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