Shirley Yik: Anthrop-o-rama



Shirley Yik, There’s Still Room to Grow, graphite on paper, 2015 (3.3 ‘ x 33 ‘)

A Drawing and Painting Installation  in the RIA Artist Project Room

November 15 – December 6, 2015

Essay by Petra Halkes

Whenever Shirley Yik returns to Hong Kong, where she was born and grew up, the streets of   the megalopolis overwhelm her with a sense of what it is to be part of humanity; to smell, hear, and see, to exist, within the flock of Homo Sapiens. [1]  In her 33-feet long drawing, There’s Still Room to Grow, her deep, emotional sense of being human, at once sublime and fraught with guilt, appears to have been filtered through a quasi-analytical lens. The drawing catalogues interrelated topics that convey the way in which humans, as a social species, have organized their habitat, and have in the process domesticated and changed Earth like no other animal species. Two paintings displayed across from the panoramic drawing, counter the drawing’s sense of inevitability; Possibilities (2015) and, Ghandi (2012) show a guarded faith in individual human responsibility and agency.

The dramatic impact of human life on the earth’s ecosystem, which began with the industrial revolution, has only in recent decades begun to sink into our social consciousness. At what could be our last but not our finest hour, we start to recognize that we may have left the Holocene behind, and now live in a new geological epoch, one in which human domination has dramatically changed the state of the whole planet. The term for this new age, Anthropocene, need not be shrugged off as just another trendy buzzword.[2]  It can be used as an identifiable keyword that opens up important discussions on the endangered planet, across the globe and across disciplines.

Yik enters into the discussion with Anthrop-o-rama, [3]  an installation that provides a faux “panoramic view” of the Anthropocene. Crammed into the small RIA Artist Project Room, Yik’s large drawing installation ironically refers to the historical Panorama, and the grand visions of “Nature” and “Man” that this early “mass-medium” propagated. [4] The circular paintings were installed in purpose-built rotundas and were truly frameless paintings. The early Panoramas, showing encyclopaedic visions of cities, landscapes and historical battles, answered the Enlightenment quest to see and know all.  In the era before photography and film, this was the basis for its original popularity.  The Panorama’s late 19th century revival, however, emphasized the illusion of totality inside the circular buildings, the magical experience of a complete replacement of the real world by an illusionary one in which all was visible. Screening out the real world with its contingencies virtually fulfilled Romantic desires to become “One” with pure “Nature.”[5]


No reality is screened out in Yik’s installation; the paper is clipped to eight poles clamped between floor and ceiling, for all to see. And instead of an all-encompassing god’s eye view of a human settlement, as one of the Panorama’s pioneers, Robert Barker, provided in his “total view of Edinburgh,” [6] Yik gives us a disjunctive drawing of four clusters surrounded by white space. The drawing only suggests a circular panoramic space. Its half-circle is opened wide to the “real” of the RIA Project Room, in which it shares space with built-in furniture and potted plants among other things. What is more, the two paintings that are placed on walls opposite the drawing do not form a logical continuum with the larger work.  This is not a “total” view; even the title concedes: “There’s Still Room to Grow.”


cowWhile the panoramic format and semi-circular display invites the viewer to step back and obtain an overall view, paradoxically, the viewers need to draw in close to view its detailed drawings, the almost diagrammatic depiction of elements that relate to the Anthropocene. In the drawing, fine pen-and-ink lines form large clusters of grouped, identical “things” that expand from the edge of the paper into its large white space. The clusters of human heads, city buildings, heads of cattle, and entangled roads and tracks are detailed and precise; they entice the viewer to examine each facet: every head, every tag stapled on the ear of each cow, the windows in buildings and bends in the roads. For all its detail, however, the “charts” do not add up to any scientific data. “There’s Still Room to Grow,” then, appears to make a mockery not only of Romantic views that transcend the contingent real world, but equally parodies scientific measurements and predictions.

citiesThe title remains ambiguous. Although the groupings appear in coherent categories, they are agglomerations of distinct units rather than organically grown entities. The people form a mass rather than a community; the collection of buildings, intercut by empty space, lacks the connectivity of a vital city; the cows are a roped-in herd rather than a natural flock, and although the roads interweave and mesh, they end up leading nowhere, into the white yonder.

roadsWhat kind of growth can be expected in this panoramic growth chart of the Anthropocene? The verb to grow conjures up a sense of hope, of organic new growth in replanted forests, or of the growing up of humans and other animals. Yet, the drawing does not show the connectivity between elements, the vital entanglement of organic growth. If there is still room to grow for these clusters of disconnected commodities (and we know there is) it can only mean room to worry. In this chart of the Anthropocene, “to grow” means further expansion of the colonization of nature, more roads, larger cities, for an ever-growing population in need of ever more meat production.[7]

Shirley Yik Anthrop-o-rama (14)

Shirley Yik, Exhibition view Anthrop-o-rama . Left: Possibilities, (18″ x 14″) Right: Ghandi (14″ x 14″)

The irony in Anthrop-o-rama, however, does not lead to fatalism, but, rather, serves as a prod to look around for solutions. Turning away from the panoramic drawing, the viewer is faced with two modestly-sized paintings.  One spells the word Possibilities repeatedly, in rough lettering. Although four of the words show a line through them, two “possibilities” remain. The restrained sense of hope that these two words provide, is augmented by the messiness of the paint, and the hand writing. It shows the work of one human being, searching and experimenting, weighing solutions. The painting counters the resignation to unstoppable growth that the herd of humans in the drawing suggests, and suggests that solutions could come from the same source as the one that created the Anthropocene in the first place: human ingenuity. As Diane Ackerman, the optimistic advocate of human solutions to the problems of the Anthropocene writes: “Humans are relentless problem-solvers who relish big adventures, and climate change is attracting a wealth of clever minds and unorthodox ideas, as we’re revisiting the art of adapting to the environment–a skill that served our ancestors well for millennia, while they fanned out to populate the Earth from equator to ice.”[8]

Yik has shown her admiration of individual accomplishments in the past; from 2012 to 2014 she painted a series of portraits of “people who are inspirational agents of positive change in recent times,” which included the portrait of Mahatma Ghandi that is shown in Anthrop-o-rama. The well-known face has become a signifier for non-violent change. In the context of the current exhibition, the painting serves as well to remind us that no matter how ingenious the individual human may be, change can only come about through political will, a will that is shaped by the social, by a coming together of many minds and many talents.

The unprecedented problems of the Anthropocene demand solutions that require a social awareness and political will that needs to be fostered from many different corners of society, through many different disciplines. Yik turns to art to make her contribution, using her wit as a foil for a real concern and investment in the state of the earth. In Anthrop-o-rama, the irony that arises from the awe of humanities’ power seen through the stark reality of the environmental and social devastation it has caused, instigates thought and discussion on the astoundingly precariousness of life in the Anthropocene, and the human ingenuity that is needed to safeguard it.

-Petra Halkes, November 2015

[1] Recent personal conversation with the author.

[2] Joseph Stromberg, “What is the Anthropocene and are we in it?” in  Smitsonian Magazine January 2013


[4] The word Panorama was first used for the large circular paintings of landscapes and cities that sprang up in the late 18th century. Its coinage is often attributed to Robert Barker (1739-1806) who patented the specific art form in 1787, but did not use the term himself. The Panorama became a craze around the turn of the 18th century. See: Stephan Oettermann (1980), The Panorama, History of a Mass Medium (New York, Zone Books 1997) p. 6 Oetterman’s in-depth study of the Panorama is the most authoritative source on the phenomenon.

[5]   I have argued this in reference to the Mesdag Panorama in: Petra Halkes, “The Mesdag Panorama: Sheltering the All-Embracing View”, in Art -History, London, England, Vol. 22 no. 1, 1999. Pp 83-98.

[6] R. Hyde, Panoramania! The Art and Entertainment of the All-Embracing View, London, 1988, p.57

[7] Yik’s previous works include a series of paintings on large cattle-farms.

[8] Diane Ackerman, The Human Age, The World Shaped by Us. (Toronto: HarperCollins Publ. 2014) p 307-08

Shirley Yik is a graduate of the Fine Art diploma program at the Ottawa School of Art and has a MSc. in Information Science and a Masters in Management Studies at Carleton University.  Her medium includes drawing, painting and printmaking. Yik is a member of Drawing the Line (DtL), a collaborative drawing group with Gail Bourgeois and Katie Argyle, and a founding member of the Ottawa-Gatineau Printmakers Collective’s Print Studio.