Living in Space/Time

David Ho Yeung Chan

He didn't turns back.

It was as it he'd boarded a very long train

Heading for a drowsy future - - -

Through the unfathomable night"1




1. Following a long discussion with both Lin Yilin and Chen Tong, we have finally agreed upon the title A Spatio-temporal Tunnel for Lin Yilin’s solo exhibition. What potential meanings may lie in the staging of a tunnel within a gallery towards an investigation of space and time? Whose space and time and why in the form of a bilateral structure? Lin Yilin is a nomad who is persistently critical of his own sense of movement; his interventions are in direct response to particular localities and contexts. Lin is a patient person who prefers to first submerge himself in a situation for awhile prior to the realization of a project. His position as an artist has always been marginal both in China and the United States, from taking performances to the street in Guangzhou during the early 1990’s to his eventual migration to New York city in 2001, transience remains the subject matter for his recent work. One trait remains unshaken- the belief that an idea must come from observing what is happening around him and that art should be made in relevance to different communities.
2. Lin Yilin belongs to the Big Tail Elephant Working Group which emerged in Guangzhou during the early 1990’s. The members of the group, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin, and Xu Tan, presented regular performances and site-specific installations to directly intervene with the rapid social and political transformation of the city of Guangzhou. Being one of the first cities in which the new economic experiment of China took place, the rate of urban development in the early 90’s was unprecedented. Being keenly aware of the limited time frame of the economic open door policy, the order of the day for the vast majority was to accumulate as much wealth in the shortest time possible. During this time, popular culture and media from nearby Hong Kong as well as icons and merchandises from the “West” were dutifully consumed with little resistance shown. The direction of culture was adrift in a socialist turned ultra-capitalist society. The lack of official venues for hosting exhibitions or cultural events in the early 1990s meant the working group had to take their actions to the street. The Big Tail Elephant Working Group was crucial in preserving the integrity of critical artistic practice at such a unique historical juncture. They questioned the common ambition in the development of the city at the expense of denying social and moral values. Acutely aware of the ineffectiveness of the avant-garde movement of the early 1980s in China to refute official ideology, the group’s mission was less to initiate social change than to question the relevancy of contemporary art in everyday life.2
3. During the 1990’s in Guangzhou, Lin conducted a series of installations utilizing used bricks as the base material for what he calls “social construction”. Lin often uses abandoned building materials for his performances which carry a heavy political undertone. Brick is essentially a lifeless and cheap material necessary for the construction of a new city. The dream of a western style living meant that buildings were often dismantled within a short period of time in order that new re-development might take place. The population was always on the move in search of a better living situation and to elevate itself to a higher social stratum. As early as 1991, Lin employed bricks to construct a standard residence in order to further investigate the concept of modular living. For Safely Maneuvered Across Lin He Road (1995), Lin installed a brick wall of approximately ten feet by five feet on one side of the street. Lin He Street was one of the busiest streets in the new part of Guangzhou with multiple high-rises under construction. Moving brick by brick from top to bottom and column-by-column, Lin gradually set the whole wall in motion with little interference from the on-going traffic. The whole performance took roughly 90 minutes to complete. Only when we mobilize such basic materials in the domain of urban development do we begin to procure economic profit. Once the object ceases to move, it becomes merely dysfunctional material. Lin’s performance itself is dysfunctional and questions time and human labor as forms of commodity. Lin’s unproductive labor is in itself a discursive statement for interrogating the relevancy of contemporary artistic practice in such a situation. Moreover, such an obsolete manner of mobilizing materials engenders a clash of temporalities, the slowness of the movement of an insignificant brick wall versus the fluid construction of multi-story high-rises in the background. Lin opens up a critical space for rethinking the randomness and brutality of economic development within a rigid system of movement and looks for the social/ideological tension between individuality and the society. Lin clams:
I was concerned with the materials that I was using from a given concept, or with the extermination of the social implications or characteristics that the materials carried. I tried to find the extreme limits of the possibility of a piece of ordinary material as an object and create a particular characteristic by combining objects in a strange way. Combination like this can arouse an audience’s psychological reaction of surprise, but it is only superficial and has no content… The essence of an amazing world lies in its superficiality.3
The use of useless building material is to experiment with whether it is still possible to attach new value to physical matter which has already been neutralized by modernization, when traditional definitions of the bodily no longer apply as either the fundamental physical or social unit for urban development. Furthermore, to instill a surprise to the mundane is to reveal our desire for pleasure and modern comfort, then the only hope lies in exposing regimes of standardization, domesticity, control and oppression in an aspiration of formulating new interventions. I asked Lin what he meant by spatiality and temporality.Is there still room for artists to carve out a personal time and space? With the singular logic of economic globalization, no one is really in the position to counter with what economist Saskia Sassen calls the “master temporality.” “Contrary to the common belief that we are living in an increasingly dematerialized world, economic globalization focuses on strategic concentrations of various types of materiality” that puts us in sync with a time clock.4 How we negotiate with materials around us is necessary in gaining insight of the inner workings of such a new world.
Lin’s move to New York in 2001 has raised many issues, in particular the shift from a periphery to the center of the art world. Since the city has been such an integral context for his performance, Lin is in the process of rediscovering his political agency in New York. In a performance entitled My Imagination of a Great Nation (2001)held at a backyard, Lin, in a swimsuit with a pair of goggles, suspended his body on a brick wall approximately five feet above ground. There is a sink of water facing the audience on one side of the wall. Submerging his head into the bucket, Lin pretends to swim through the stationary brick wall and expels the water from the sink mouthful by mouthful. It is both a painful and ironic performance to watch. Lin seems to be caught in a structure, unable to move at will. During a conversation with Lin, he openly states his suspicion of the cultural logic of new internationalism; in particular, as to whether the exoticism attached to artists coming from a peripheral region is the very basis of globalization itself? There is always pressure to subjugate oneself to identity politics by the re-localization of oneself in the face of multi-culturalism. While many consider the question of cultural identity as something passé, the nationality of an artist still holds tremendous capital in an apparently more global art world. The more global the infrastructure of contemporary art has become, the greater the pressure for artists to narrate their individual experiences with respect to their cultural origins. The struggle then becomes a balancing act between as how to best use a cultural backdrop to give added value to an artwork versus that of maintaining a level of independence for individual thought process, an aspect so central for an artist to survive in New York. By coming to terms with the disjuncture of his spatial and temporal experiences, Lin’s motivation here is to use this exhibition as a platform to see whether the potential to create a coherent narrative is still possible.
Wong Kar-Wai’s film 2046 captures succinctly the psychological trauma of a spatio-temporal compression. On the one hand, 2046 may be interpreted as a metaphor for the promise of a post colonial condition [50 years after the handover of Hong Kong back to its motherland]. In the year 2046, the robotic protagonists all suffer from a delay in emotional response and all seek to recuperate their lost memories in the future. What is intrinsically humanistic becomes numbing, programmatic and predictable. On the basis that we embrace modernization as something promising, the only way to reconstruct our past is to go forward. Yet nobody knows whether the promise of the future is truly valid either. One might project Wong’s idea upon the exhibition, the tunnel is a motif that not only reflects the artist’s own transversal (e.g from Guangzhou to New York and then back again), but it stages what sociologist Paul Gilroy calls “the sublimity of a diasporic identity”, a potential where “a counter culture that defiantly constructs its own critical, intellectual and moral genealogy anew in a partially hidden public sphere of its own.” 5
4. While not interested in making a retrospective exhibition at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, A Spatio-temporal Tunnel presents Lin’s recent work during the past 2 years, which include a video documenting a public art project commissioned by Documenta 12 held at Kassel, Germany, a series of collaborative performances with Norwegian students in Oslo and Guangzhou, a new video looking at the underworld of the Bund’s pedestrian tunnels, a sculpture of the 1930’s comical figure San Mao, and another video Lin shot at Haikou on Hainan island.
Inspired by the diverse demographics of visitors along the Shanghai Bund, Lin conducts a walking tour along Zhong Shan Dong Yi road and the promenade of the Whampoa River. The two pedestrian walkways are interconnected by three underground tunnels. Not interested to do a performance on the street, Lin simply holds a digital video camera to document the street life of this territory. The Bund (2008) is a performance with the performer absent from the camera. It invites the audience to participate in this open journey. Walking in a figure eight fashion that encircles all three tunnels, the buzz of pedestrians on the street level during the day poses a sharp contrast to the moment where Lin descends into the underground tunnel with the sound of the clock chime of “Dongfanghong" [or “The East is Red”] in the background. The scene quickly switches to late night, with many homeless people sleeping on the ground, a pessimistic vision of urban life that is pitiful yet true to reality. From the clock sound which symbolizes the unity of Chinese people against foreign invasion, to the colonial history of the Bund, the very site of economic miracle during the 1990’s as embodied by Pudong to a desolate public space steeped with poverty, Lin unveils the messy layering of different histories via his own sense of movement.
The inclusion of a large scale sculpture of San Mao [or, 3 hair] (2008) in the gallery’s atrium, a well known comic figure of Shanghai by the 1930’s caricaturist Zhang Leping, can also seen in The Bund video. The story of impoverished San Mao is synonymous to local people. The comics portray a boy from the countryside who witnesses the dark side and greed of urban lives. However, the San Mao as installed in the atrium is different in that this figure is winged. Seen through an iron gate inside the atrium, Lin not only validates the value of folk culture, but more importantly evokes an impression of confinement and ascension. The sculpture’s down and out character is duly transformed into an imaginative spiritual figure who desires to liberate himself from the daily sufferings of society.
Problem (2005) is a transitional work for Lin. It is a video installation documenting a series of collaborative performances Lin did with students from Oslo. Invited by a Norwegian institution to conduct a workshop, Lin posed two questions to the students. First, what is your problem? Second, what is the problem of the world? The sites and performances are related to the history and culture of Norway and its influence from the United States where Lin is now based. Based on the discussion, Lin formulates concepts for different performances. From sharing a cigarette with a student to facing away from a subway train platform, using a body to obstruct the passage of a car to rolling down a slope in a farm, fishing in a museum that has a Viking ship on display, such collaborations have forced the artist to open himself up and to work with individuals with different interests. His characteristic humor is further elaborated upon in the video Safety Island (2006), Lin asks one of the students who is well trained in kung-fu to practice on a traffic safety island in Guangzhou. As he moves, the traffic and pedestrian move backward in time.
For Motto (2007), another group of Norwegian students subsequently visits Guangzhou. Lin brought them into a classroom of a local primary school to conduct a workshop. Lin’s intention was to question his memory by means of a double alienation. The first alienation being that he has been away from China for a number of years, therefore finding many sites anew. The second, by asking this group of students to recite a common motto “Study hard and make progress every day”, it adds additional distance to his already displaced memory. On the same night, Lin invited his students to attend a karaoke bar to sing Madonna’s 1980 song Papa don’t Preach. From the straight recitation of a propaganda message to the antidote of singing the lyrics of Papa Don’t Preach, Lin investigates the tensions between the indoctrination of a collective identity in an institution versus the celebration of individuality so central to the West.
During the autumn of 2006 at Haikou, Lin was struck by the sight of a young man’s wrist being handcuffed to one leg by a policeman. The suspect was walking in the city and accompanied by a policeman. Lin decides to restage this event with One Day (2006)with an actor. There are many potential interpretations for this vignette, how an individual is treated like an animal stripped of any rights or dignity. How often we witness absurd episodes on a daily basis and duly detach ourselves from such extremities.
From the emphasis of individuality to the masses, for The People’s Square (2008) Lin records a constant stream of people coming out from a busy escalator in the People’s square in Shanghai. We are not only struck by images of a constant flow of people overlapping one another, to name this video ThePeople’s Square is to expose the overwhelming scale of the masses. After looking at the subjects for a while, we began to lose track of faces and realize the minuteness of human beings as individual units.
Lin’s participation in Documenta 12 in 2007 in many ways acknowledges his importance as an artist in his own right. The Game of Monumentality (2007) was made out of a large brick wall which was installed in Nordstadt Park at Kassel. A tug of war is happening with each side not able to see the other. On one side of the wall are the local residents and their opponents are visitors from abroad. Lin addresses the intentions behind this project: “It is a game of collectivism and carnival, perhaps there is a little experience of sublimity because of this wall in existence.” The Game of Monumentality interrogates the social function of a monument and the role the public plays in relation to its meaning. To make this project into a contest means to give up the very authorship of the work to the public. Let’s face it. Meaning is always in flux, something not only relative to geopolitical context and public participation. Its nuances have to do with our understanding of spatiality and temporality and the individual. Lin is someone who is living in a contingent space/time…
1 Wong Kar-wai, 2046 Script- Dialogue Transcript, http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/n/2046-script-transcript-kar-wai.html
2 Hou Hanru, “Barricades, Big Tail Elephant Working Group” in Grosschwanzelefant - big tail elephanted. Bernard Fibicher (Bern: Kunsthalle, 1998), 54.
3 Lin Yilin, statement for installation New Substance, 1997, <http://www.linyilin.com>
4 Saskia Sassen, “Geographies and Countergeographics of Globalization” in Anymore (New York: Anyone Corporation and The MIT Press, 2000), 113.
5 Paul Gilroy, Small Acts, (New York, Serpent’s Tail, 1993), 134.