuan: All in Iceland on fishing trips, some taken while facing landward, others seaward. This water circle with milk paint in the center to me is more abstract – or it could be a miniature of the entire ocean, that is so dried and depleted on the bottom.

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view (detail of water panorama circle) at Roomservice Gallery, New York

 

MS: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about yourself. What’s your background, and what are your plans?

Xinran Yuan: I’m originally from Tianjin, a coastal city in North-East China, next to Beijing. The reason I’m so drawn to water and people whose lives are dependent on water is because of my childhood experience of living on coastal construction sites, where my father designed and built commercial ports. The visual quality and atmosphere of these very raw land-seascapes, and the changes that happened when small fishing villages became mega ports deeply influenced my aesthetic inclinations and concerns.

 

MS: You witnessed China’s dramatic and extremely fast changes in person.

Xinran Yuan: Within my father’s generation, the coast of China changed completely. As major European ports such as Rotterdam and Liverpool were declining, new mega ports were being built in China, and a big shift in global commercial routes occurred. These days in my art, I’m still revisiting this transformation and a sense of loss. I used to live within a five minute walk from the sea, and as a child I would go sit and watch the water everyday. I think I gained a lot of knowledge just by doing that. Later on, I watched the entire area become industrialized, and I lost access – both physically and visually – to the water, as millions of other people did. Nowadays, only those who can afford to live in high-rises or waterfront buildings can still watch the water on a daily basis.

I came to the States in 2006 to attend Harvard College, where I graduated in visual and environmental studies. Later, I got my MFA at the University of Illinois, which is inland, and very distant from the ocean. Even though I was making regular trips to Iceland for Water As Burden, those 3 years of distance from the water helped distill a lot of the images that I now use.

Now I’m in New York, working full time for an artist, and currently on a year-long residency at the Center for Book Arts. I think this is a great opportunity for me to further combine sculpture and poetry in my practice, to explore the space of the book, and that of the turn of a page. I am going to create a series of books in limited edition, as a continuation of my ongoing project Water As Burden.

 

Xinran Yuan, Water As Burden: Map is at ROOMSERVICE Gallery, New York through March 6, 2016

 

Xinran Yuan, Roomservice Gallery, Williamsburg, New York

Xinran Yuan
Water As Burden: Map
Installation view at Roomservice Gallery, New York

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by Matilde Soligno
in Focus on the East Coast

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