Like a great pop song or a poem, Nina Yuen’s work enchants, making you feel like she’s speaking to you alone. Her performative films, which are currently on view at de Appel arts centre, bind the universal with the ultrapersonal. They fill the second floor of the Prins Hendrikkade space in an exhibition consisting mainly of these short, fantastical films of approximately six or seven minutes each, plus some prints titled as studies for her films Andoe and Lea.
Although it is nice to see Yuen’s work in other media, her films are the real showstoppers. In Raymond (2014), which makes its debut in this exhibition, a male voice-over – representing the artist’s father – tells about the little fantasies he had as a child, how he could bend trees with his fingers and play guitar on the electrical power lines, which he could see from his seat through the car window. He talks lovingly about how his daughter behaved as a little baby. When he speaks about Yuen’s homeland of Hawaii, he says:
I will tell you this. Standing on our hill this morning, I looked at the land I chose for you. I saw a few green patches. A storm was moving in. I didn’t think of heaven, but I saw the clouds were beautiful and I watched them cover the sun.
Nina Yuen, Andoe, 2013, 16.9 digital video with sound, 5 min 53 sec, film still; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam.
This type of prose, poetry almost, isn’t exclusive to Raymond. It is present in all of Yuen’s lyrical films and it’s endearing to find the words repeated in Lea, also from 2014, where the voice-over comes from the artist herself, perhaps signalling the strong relationship between father and daughter. Although this narrative repetition seems extremely personal and intimate, it turns out this isn’t exactly the case. The words come from A History of Everything, Including You, a short story by Jenny Hollowell, which is listed as one of the influences or “credits” the artist used for both Raymond and Lea.
We slowly learn that Yuen is a master of construction and editing, who mixes snippets of personal or familial history with the biographies of well-known figures from both art history and history more generally. In Raymond, for instance, the artist drew inspiration from such diverse sources as an interview with her father, Robert Frost’s poem Birches, and children’s songs Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary and The Unicorn by Shel Silverstein. By tiptoeing on the fine line between fact and fiction, Yuen’s vignettes are as personal and intimate as they are universal, as naïve as they are smart. They concern themselves with love, loss, life, and death. They are about growing up and becoming successful, about failing and fear, about artistic calling and creativity. And although her films are less fact than fiction, they speak a hell of a lot of truth.
Visually, Yuen’s films are equally rich, simmering with creativity. Sometimes the artist and her friends perform on camera, acting out or lip-synching the narration. One scene has the artist mashing leaves and sticks together to a voiceover describing the contests of male bighorn sheep (borrowed from David Attenborough). Other passages contain stop-motion animations and collages, which are full of color, unusual materials, and fast movements. Yuen works with a motley collection of materials – egg yolks and shells, flowery toilet paper, flowers, stones, fruit, trees, kiddie stuff like colouring books, glittering pens, archival and scrap book imagery, colorful folding paper, and a memorable rainbow plastic table cloth – that are as diverse and whimsical as the texts she uses for inspiration.
Nina Yuen, Hermione, 2014, 16.9 digital video with sound, 9 min 34 sec, film still; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam.
This exhibition's inauguration coincided with the departure of Ann Demeester, and with this poetic solo exhibition, Demeester leaves de Appel Arts Centre with flair. During her time as director, Demeester put the art space back on the map as a center for contemporary performance and time-based art and it’s great to see that the last exhibitions under her tenure – Nina Yuen and also a presentation of LA’s Chicano collective, Asco, who were active in the ‘70s and ‘80s – are a testament to this achievement. Yuen’s gorgeous exhibition is a must see for the coming months.
(Image on top: Nina Yuen, Raymond, 2014, 16:9 digital video with sound, 8 min 19 sec, film still; Courtesy of the artist and de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam.)