Tiger's Embrace

In Conversation with Artist Xiaojing Yan

I stood, transfixed, at the intriguing yet disturbing bust in the Zodiac display inside ROM’s China gallery. My eyes followed the intricately carved tiger head seemingly consuming a human head, that in turn held a tiger, with another human head in its maw. It is a series of heads in a nesting doll pattern, continuing ad infinitum.

The object is called Tiger's Embrace. Created by Toronto-based artist Xiaojing Yan, it was commissioned by ROM for the lunar New Year of 2022: the Year of the Tiger.

I had met Yan in 2017 when her installation Cloudscape was displayed at the Museum. With this recent acquisition, I discussed with Yan the technique behind this fascinating creation.

Is the figure inside the mouth a miniature of the major head?

Yes, the tiger’s mouth holds the human head, and then there is a smaller tiger’s head in the human mouth. And it keeps going.

When did you begin this project?

I did a commission for Hermes in 2021 that was a curiously amorphous form made of glass beads suspended in space by thousands of clear filaments, as though a mirage had been captured and placed on pause. The organic curves and undulations evoking a subtle image of a racing horse in the clouds.  When Dr. Shen saw the finished installation photos of this piece in October, he came up with this idea to commission me to do a series of Chinese Zodiac signs. ROM does the Zodiac sign exhibition every year. In the past, the focus was on antiques but he wanted something relevant to today.  The upcoming year was celebrating the tiger. So, I started with the tiger.

"I created a rough sketch and then had a 3-D file rendered. That file was used to carve the painted oak through an axis CNC carving machine. The final result is very close to the rendering. It’s exactly what I envisioned." Photos courtesy Xiaojing Yan.

The wood grain looks very effective. Was there a reason why you kept the original wood grain instead of painting it over?

The grain was intentional. I wanted the wood grain from the very beginning. When I spoke with the fabricators, I showed them the rendering and asked them to recommend the wood and finishing.

What was your process and how long did it take you to complete the artwork?

I did a rough sketch first. Based on this sketch, I had a 3-D file rendered that was then used to carve the painted oak through an axis CNC carving machine. The final result is very close to the rendering. It’s exactly what I envisioned.

When I was asked to do this project. I wasn’t sure if I could get it done before the Chinese New Year. I had this idea right at the beginning. But I had to do a lot of research to finalize the details and find a manufacture who could make it for me. I started in October 2021 and had the work made and shipped to me in early January for the Zodiac Sign exhibition.   

Year of the Tiger zodiac display is on view in ROM’s China Gallery from February 1, 2022 to January 22, 2023.