Yuri Yuan: "The Great Swimmer"


In 1920, author Franz Kafka authored a fragment of text that would never be published in his lifetime. Titled "The Great Swimmer", it concerns the victorious return of an athlete who has just won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. He is received in his hometown by government officials and fans, who hail his arrival. However, when he stands to speak, he offers an implausible confession: He is not from the country he has competed for, he cannot understand what anyone is saying, and he cannot swim. More than any other work by Kafka, it conjures splintering images ripped from the depth of a dream. 


In the past year, Yuri Yuan has often dreamed about water. Sometimes she sees a sinking ship, sometimes in a quiet ocean. Often, she finds herself on a diving board, perched over a blue swimming pool. Yuan’s latest body of work is titled "The Great Swimmer" after Kafka’s fragment. These limpid canvases explore different aquatic landscapes, but they most often return to the landscape of the swimming pool, with its diving boards, tiles, and changing rooms.  Yuan tapped into her memories of swimming lessons she took at age 13, having just moved to Singapore from China. These classes were a minefield of linguistic, bodily, and emotional alienation– not unlike the alienation expressed by Kafka’s swimmer. 


Yuan’s images evoke these childhood memories, and– with her signature dreamlike touch– warp them into more existential reflections of the self. "Who Are You", "Diving" and "Swim Class" all depict a swimmer at the moment– or in a moment– of flux. “Who Are You” finds its central protagonist awash in  the blue light of the unseen pool, seemingly at a moment of decision. The audience of “Diving”, like Kafka’s audience, is faceless, the main figure paused as if on a jumbotron. Like the warping of a paused video tape, the passersby surrounding the figure of “Swim Class” vibrate and stream. 


"The Great Swimmer" marks a watershed moment in Yuan’s practice. Working in a consistently larger format, the works showcase the influence of cinematic narrative on the artist’s practice. Fascinated by the intricate visual constructions of filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Wong Kar Wai, Yuan’s new works seek to understand the innate connections between narrative and aesthetics. "The Great Swimmer" also takes influence from the deep ultramarine palettes of the Italian Renaissance, as well as the figural masterwork of French Romantics such as Géricault. "The Great Swimmer" presents a narrative in two sets of fragments, hopping between visions of the internal and external, the literary and the cinematic, the real and the dream. The duality of the exhibition is reflected in two distinct and contrasting color palettes, as well as the toggling perspective from the first to the third person throughout the exhibit. For the first time in Yuan’s practice, a single protagonist– a cinematic heroine– appears in almost every painting. 


In a later fragment, Kafka returned to his images of swimming. “I can swim like the others, only I have a better memory than the others, I have not forgotten my former not-being-able-to swim. But because I have not forgotten it, the being-able-to-swim does me no good, and I still cannot swim.” Yuri Yuan's canvases– in their internal meditations of memory, isolation, and selfhood– strike a similar quandary in the viewer, showing that reflection on the self ensures that the foundational anxieties of modern existence are laid bare to the bone.