Xi Jin’s 金夕 Breakdown, Mistake, Discontinuity [a reset of how language represents]

FAB Gallery, The University of Alberta, June 7-July 18, 2021 EXHIBITION REVIEW

Above, bright clouds streak across darkened walls. They appear suddenly, white forms haloed in purple-blue light. Then they scatter and dissipate like smoke. It’s hard to centre yourself in relation to them. That is, it’s like the feeling you get when you’ve rubbed your eyes too hard after looking at the sky and the indistinct shapes left on the retina quietly fragment and disappear in unpredictable ways. Against this visual but strangely bodily experience and in tension with it is the competing desire to make rational sense of the morphing light, for buried within these clouds are English words, half-legible but asking to be read, nonetheless.

Xi Jin. cloud = speak (yunshuo 云说). 2020-21. Print-based multimedia: PETG, screen print, ultrasonic-sensor, circuit, light, cable, Lego-modular; various dimensions. Photograph by author.

Below, toy-size boxcars run in circles around tracks. With each mechanical click they light up nearby polythene clouds (think of locomotive Mars lights) and cast shadows up onto the wall. The words printed on the clouds on the floor can be made out relatively easily: looping in a loop, training, scattering, disaster training, clouding, blue sky scattered, cloud means speak. The transparent polythene is otherwise nearly invisible.

This installation by the printmaker Xi Jin is entitled cloud = speak (yunshuo 云说). She is cleverly playing with the fact that the simplified Chinese character for cloud and the age-old way of writing the verb to speak (yun 云) is one and the same. Yet her work is less a meditation on the flexibility of words to encompass different meanings over time and to move from noun to verb and back to noun than it is about the process of dwelling at the edges of digital and human language systems. For instance, there is repetition and routine to the train cars chugging around the track without pause, passing by the words embodied in the clouds, something like the way we as adults acquire a second language by sounding out words over and over, by training. We enter into expanded spaces of social discourse by learning by heart the alphabet, set phrases, and characters, or by Googling them for definitions or usage and getting into a virtual space that is itself shaped by computer language. Language systems become our environment (those clouds) and provide stability and regularity to getting around in the world (those tracks). They structure human space.

But do the trains take us where we want to go? Cast against their timed movement is the ineffability of the script on the walls, the cool colours fizzling in front of our eyes, the in-betweenness of words as representation and as imperfect signifiers of ambiguous meaning. The reality represented on the floor collapses when it reaches the walls. As the cloud light envelops words and creases them or folds them into each other, making them hard to read, there’s a breakdown in meaning making. You want to lean in close as they rapidly fade, to engage with each cloud as if it were a repository of the artist’s consciousness. But they resist. Measured thought doesn’t make it into the cloud forms, or only makes it there in fragments.

Is the gap that opens up one of beauty or darkness? It’s hard to say. Consider, for instance, the contrast between the miasmatic word “clouding” and the ominous “disaster training.” In another installation in the gallery, (hell)o, a similar tension between a joyful mood and a grim commentary is elucidated in the parentheses inside the title, and also is worked into the piece. Four towers are printed with English words and a grammar of pictorial forms that are lighthearted and also violent. 

Xi Jin. (hell)o (diyu–ni hao 地狱–你好) 2020. Images and text, sculpture, sound, paper, acrylic, wood, found objects; 8.5 x 11 in x various heights. Photograph by author.

The installation is in its own sound space created by a computer-generated voice intoning the words of a poem by the artist. The final stanza runs:

established a (dog)ma in a faith of happiness

how to tell if (dog) seems tired

being a thinker with (cap)rice

no (cap) meaning no lie

There’s a playfulness to matching the dog of (dog)ma with the cartoon picture of a bulldog printed on the edges of stacked office paper composing part of the towers (those edges again), or the cap of (cap)rice with a wool cap in one of the plastic building blocks of a tower. But the dog is about to blow up test tubes in a chemistry set and the cap is black in the colour. Similarly dark, (leg)itimacy indexes a picture of a parade of goose-stepping soldiers, and (cow)ard a picture of the dairy industry. All of these images are anxiety-inducing. And they are slightly pixelated, recognizable as products of the internet, and so potent in their symbolic meaning that they can be read as a universal pictorial language. 

Perhaps there is another angle of questioning to pursue, then: is there a political critique at work here in the breakdown and reset of language? 

For while there’s a childlike pleasure in matching the newly isolated roots of words to the printed pictures, the experience of the installation also is one of unmaking our relationship to words, and then finding their new meaning in images that pose questions about consumption or labour. That critique is intensified by the shabbiness of the indexical objects on display, like a burned saucepan, safety pins, keys from an old computer keyboard, the sheafs of office paper, stacks of cardboard boxes, contact paper that looks like slabs of marble (or almost does). There is an Orwellian ordinariness about these things presented as “art.” This game probes a language system deeply imbricated in the capitalist system that we often mindlessly accept as part of everyday existence. We depend upon it, and labour within it. And remember that computer voice phonetically sounding out those words, generic and yet authoritative for being so.

hell(o) suggests that it is only slightly outside, at the threshold––in that moment of confusion and struggle to learn a language, that moment of making mistakes and saying what we might not mean––that our troubled relationship to social and economic systems of communication starts to become clear.

google maps mumbled! circles back to the possibility that such spaces of critique at the edges are somehow, perhaps improbably, imaginative places of poetic beauty begging for introspection and insight. This installation, too, is composed of material things and digitally generated environments. Home Depot window blinds in freestanding aluminium frames and silky entryway rugs (ordered through Amazon from Turkey, I learned from the artist) surround touch-sensitive computer screens. The blinds and rugs are printed with screenshots from Google Maps.

Rather, they are printed with distorted images that slide over the object surfaces into ornamental patterns or fresh and unexpected scenes. One of the blinds is printed with the image of a woman in black carrying a hot-pink bag slung over her shoulder. The bag is decorated with MacDonald’s golden arches. The logo makes her stand out in her gray environment. She appears five times at the same park, a slowed down and spaced-out version of Muybridge’s photographic experiments in capturing motion a century ago.

Xi Jin. google maps mumbled! (guge ditu nannan! 谷歌地图喃喃!). 2020-21. Print-based multimedia; screen display, paper, rug, blind. various dimensions. Photograph by author.

The rugs, laid end to end, are printed with screenshots that reduce buildings and objects to colour and line: purple-brown registers of design at a mosque crack and bend; a wire screen fence turns into a hallucinogenic spiral; blue-gray tiles crowd and slip against each other; shadowy stairsteps shift forward and lift away. 

These are glitches in computer algorithms. We’re not meant to see them, and usually don’t. The artist writes that during the pandemic it was “easier to run away on the map, so I chose to have a trip in the areas mostly without intricate mapping data, such as Laos, China, Afghanistan, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Libya.” That is, she chose to run away to places where Google Maps has practically no operational functionality other than being a space to upload and share photographs of home. In this context, where Google is not the dominant computer language, perhaps encountering the gently evocative glitch-forms is not so surprising.

But other glitches that Xi Jin has located at the edges of Google Maps take on even greater solidity and presence. Black fractal shapes, geometrically precise, float into street views: in the clouds above a low white building, at the edge of a roof, over the body of a photographer (only his loafered feet exposed), in the middle of a construction site, and hanging from an interior yellowed wall. 

Are these black shapes threatening? They may recall the morphology of a Chinese character, a sequence of Arabic script forms, the Russian alphabet. There is a minimalist purity in their presence. They leap from the screen to gallery wall; the print images on the rugs and blinds (some lifted, further distorting the transferred glitches printed onto them) likewise are imported by the artist back into the Google Map screen. 

The artist observes:

In my practice, creating a role for myself as if I were a child, I use breakdown as a method, mistakes as experience, and degrade the complexity and continuity of language to uncover its strange black shapes, its poetry, its embeddedness in the everyday and its strangeness as well.

Xi Jin’s exhibition reminds us that the glitch, the mistake, the distortion, the mistranslation, the breakdown, and the mumble work to darkly reveal not only language systems as structure, and normative, leaving it up to the viewer to determine if that is good or bad. The exhibition also reveals, though a certain poetic beauty, the ghost in the (language) machine–the elusive human mind.

Lisa Claypool

University of Alberta

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