Storyteller and artist Shen Xin’s practice revolves around the “return of relations”. The Chengdu-born and Isle of Skye-based creator pursues this through video installations and paintings. In addition, Shen crafts performances and soundscapes with life partner Ali Van.
“I think there’s a deeper place for us to connect to,” Shen tells Pancouver over Zoom. “That is why I call it ‘the work of remembering’. How do we remember again when we were forced to forget politically, socially, and evolutionary?”
Shen, who prefers the pronouns she and they, addresses this question in their first solo show in Canada. Presented by the Richmond Art Gallery, it’s entitled but this is the language we meet in; 我们在这个语言中相遇.
The artist centres their exhibition around a video work called grounds of coherence #1. According to Shen, this short film embodies “a different way of knowing”.
“For example, the main story is about this dentist visit that I had for three hours when my teeth were being knocked with metal,” Shen says.
While sitting in chair, Shen imagined that their teeth were connected to the ocean. Afterward, the artist discovered through a Google search that this is actually true, according to scientific research.
“It turns out, 400 million years ago, our teeth were fish scales,” Shen declares.
Friends in the field of forensic science have since told the artist that “this codelike bone memory…can be evoked when something is interacted for a prolonged period of time.”
Shen commemorates ways of knowing
The film grounds of coherence #1 highlights other ways of knowing. Some have been masked for centuries or millennia.
As an example, Shen points out that the word “story” is similar in the Arabic, Hindi, and Tatar languages. The artist attributes this to historical migratory routes where people who speak these languages came in contact with one another.
“There are a lot of these little points that I…have been diving into and put together for this film in a way of just sort of commemorating this way of knowing.”
The film also refers to widespread anti-lockdown protests in China. They intensified after 10 Uyghurs died in an apartment fire in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, on November 24, 2022. At the time, demonstrators blamed COVID-19 restrictions for residents’ inability to escape the blaze.
“They weren’t allowed to go out,” Shen explains. “It was perhaps the most widespread protest you could see since 1989 in China.”
These demonstrations reflected embedded emotions “in the form of not being able to return or go forward”, Shen says. Activists could connect to the present moment. However, what had occurred in the past or might occur in the future couldn’t be voiced in any way that could be heard.
“That is also the core of why I made the film, which is sort of negotiating the terms that we can remember again,” Shen relates. “Why do we have these emotions? Why do we have teeth?”
Passion for the natural world
In addition to the short film, Shen’s exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery includes four small paintings.
Shen also has a keen interested in ecology. So much so that the artist is familiar with two scientifically informed B.C. publications, the Narwhal and Hakai Magazine, and the Future Ecologies podcasts.
Furthermore, Shen has nearly completed a film shot in B.C.’s scenic Nemiah Valley with the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations people.
This passion for the natural world began at a young age. As a child and teenager, Shen regularly visited the Qingcheng mountainous area near Chengdu.
“Because I was the only child, I spent a lot of time alone in nature, playing in the mountains,” Shen says. “So, I think that really shaped my sensibility in terms of where I prefer to be and what I like to smell and touch.”
In the grounds of coherence #1, Shen invokes what happens to trees extracted from forests.
“When we see wood in a room, we don’t necessarily think anymore that they were trees in certain places.”
Shen brings breadth of experiences
Shen moved from China’s Sichuan Province to Singapore at the age of 17 to attend university. In 2014, the artist earned a master’s degree from the U.K.-based Slade School of Fine Art.
In addition, Shen has spent time in Minnesota, New York, and now, Scotland.
Shen acknowledges that their artistic practice goes beyond accessing ancestral knowledge residing in the body. It also seeks to bring unconscious evolutionary knowledge to consciousness. Moreover, the artist maintains that ancestral knowledge, in the Chinese context, is not enveloped in identity politics.
The Richmond Art Gallery exhibition embraces communication in a multitude of forms to convey ways of knowing. These include snippets of Arabic, English, and Mandarin showing up in the film as one of several means to serve the community.
“I truly believe in ‘place’ knowledge,” Shen insists. “So, it’s not about serving the community as big as China. I think that is impossible. But through negotiating these terms of remembering things you are related to, the audience can apply it to things around them.”
The Richmond Art Gallery presents Shen Xin’s but this is the language we met in; 我们在这个语言中相遇 from January 20 to March 31. For more information, visit the gallery’s website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.