“A frozen, wine-coloured tongue carved from ice hangs down over a metal spittoon. The tongue is suspended like a sheet of glass, frost-bound and hard. As warm currents of air circle around it, the frigid organ softens and yields. Drop by drop, the melting ice drips into the waiting spittoon until the glint of metal, reflecting through the water, hits your eye. In time, the frosty tongue thaws to reveal the blade of a kitchen knife, sharp and pointed. “Perdre sa salive” or “Wasting One’s Spittle” (1994), an installation piece composed of frozen tongues, kitchen knives and metal spittoons is concerned, like many of Shen Yuan’s works, with the transformation of images and objects from one state to another. Like the Chinese expression of « finding reincarnation in another’s corpse;’ Shen Yuan takes everyday objects and materials and invests them with new lives and meanings, translating the mundane into the extraordinary.
In Wasting One’s Spittle, objects and materials are transformed into something other than themselves but, like the spittoons that gather the me1ted ice, the residue of the original material remains. Here the role of the artist is not that of a magician conjuring new forms from old, nor that of an alchemist transforming base metal into gold. Rather, the artist acts as translator, reinterpreting e1ements of the physical world into new visual metaphors that often refer back both to the previous condition of these materials and to spoken language, in particular, to colloquial proverbs and sayings « ‘To lose one’s spittle » in Chinese is to be excessively modest or submissive, but here the unassuming image of drooling tongues dissolves itself into the spectacle of sharpened knives. In a subtle inversion of the original meaning, Shen Yuan’s icy tongues « Lose their spittle » only to acquire the trappings of imminent violence. But Wasting One’s Spittle is also concerned with the limits of language: the cul-de-sac of clichéd proverbial sayings, the inability of words to approximate to the visual image, and the inadequacy of translations from one language or culture to another. At one moment, these tongues are as solid as ice; at another moment, they have me1ted and metamorphosed into another state. Perhaps, they might be seen as the « Leftovers of translation;’ ail the things that are left unsaid or ail the nuances of language that inevitably remain untranslated. Invoking the untranslatable should not be seen as a melancholy exercise but, on the contrary, it offers the possibility of a dynamic exchange between artwork and viewer that leaves the work open to continuous interpretation and re-interpretation. Shen Yuan’s works articulate what Sarah Maharaj calls the « leftover inexpressible of translation, » demonstrating « an attentiveness that opens on to an erotics and ethics of the other beyond its untranslatability. » How [ … ] to recode translation taking on broad ideas about its limits and dead-ends, its impossi¬bility, the notion of the untranslatable, what we might call « the untranslatability of the term other? » [ … ] the idea is to ask if the hybrid might not also be seen as the product of translation’s failure, as something that falls short of the dream-ideal of translation as a « transparent » passage from one idiom to another, from self to other … To recode it involves defining it as a concept that Unceasingly plumbs the depths of the untranslatable and that is continually being shaped by that process. It is to reinscribe it with a double-movement that cuts across « optimism and pessimism, the opaque and the crystal-clear »-to activate it as a play-off between the poles. It amounts to re-indexing hybridity as an unfinished, self-unthreading force, even as a concept against itself. At any rate, as an open-ended one that is shot through with memories and intimations of the untranslatable.’ The French title of the work, “Perdre sa salive”, introduces another colloquial meaning to the work-wasting one’s breath-that becomes knitted into the increasingly complex fabric of the piece and its multiple meanings, translations, and interpretations. The artist herself talks about the work in terms of the excess of language, of when words spill over to such an extent that they become meaningless and language loses its ability to communicate. In this respect, Wasting One’s Spittle and other works by Shen Yuan reflect on the relationship between the visual and the linguistic, elegantly and succinctly problematized by René Magritte’s painting of a painted pipe, accompanied by the words « Ceci n’est pas un pipe » (This is not a pipe). Created in what Walter Benjamin christened as « the age of mechanical reproduction » and in the face of the challenge presented to painting by the photographic image, Magritte’s painting underlines the gap between the « real » world and its representation by the artist. Shen Yuan’s work, made in an age of increasingly rapid communication technologies and the mass migration of peoples across the globe, points to the limits of language to describe and translate lived experience in a new global economy. She Yuan’s preoccupation with spoken language and its limited ability to articulate contemporary experience is undoubtedly informed by her own migration from China to Paris and the conse¬quently painful negotiation of an alien culture and language, familiar to many migrants. Uprooted from a familiar environment to an utterly different cultural space, language which once acted as an anchor rooting you in a particular place and culture is abruptly weighed, leaving you adrift and lost. Linguistic and communication skills honed over decades become defunct overnight, crudely underlining the fallibility of language. In this way, Shen Yuan builds the element of time as well as space into her work. Time becomes the fourth material or constituent part of the work (after the artist, the materials, the viewer) which is invoked and resides latently in the work and whose gradual effect will inevitably unfold in the course of an hour, a day, a week or a month. A great deal has been written in recent years about space and place in relation to contemporary art practice, but very little attention has been paid to the concept of time. And yet, social and physical geography is rendered meaningless without the dynamic of time-like an out-of-date map or guide to a city in which the street names have changed, the configuration of buildings and landmarks have evolved beyond recognition and where people look altogether different. Shen Yuan’s eloquent description of how a sixteen-hour flight changed everything echoes the temporal transformation that her installations frequently undergo, becoming, over time, altogether different. « Becoming » rather than « being » is the condition to which Shen Yuan’s works approximate-constantly changing and transforming from one state to another. “
Gilane Tawadros, Yishu December 2003