Some Basic Content

Hu Fang
Basic Starting Points
This is not an article intended to make thinking about an artist’s work any easier. Of course, words should never serve to make people feel more remote from an artist and his works; but at best an article can create another path for understanding an artist.
This article begins from a universal reality that we can all understand: life drives a person to choose art, he then becomes what people call an “artist", but as for what this identity means to him, he himself must answer. Particularly in a moment when the myth of the artist in this great nation has been repeatedly broken, and most recently, since its grandeur cannot be restored, for a person to decide to become an artist, he must decide to take on a great number of questions, and these questions cannot easily shirk the burden of addressing political power and the nation.
Born in the 1960s, Lin Yilin experienced the Cultural Revolution, the economic reforms of the 1980s, and the commercial flurry of the 1990s before moving to New York at the dawn of the new century. “Transition” has become a way of life for him, as he looks constantly for his own “I” amidst so many sightlines, and constantly raises his own answers. Western Conceptualism and Minimalism were once an important source of inspiration for Lin Yilin (and an entire generation), allowing this generation not only to free its hands, but to free itself from conceptualism itself. This does not imply any sort of answer to China’s “reality”, but rather his own works grow out of Chinese “reality” in an organic process that art-historical knowledge cannot answer.
I am interested in how this unbearable heaviness has become a part of a system of individual perception; not one that overwhelms the individual, but that releases his vital power.
This is the transition of a strange personal space, achieved through the materials of reality, manifested as “works”. In Lin Yilin’s practice, art becomes a way for the individual to ransom himself, a medium by which he can experience reality anew. This is the best way of conversing with the art-historical notion of “motive”.
Basic Vocabulary
If we take Lin Yilin’s 1991 work “Standard Series of Ideal Residence” as the first openly circulated mature work to employ his unique vocabulary, then 1992’s “Household Goods 1” and “Household Goods 2” are an organic development of that vocabulary. We see that the “brick” as a fundamental structuring element of his work is not simply a basic word in his artistic vocabulary, but an object which has from the beginning transcended its own ordinary social, political, economic and cultural meaning, taking on a new meaning in Lin Yilin’s own self-constructed lexicon.
Lin Yilin began to pull bricks and similar materials from their real context, using them as a material to build their own unique space—a space predicated not on its suitability for dwelling, but on the way in which it is changed, and on how it can interact with the face of daily life that is generally concealed. In doing so, the brick became no longer a building material, but was suspended in a middle state, one in which it was still connected to the space of daily experience, but not in the ordinary and familiar sense. These constructs of “household goods” and “ideal residence” become the best way for us to enter the artist’s domain.
In the same way, our ingrained understandings of this basic building material are transformed into a way of entering Lin Yilin’s own vocabulary, reflecting the system of relationships binding that vocabulary to reality.
Here, I wish to describe an even earlier performance work that took place entirely within the artist’s private residence. In “Doorway”, Lin Yilin stood inside a door frame as others inserted bricks into the spaces between his body and the frame, stopping only when the space had been filled. In the end, his body and these ordinary bricks were pasted together. In the pictures, the objective expression on his face is visible, showing how Lin Yilin has turned his body itself into a material.
That is to say, brick becomes not only a silent element structuring the work, but an engine stimulating interaction among all the different materials that make up the work. As such it allows for different forms of visual manifestation, and in the end, when the brick becomes conceptualized and emerges as the artist’s idiom, it attains a kind of signifying power, which can dynamically reflect the artist’s conceptual space.
Consequently, we see a series of works incorporating bricks:
Bricks and bags of water (“The Wall Itself”, 1993; “Traces of the Future, New York”, 2004);
Bricks, monetary notes, and bodies together (“100 Pieces and 1000 Pieces”, 1993; “The Result of 1000 Pieces”, 1994);
Bricks and language (“Drive Shaft”, 1996);
Bricks and electric massage machines (“New Substance”, 1997);
Bricks, gold foil, and sand (“Basic Content”, 2002);
Bricks and sculpture (“Our Future”, 2002);
Bricks and performance (“100 Pieces and 1000 Pieces”, 1993; “The Result of 1000 Pieces”, 1994; “Safely Crossing Lin He Road”, 1995; “Drive Shaft”, 1996; “My Imagination of a Great Nation”, 2001; “A Kind of Machine Called ‘Liberation’”, 2003)
It is as if language has given rise to new meaning through usage. The meanings created by brick are endless, and each new meaning carries the possibility of a new interpretation. Here, by analyzing the social and cultural reference behind each usage, I would like to shift the focus to the method by which meaning is decided. I call this the “methodology of perception,” that is, how an artist’s “methodology of perception” enables a new perspective on the world, constructing a new perceptual system that moves parallel to the world of reality and that can interpret itself, while still preserving an openness between reality and this individual vocabulary. This is where the charm of Lin Yilin’s “bricks” lies: both in their ability to find freshness in the perceptual system built by the artist and in the richness of the constructive dialogue into which they enter with reality (for example, the ambiguity of the balance between bricks and bags of water pierced through people’s fixed views of objects, stimulating them to move toward a new perceptual world); at the same time, we also see that while the assemblages of materials centered on bricks may seem endless, it is not the case that any combination at all can bring forth a new experience. It must guard against the abuse of personal language, the risk of pure personalization, a tendency expressed quite clearly in the “exhaustion” of late modernism: contemporary art becomes a circular argument for its own accuracy and beauty, imagination becomes self-reference, falling into the deathly stillness of “entropy”, We need to ask: where lies the necessity of imagination? Are works produced in accordance with linguistic and conceptual systems, or do they arise from lived questions?
Perhaps the important thing is not the surface uniqueness of the vocabulary (an artist’s personal language is not a patented invention, and we know from experience that the discovery of new materials is often the easiest thing), but rather how to bring the individual creative process into the flow of life. The dialogue with reality brought forth by the artist’s basic vocabulary is constantly in progress; the real determination of the work’s meaning lies in the degree to which it remains open to real experience, which is to say, in how the vocabulary developed by the artist is continuously revised by the urgencies of reality, and in how it honestly responds to the flow of personal experience. Unlike the “methodologies” that grow out of intellectual consideration, this is more a result of the artist’s “corporeal thinking.”
Corporeal Thinking
The 1994 work “The Result of 1000 Pieces” consisted of a brick wall bearing the outline of a human form with one hundred ¥10 notes stuck into the chinks among the bricks.
Not only once has Lin Yilin inserted his body into a brick wall, living briefly inside, then pulling himself out.
The artist’s body becomes an extremely compressed space for individual experience, implying doubt and invisible dialogue with that experience. I think that the meaning of the conceptual appropriation of the body as implied by “perceptual methodology” lies in its distinction from pure bodily performance. Here, the body is the artist’s “corporeal thinking,” without much connection to psychological questions or hormonal stimuli, but rather a conceptual use of the body works to produce a suspension and pursuit of meaning, bearing a connection to thought and exploration of individual systems of perception, and to the process of using the body as a non-intellectual system in direct relation to the world. Therefore, performance gives rise to, but does not reflect, reality, opening up new possibilities for the exploration of that reality.
In 1995, Lin Yilin realized his performance work “Safely Crossing Lin He Road” by moving a cinderblock wall across a road, brick by brick.
Just like Lin Yilin’s other uses of brick, “Safely Crossing Lin He Road” can easily be weighed down with social, political, and cultural interpretations, particularly under the background that follows: understanding of Chinese contemporary art is always undertaken inside a fixed and obvious social framework (i.e. a simple, reactive art-historical theory). In reality, when Lin Yilin realized this performance, Lin He road had not yet become a busy arterial, and so the work did not create (as some have since claimed) any conflict with traffic or society, but rather retained a sense of calm. If we enter more deeply into this work, we come to understand that Lin Yilin’s earliest designs for this work did not include realizing it in a busy environment, but simply moving the brick wall across a small river. This is to say that this work’s situation in urban space is not its conceptual core; rather, it transpired against a background in motion. The artist’s true concern was actually with temporal process, and with how the self could come to relate to the material environment surrounding it. This connection could only be structured and manifested through the involvement of his own body, and what should amaze the viewer is rather the unpredictability of this encounter between individual and surroundings, as well as the deeply philosophical interactive relationship between “thought” and “action.” In the meta-environment of social reality, this connection can occur in the sensitive interfaces between life and external reality (For example, political events often become sites for exchange among the masses, as the work “Drive Shaft,” realized on the eve of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 demonstrates. In this work, he wrote on one side of an already built brick wall the names of all of Hong Kong’s political parties, factions, and organizations. In the process of moving this wall piece by piece, these names were disturbed, so that by the time the wall had been transported to the other side of a pedestrian bridge, all that was visible were fragments and traces of the formerly complete text; political party names became empty references. In the same way, the work “A Kind of Machine Called ‘Liberation’”, realized after his move to New York, referred specifically to the U.S. Army’s “liberation” of Iraq. This work also made contact with similarly public spaces, as Lin Yilin constructed a brick wall on the performance site to delimit the scope of movement for a rider of a child’s bicycle with training wheels. He laid on the ground, his left leg covered by the brick wall, as in the process of bike riding the wall began to disintegrate and parts of it began to pin down a now immobilized Lin Yilin. And yet the piece proved equally strenuous for the rider of the bicycle, as the relationship between the two changed constantly through the course of the performance. This mutable relationship carried with it a manifestly broader meaning, from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to Foucault’s analysis of power; more importantly, Lin Yilin used a seemingly playful style to manifest this relationship, turning the performance into a practice connected with daily life, a force catalyzing the formation and mutation of this relationship through a temporal process.)
It is worth noting that in his performative process, Lin Yilin’s concentration on handling the relationship between his materials and himself almost leads him to a vague state where he is one with his objects. I believe that this touches on another extremely important theme: how to forge pure experience out of “bodily practice.” The presences and voids in this experience often decide whether or not Lin Yilin will undertake a particular performance.
In the same manner, as in the above discussion of the brick as a basic element of Lin Yilin’s vocabulary, this sort of pure experience is also constantly developing. It forms a channel by which Lin Yilin overcomes the gap between his own subjectivity and the other, as pure experience always refers to more open experience, and this channel opens up another possible world growing out of his own works.
The Other: The World and its Potential
How do we reach the world of possibility?
I cannot confirm that this possible world is our real world, but I believe that it rests in this real world, visible to us through art.
Pure experience makes this world of possibility visible at different instants, and these are the points at which we convene with artists, as works of art are always referring to the hidden potentialities of the real world.
Perhaps this bears relation to the “Trans-experience” that Lin Yilin has constantly envisioned, a question he once debated with the late Chen Zhen.
The 2005 work “What’s Your Problem?” can be considered Lin Yilin’s first real video work, as his early videos were mainly documentaries of his performance, which did not take video as an independent medium.
“What’s Your Problem?” is not only a question posed by Lin Yilin to students at a photography school in Oslo, but a question to us all, hinting at a philosophical problem: if there is no way to consider grandiose but impractical questions, and overly trivial details block our thinking, then what is the limit of that thinking? Moreover, what is the scope of our life: is it living amidst grandiose but impractical questions, or getting lost in details? What is the appropriate range of our lived experience?
When he uses performance to answer this question, it of course touches on questions of practice, not only on the scope of performance.
Is this a simple attempt to interfere into space, or an attempt to create space? Next, there follows a question of the practice of values: how should we live?
Lin Yilin leads the youth forward on these questions, attempting to explore the mysteries of life. And their behavior, like a match that flickers and then goes out, nonetheless reveals some blind spots, thus setting off waves of life.
It is the questions of life that stimulate us to seek the world of the possible.
If every kind of performative action in the video is actually a kind of individual response and exploration, then the entire video hints at the existence of a kind of space, an exploration of collective experience that fleetingly resists the corrosive influence of void and doubt on individual life.
In my memory, this is the first time that Lin Yilin has created a work out of an experiential process shared with others.
“Adult/Education” is a work that refers simultaneously to past, present and future. Single-child families lie on the floor, parents spread out quietly in the snow-angel position to the left and right, child in between them. The child’s cute and playful nature contrasts with the parents’ silent watchfulness. We discover that the child is holding an image of a painting by Leonardo, and that this is the basic shape from which she draws her image, but in her painterly process, we see human forms that draw even further on the child’s experience: childish, irrational but moving human shapes, even carrying traces of the parents’ faces and forms. Her drawing is based on a DaVinci painting, but her body is guarded by the man and woman at her sides, and so drawing on a natural inclination for history and the body, this sort of communication is not only effected among blood relatives, but with all those present.
This work carries a tranquility similar to that of “Safely Crossing Lin He Road”, and yet differs from it in that Lin Yilin works here to explore a different range of experience. If we say that “Safely Crossing Lin He Road” was concerned with the relationship between an individual and an abstract outside world, then “Adult/Education” places this relationship into a more concrete, more direct context. In doing so, the work refers to different process of experiential assimilation. If the former implies the completeness of the individual, the latter is completed in the individual’s interaction with the other. In this way, it hints at the fact that what we call experiential assimilation is actually a process of integrating with others, and with the other, and that the world of possibility perhaps exists here. Potential lies in relationships with others, and with the other.
In Lin Yilin’s newest photographic series—“Traces of the Future-Guangzhou” and “Traces of the Future-Hong Kong”, the city becomes a space transformed under new perception, uniting the existence of infinite temporal and spatial specificities. These are the awakenings he has gleaned, struggling, in the real experience of formal transformation. In the end, this is still a new space created from spatial transition, and we can see from these changes in latitude how an individual’s methods of perception can give rise to new content.
As the “other” becomes an important element in the world’s potential, Lin Yilin’s method of perception implies an attempt to transcend the self, moving toward observing and resolving life and its issues.
A new life possibility is expanding forth from Lin Yilin’s artistic practice. Perhaps it will answer the question of how works can grow out of China’s “reality”.
Vienna, August 2006
(Translated from the Chinese by Philip Tinari)





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