YIN-JU CHENExtrastellar Evaluations (detail), 2016, archival photographs from the multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Installation view at Kadist, San Francisco, 2016. Courtesy the artist.

Extrastellar Evaluations

Yin-Ju Chen

USA Taiwan

During the 19th century, a popular theory existed within Western biogeography that posited the existence of a “lost land” or ancient continent called Lemuria that had sunk beneath the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a result of cataclysmic geological change. The theory originated as an attempt to account for certain discontinuities in biogeography—such as the discovery of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East—but has since been rendered obsolete by modern theories of plate tectonics. Nonetheless, it remained a popular hypothesis among occultists and writers of that genre. In 1905, author Frederick Spencer Oliver published A Dweller on Two Planets, in which he theorized that a modern-day Atlantis had existed in Northern America during the 19th century. This book, in turn, later became a significant source for believers of Lemuria, who consider the Lemurians to be extraterrestrial beings that live beneath Mount Shasta in northern California.

YIN-JU CHEN, Extrastellar Evaluations (detail), 2016, archival photographs from the multimedia installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

Such is the premise for Taiwanese artist Yin-ju Chen’s current exhibition at the Kadist art space in San Francisco. A culmination of her recent artist residency at Kadist, the show comprises work born from Chen’s investigation of the mysterious Lumerians of Mount Shasta, which included field research and interviews with the modern residents of the volcanic region. The exhibition, “Extrastellar Evaluations,” which is also the title for the multipart project that it features, presents a variety of materials—documentary videos, archival photographs, sculptural objects and a light installation—that serve as a visual and conceptual study of the Lemurians and their legend.

Chen’s project envisions a version of history in which Lemurians lived among humans, in mid-20th-century America, under the guise of various renowned artists. The 1960s, in particular, is presented as a key historical era for both Lemurians and humans. For the latter, the 1960s was a period that saw significant cultural and sociopolitical events take place across the world, including the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution in China and the African-American civil rights movement in the United States, among others. Meanwhile, for the Lemurians, as indicated in the exhibition’s accompanying text, “this era was marked by a series of severe weather events that disturbed their transmission routes, such as record-breaking flooding and snowstorms,” which displaced them from the mountains and forced them to seek new ways to communicate with their planet. Under Chen’s alternate history, the new, geometric-shaped transmission devices that the Lemurians created were instead interpreted by humans as conceptual and minimalist sculptures, thus enabling the alien beings to exist among people as post-modern artists.

YIN-JU CHEN, Extrastellar Evaluations (detail), 2016, chalk, rocks and light projection, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

In Kadist’s gallery space, an elegant, geometric map-like design on one wall of the gallery—which links together archival photographs capturing the aforementioned moments in modern history, as well as other significant societal phenomena from the mid-20th century—lays out the relations between the Lumerians’ “reports” of human behavior, the mediums through which they would have been communicated to their planet, and the terrestrial and extraterrestrial spaces in which these happenings would have evolved. Pushing the concept further, noted artists such as Carl Andre, Mel Bochner and James Turrell are posited as having been Lemurians, whose minimalist works of cubes, monoliths and obelisks have been interpreted as communication tools used to send back messages to their planet. Intimate installations that replicate these masters’ sculptural works are displayed at Kadist like hallowed artifacts laid out in ritualistic arrangements. A small, white, hexagonal light projection on the corner of two walls of a hallway is reminiscent of Turrell’s Afrum (1967), while a stark, grid-like arrangement of black panels on the floor of another room represent Andre’s 1960s-era series of 144 metal square tile formations. Meanwhile, ominous groupings of rocks and chalk lines on the floor in a darkened room embody Bochner’s “Theory of Sculpture” series from the 1960s and ’70s.

Sharing the space with the rocks and chalk formations is a video piece suspended from the ceiling as if floating in midair. The video is part-documentary, part visual experimentation, featuring a sequence of dream-like abstractions followed by serene scenes of a blonde-haired man walking through the landscape of Mount Shasta, captured with breathtaking cinematography. While the surreal, abstract imagery appears to be Chen’s visualization of the Lemurians’ spirituality and mythology, the anonymous man could be seen as a representation of the artist’s journey to discover the truth behind the alien tribe, but also an embodiment of the elusive, mystical Lemurians themselves.  

Using the Lemurian mythology as an allegory, “Extrastellar Evaluations” encourages visitors to question standard understandings of history and to consider different interpretations of the past, as well as the present. By doing so, Chen’s multimedia project opens one’s eyes toward the destructive tendencies of human activities—such as regional conflicts and the depletion of nature—and the need to step back and reassess the world at hand.

YIN-JU CHEN’s multimedia installation, Extrastellar Evaluations, 2016, at Kadist, San Francisco, 2016. Courtesy the artist.