Roots and words: Exploring the mirroring of language and ecosystem through art

In their first exhibition in Canada, Chinese visual artist and storyteller Shen Xin explores how languages act like an ecosystem. The installation, titled but this is the language we met in; 我们在这个语言中相遇, includes a film, Grounds of Coherence #1, and four paintings, all created by the artist. Shen is particularly interested in the existence of language in humans and nature.

“When tracing how language emerged in different places, it is clear it was a collective sense[-]making process of our roles and capacities in the ecosystem that we are part of,” says Shen.

Shen’s display is available for public viewing at the Richmond Art Gallery (RAG) from Jan. 20 to March 31.

The art’s origin

Shen was born in Chengdu, China, in 1990 and moved to Singapore at 17 to attend La Salle College of the Arts. Since completing their MFA from the Slad School of Fine Art in London, Shen and their art has been recognized by art galleries and institutions around the world.

Their exhibitions are meant to evoke emotions from their audiences – to invite a conscious dialogue with oneself and to reflect on elements of human communication. Shen offers a unique perspective on the choice to explore the abstract side of art, including moving image installations and performances.

Shen Xin’s newest work exploring language is on display at the Richmond Art Gallery.

“I tend to think of it as a bridging, a healing of where art comes from, which is life,” says Shen. “Storytelling is a device for relational memories… [through which] a negotiation of our relations and stories are breathed into a sharing of presentation and experience.”

Like the installation at the RAG, many of Shen’s displays are paintings accompanied by a film, serving as a different medium of storytelling. The paintings and the films aim to create the feeling of an immediate surrounding. Shen’s current display in Canada inspires audiences to challenge their beliefs about language and voice.

“The works address hope of bringing the self back into right relations […] through one’s own experience and agency,” they explain. “It’s hopeful when the work and stories can facilitate exchanges of these experiences in the complexity where Canada is situated.”

To Shen, the combination of film and paintings is an interactive approach to storytelling. Each and every one of the artist’s displays are intentionally crafted.

“It’s something I value and see as worth doing,” says Shen.

Inspiration is born

Language, to Shen, utilizes voice, facial expressions and the entire body. The installation focuses on a theme of nature, which shows how some facets of language can persist, while others undergo changes, mimicking the cycle of an ecosystem. They explain that the creation of language comes from our roles in the ecosystems that we are a part of, and that this trend is sometimes easier to trace in other languages.

“In Chinese, a lot of characters emerge from understanding of energy shifts in units of time in relation to one’s in place experience, or an understanding specific to a place, a body of water,” they explain.

Shen’s art installations find their inspiration in personal experiences and a desire to storytell. Specifically, they’re drawn to the evolution and sharing of languages. In but this is the language we met in; 我们在这个语言中相遇, they explore communication across culture, time and space, with the work delving into the connections between humans and nature.

The film’s audio features Arabic, English and Mandarin which serve to promote an accessibility of communication. The visual aspect of the video includes images of things in our everyday lives, like trees in various states, symbolizing the constantly changing nature of languages.

“I seek stories as refuge as my agency emerges from a people without protection,” Shen says. “The exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery is part of that journey. Since the subjects are things we see and experience everyday, like trees, teeth, our environment and our kins, I hope it helps carve an access to that perspective in people’s daily life.”

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