Yan Xing has chosen the German title Opfer as a double-edged sword for his first exhibition in South America.
Opfer (sacrifice/victim) can be considered as an homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice (1986), which features Alexander, a middle-aged actor-cum-intellectual, as a protagonist who is agonizing over impending nuclear holocaust and the disharmony in his own family. The film opens with a camera pan over Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of Magi, completed in 1481 and in the Uffizi Gallery since 1670. At its center the painting shows the Virgin Mary together with her child below a carob tree, surrounded by a group of male and female observers. The background introduces a contrasting Pagan world with Roman gladiators on horseback and workers repairing the ruined Basilica of Maxentius, which apocryphally crumbled on the night of Christ’s birth. Tarkovsky’s camera returns to the painting several times and thus establishes the work as reference. A scene of the protagonist – planting a withered tree together with his mute son Little Man – comes on immediately after the tree of life shown in the opening pan. The viewer witnesses the loving relationship as the father tells his mute son that “There is no such as thing as death, only fear of death.” Over the course of the film Tarkovsky’s protagonist sinks deeper into depression and, driven by the counsel of his Postman messenger, a self-proclaimed collector of “inexplicable but true incidents”, grows more and more desperate, and eventually sets his own family home on fire.
Yan Xing takes his cues from those two historic works of art, reworking their narrative essence into a language of his own in a series of interrelated works created in São Paulo. Not unlike Tarkovsky, who pared colors down significantly for “The Sacrifice,” the exhibition delivers a bleak outlook. The terrazzo floor is a nod towards Tarkovsky’s obsession with stone floors, often covered with water, and to the damp mudflats that feature in The Sacrifice. A pair of jeans and a shirt allude to a mysterious previous action in the gallery as well as to Alexander’s fearful dreamy visions of people fleeing amidst debris. The ground floor installation gives way to Yan Xing’s moving-image work filmed at a crossroads in the Vila Buarque neighborhood, which is presented on the second floor of the gallery. A video wall reminiscent of advertising billboards relays the scripted and impromptu interaction of seven actors as they receive news of the loss of a loved one or point at a loathed banker passing by. A grisaille painting inspired by Paul Cezanne’s The Aqueduct (1885) provides counterpoint to those interlaced stories. Again we are confronted with a group of trees drawn on canvas. Created at an intimate moment in which the artist invited a local man to disturb and control him, the piece adds another loop to his fictitious novel, sacrificing the myth of the artist as genius and making him a mere victim of his own exhibition effort. Three drawings set beside silkscreen prints reflect the artist’s interest in the history of design and literature and reintroduces the exhibition title Opfer in a partly gothic font.
So while Alexander’s delirious decision to set his house on fire is the sacrifice that releases the mute Little Man from the shackles of a discordant family life, it may not have protected both from a third world war. Likewise, Yan Xing’s homage takes us on a journey through a tale of humiliation and agony, offering the chance to comprehend art as a vehicle that expresses the darkness inherent to human condition. Just like the building that houses the artist’s exhibition, we may possibly escape his spell, yet the apocalypse of downtown São Paulo might still catch us.
text by Tobi Maier
1:1 | Diagram for Attack
Deyson Gilbert & Leopoldo Ponce
1:1 | Diagram for Attack
Deyson Gilbert & Leopoldo Ponce
Diagram for Attack (or how to explain Gerstmann syndrome for rabbits and ducks) [i]
The medical collection of the Santa Casa de São Paulo Museum, located in theCentral Hospital of the Brotherhood of the Holy House of Mercy (Irmandade daSanta Casa de Misericórdia), exhibits old equipment related to clinical and surgical specialties belonging to the history of this health institution. There is also an illustration that portrays the attack against the then president ofBrazil, Prudente de Moraes in 1897. The exhibition space at Galeria Jaqueline Martins exhibits a series of objects whose choice and composition comes from an interpretation of this illustration. Both rooms are organized according to complementary exhibition logics and the objects presented in them have their formal, symbolic and/or semantic correspondents in the pieces of the other space. These correspondences are deepened through the information compiled in a folder available for consultation at the Museum.
The illustration, which was published in a newspaper of political satire of the time, [ii] is the only image that depicts the attempted assassination of Prudente de Moraes, the first president by direct election of Brazil and the first civilian to take on such position. [iii] The drawing shows the episode that occurred on 5 November 1897, during a military ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in which the president would welcome the victorious battalions who were returning from the recently completed Canudos War. The story goes that during this event, a soldier, Marcellino Bispo de Melo, left the crowd and advanced against Prudente de Moraes, aiming a revolver at his chest. He pressed the trigger a few times but the weapon inexplicably failed. With his top hat, like a magic trick, the president turned away the offender’s armed hand. The aggressor was quickly seized by members of the presidential entourage but still managed to pull of a dagger and to throw himself towards the president. He ended up by fatally striking the Minister of War, Machado Bittencourt who was protecting Prudente de Moraes. The president escaped unharmed and the aggressor soldier was arrested. Some time later he was found hanged in jail. It is speculated that he was only apiece of a larger political conspiracy, headed by then vice-president Manuel Vitorino Pereira. [iv]
The "dissection" of the illustration that documents the attack on the president's life is made through the correlation between a group of artifacts intended for the preservation of life and human health,and a series of objects that transcend the practical sphere of the uses. The first group, the medical equipment displayed in the collection of the Santa Casa Museum, not only recounts the memory of this institution but also refers to a broader notion of the relationship between Man, Science, and technology in favor of a "common good." "Truth", "knowledge"and "scientific rigor" exude from the classificatory and standardized structure that governs the disposition of the equipment in the room. A system of labels and entries, which are interposed between the things and the spectator, functions as a lens that mitigates the opacity of medical discourse and guides interpretation. The exhibited artifacts have their functions firmly defined from the objective, neutral and universal codes of the medical conventions of yesteryear. Paradoxically, the current meanings of some objects are no longer "fixed", since the peculiarity of their forms and their current state of obsolescence makes way for countless other interpretations and associations that escape the scientific determinism.
The illustration of the attack to Prudente de Moraes is exhibited to the visitors of the medical collection inserted in an x-ray machine from 1920, such as radiography. In the radiographic plate the internal structures of a body appear superposed in the two-dimensional plane. The image reveals the invisible but the juxtaposition of the parts hides certain relations between them. The "dissection" of the illustration of the attack is "three-dimensionalized" in the exhibition space of the gallery Jaqueline Martins, but, contrary to a "reconstitution of the crime scene," there is no simulated reproduction of the facts there. The subjects, objects and actions represented in the illustration are quoted through the combination of recognizable objects/images with other elements whose meanings are indeterminate. The texts that stand between the objects and the viewer avoid prescriptive explanations. Things and their associations do not seek "fixed" meanings nor are they guided by objective parameters. But their presence in the (neutral, a-historical and universal) space of the art gallery, guarantees them an affiliation to a series of conventions that were once legitimized. The internal logic of each of the elements and the organizational strategy of the "whole" outline correspondences with the Museum's medical collection room, but simultaneously refuse an exact overlap.
This "slip" creates fissures and lapses in the mental juxtaposition of both spaces and proposes ways of "seeing-beyond" the narratives given by the illustration of the attack to Prudente de Moraes. The correlation between things of seemingly disconnected times and themes revisits both the official history and the collective social imaginary; alludes to popular beliefs and myths as well as to the canons of Art History; cites scientific rigor but also borders on the occult; exposes certain subjects while masking others, and makes it possible to ponder upon situations where causal relations can not be demonstrated in a strictly objective or factual way. Relations that have no place in official narratives, in scientific compendia, in positivist historiography, in the current economy of images, nor in the growing polarization of positions and opinions.
The desire to "see-beyond" lies in the genesis of various medical and scientific devices, but the projective and subjective capabilities of vision escape the diagnosis of ophthalmological devices, which predominate in the room of the medical collection at the Museum. [v] Cognitive phenomena of perception such as the ability to see forms or messages in places where they were not intentionally inscribed, or to discern patterns,meanings, and connections in seemingly random configurations, have for centuries been considered by medical science to be losses of contact with reality or as symptoms of psychosis and other mental pathologies. Such interpretations “beyond images” can occur in physically and mentally healthy individuals and lead them to a blind adherence to a hypothesis that comes to be regarded as truth without any kind of objective verification criterion. [vi] On the other hand, they can also be configured as strategies to generate critical alternatives to the schemes prevailing in a given context. Since every critique of current conditions depends on the basic premise that reality might be different, how can such interpretive projections of perceptions be developed as part of an effective engagement? Where and how can the capacity to see beyond what we are supposed to see be nourished? How does one bring about a deliberately "oblique" way of looking? And what are its consequences? [vii]
“Perhaps one day we will know that there wasn't any art but only medicine.” [viii]
Bruno de Almeida, July 2018
[i] Gerstmann syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by fourmain symptoms: difficulty in expressing oneself through writing; difficulty in understanding mathematics; inability to distinguish the fingers from the hands and the disorientation in relation to the left and right / The illusion of the duck-rabbit is an ambiguous image that sometimes looks like a duck or a rabbit.Its first version was published in the German humor magazine Fliegende Blatter(Oct. 23, 1892, p.147)
[ii] Don Quixote (1895-1903) and illustrated Brazilian newspaper edited and illustrated by Angelo Agostini.
[iii] Moraes represented the rise of the coffee-growing oligarchy and of the civilian politicians to the national power after a period of military domination of the executive power.
[iv] After the attack Prudente de Moraes decreed "state of siege", a measure that allowed him to suspend constitutional rights, neutralize political opposition and ensure the predominance of the interests of the coffee-growing oligarchy in national politics.
[v] Among them are: a device used to photograph the back of the eye (beginning of the 20th century); electromagnet for extraction of metal debris from the eyeball; amblioscope to measure the angle of a strabismus (1953), among others.
[vi] Resulting, for example, in the creation of superstitions, beliefs in the paranormal, in the formation of religious structures, conspiracy theories,among others.
[vii] GROOM, Amelia, "What might this be?" in De Appel Reads #8, De Appel, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2018.
[viii] LE CLÉZIO, Jean-Marie Gustave, “Haï”, Éditions Albert Skira,Switzerland, 1971.