We can't break our ties to the natural world: Emily Jan's art begs us to re-examine our earth

Jan's world is one where unusual fusions of colours and textures create beasts that are both hyper-realistic and fantastical.

Jan's world is one where unusual fusions of colours and textures create fantastical yet hyper-realistic beasts

Emily Jan. (Phil Bernard)

When sculptor and installation artist Emily Jan stepped into the Peruvian Amazon, she was stunned. Even though she's travelled extensively (she's been to 35 countries and lived in four), nothing compared to the sights and sounds around her. One thought in particular crossed her mind as she was surveying the Amazon, and the Amazon's creatures were surveying her: "I thought it was amazing, it was beautiful, but it doesn't give one fuck about me."

That confluence of beauty, wonder, fear and hyperawareness was the driving force behind Jan's most recent installation. The World is Bound by Secret Knots is a dreamy sculptural wonderland of distorted creatures, flora and habitats. The installation is made up of ten pieces, using a range of natural materials like resin, reed, wool and other fibres. It debuted on the west end of Canada, at Dawson City's ODD Gallery/Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture, and travelled all the way to the east, where it's currently exhibiting at St. John's Eastern Edge Gallery until Feb. 15.

Emily Jan's Apologue IV: The Birds of Paradise. (Emily Jan)

Jan's world is one where unusual fusions of colours and textures create beasts that are both hyper-realistic and fantastical — an ecosystem that's both mythical and mundane. Sinewy lines and peacock feathers mark the back of a wolf-like creature, glaring beads stare back from the head of an imaginative bird and silky butterflies rest on a zebra-esque foal. Home furnishings prop the beasts and surrounding lush greenery. If it makes viewers feel somewhat askew, that's intentional.

Jan grew up in San Francisco, California before travelling the world and eventually settling in Montreal almost nine years ago to pursue a MFA at Concordia University. A permanent resident of Canada, she is as shaped by her experiences of exploring Canadian landscapes as she is by growing up in California, as well as living in Mexico and South Africa. Her imagination is charged by the diversity of sights seen on her travels, but also by the richness of her home over the last nine years. "Culturally, Montreal is very strong," she says. "There's a ton of music, art, theatre, circus and dance — so many art forms at once, but it's still relatively affordable."

Emily Jan's The Taiga Spirit onsite at Île Ste Helène at Osheaga Festival. (Emily Jan)

Jan's work draws from impressions and memories of her nomadic life, and the mythologies and environments she's encountered. "My entire worldview is shaped by the miles that I've covered and the people that I've met in all these spaces," she says. "My parents are scientists. I'm not, but I orient myself around the world as a natural historian. I'm interested in learning about plants and animals wherever I go. It shapes my own holistic view of how the world fits together."

She's also influenced by the mythologies of pop culture, like an installation created with Princess Mononoke in mind. The Taiga Spirit was a commission for Osheaga 2016 — an impressively large sculpture resembling a caribou phantom. Made of steel rod, fibreglass resin, hog gut and other materials, Jan's creature is based on the "forest spirit" depicted in Hayao Miyazaki's animated fantasy epic. "The forest spirit is larger than life, but at night it elongates into this humanoid kind of creature and walks up to the sky," Jan says. She fashioned her interpretation of the creature into a caribou as a nod to Canada's wildlife.

Emily Jan's The Taiga Spirit onsite at Île Ste Helène at Osheaga Festival. (Emily Jan)

Another of Jan's pieces is Apologue I, the first finished piece for The World Is Tied By Secret Knots and a creature inspired by the tamandua genus of anteaters. Jan's variation is shaggy and ghost-like, with flowers growing on its back and greenery sprouting from its nuzzle. "I was trying to convey not just the hybridity but the constant evolution of everything [in the Amazon] — things are constantly regenerating, becoming something else."

If her art is fuelled by the imaginative and mythological, it's also grounded in cold, hard reality. Concern with the destruction of the planet's ecosystems is a running thread through Jan's work. "We need to change or transform our baseline assumptions about how we relate to all of the other life on the planet," she says. "So many of us born and raised in cities get a warped sense of what the world is actually like — what's important, what's disposable, what isn't." Her art pieces are, in part, about re-examining attitudes about our relationships to other life on Earth and developing a kinship with the natural world.

Emily Jan's Apologue I: The Anteater. (Guy L'Heureux)

Her work is particularly topical of late. It's hard not to see parallels in themes between Jan's sculptures and the 2018 film Annihilation, based on Jeff VenderMeer's Nebula Award-winning sci-fi triology. In Annihilation, four women explorers enter Area X — a mysterious, eerie and beautiful place where animals and flora mutate rapidly. Jan has been creating her world of hybrid beasts, caught in a moment of evolution, mutation or demise (depending on your perspective) well before either film or novel came out. But she read the books and watched the film, and says the novels' themes in particular resonated with her. "There's this sense in the novel that [nature] is not a good or evil thing — it just is, and it's indifferent to humans."

Jan's work is a reminder of the inescapable power of that indifference. It's a reminder that though we might build human-centred structures and cities that perpetrate the illusion that nature can be pushed away and conquered, that's far from reality — we can't break our ties to the natural world.

About the Author

Veronica Zaretski is a writer covering arts, culture and technology.