Approaching the Walls…

Josef NG

What is built? What is removed?

What land is being shifted? What boundaries are to be implemented?


We live in increasingly violent times. Our lands, as a body, are mapped, pierced, ruptured, and reshaped to conform to notions of capitalistic development, and altered cartographies play out an authoritarian agenda that expresses itself on our lives and experiences. For contemporary artists living in Mainland China, major cities have become a site of struggle as they attempt to make sense of the communal terror, the prevalent profiling of the different classes in lieu of the deepening the poor-rich divide, and the continued marginalization most classes are exposed to.


The Dada movement, in the early 20th century, first emerged as a fervent but playful “protest” against the incomprehensible destruction of bodies and cities during World War I. Global cities have since transformed from being key exporters of art, culture and commodities into sites and sources of fear, power and opportunism. These multiplying paranoid urban spaces harbor fears of irrational violence equated to moneyed and power terrorism, inducing a “society of control” in which surveillance, intimidation, and the erosion of personal liberty force forms of artistic resistance that employ strategies drawn from Absurdist traditions.


In this project, made specifically for two differing locations in Thailand, testifying to Lin Yilin’s response to urban social order, based on the governance of land, and how each system of control (Thailand compared to his birth country, China) is based on meta-structuring agents. Once again, as determined in Lin’s previous installation, the spaces of exhibition will be reconfigured and our perception of an environment shifted. Indeed, it is space itself and its environment – the vacuums between works, in which viewers find their way around and think their thoughts – which has often been cited as the “material” Lin works with.


WHOSE LAND? WHOSE ART?, as this site-related project is named, seeks to grapple and reinforces the relationship between people and their connectedness with each other and their conditions. By taking into consideration the arrangement of, and connections between art and land, and the public, the artworks will challenge the interdependence between them, thus contributing to the dynamic process of engaging audiences in the socio-cultural debate.


Living between Guangzhou, Beijing and New York, Lin Yilin’s conceptual practices have always been an energetic and witty mingling of social architecture and everyday life. Ordinarily relating to spaces of communities amidst urban development, Lin tends to organize his artworks as a means of engaging the architecture of the space. He freely appropriates different modes of expression as a means of engaging the existing contexts, the historical and civil experiences, weaving all these together into a texture that defines a symbolic construction with new visual qualities. Lin is recognized for a practice that embraces sculpture, installation, photography, and live action and video featuring outdoor performances.


The appearance of walls is a key element that takes on metaphorical significance in Lin’s work. Either as a wall for social participation, as a constructed showcase, as a ‘shelter’ for one to be positioned within, or presenting the dialectical pairings of natural elements (water, iron) and manufactured components (automated massage machines, money, and plastic bags). In each creation, the walls appear different, slightly transformed. For Lin, the wall acts itself, architecturally, in a repeating geometry that ebbs and flows according to the artist’s direct physical response to the place upon which the wall is embodied. It is a subtle reminder that reality is (like art) a social practice of negotiation — one can get obstructed and made to maneuver in an intricate system of cultural layering and stacking.


Walls are being built once again as a central axis to the critical framework of the project. In the Land Foundation in Chiangmai, we are presented with a permanent structure that is related to Lin’s perception of the local dynamics — the rural landscape upon which The Land, with its field of structures-for-living projects and self-sustaining activities, operates and situates itself. It is a wall, of a proposed scale of 12 m in length, 3 m in height and 50 cm in width. An ‘ancient’ steelyard will be suspended in between the bricks. The Land and its surrounding nature are encapsulated in the most humble of daily agricultural responsibilities; Lin’s installation also enables a practical role with the usage of the steelyard for weighing harvested stock, reinforcing the dynamic process of The Land’s social engagement. 


During the opening launch, while the installation was beautiful and minimal in its own right, with that elegant simplicity and directness that characterizes so much of Lin’s work, a participatory performance, set up by Lin, was both serious and a parody. Those present lowered themselves into a big basket, to be weighed on a steelyard scale by the artist himself. Then, they would use chalk to write their own weight onto the wall. This entertaining spectacle coaxed the onlookers into letting themselves become involved, into trying to fathom the solitude of this concrete monumentality surrounded by a plain view of green fields and nearby mountainous countryside. The multifarious scribbling of names and numbers denoting weights collectively dematerialized the “hardness” of the wall, as the participants redefined and occupied a vulnerable space together within the rural fabric. At the same time, individuals lost their identities in huge collectivities, which simultaneously isolate and connect people. Exploring the absurd, the people in this performance hovered between visibility and invisibility; a liminal state familiar to many of us who form part of constellation-like patterns of graphical bodies and identities in our bricked texture of city life today.


For the other project, cast as a proper exhibition in Tang Contemporary Art – Bangkok, Lin examines and decodes experience, from his domestic circumstances to that of becoming nature, meant here as a place in which to reflect and gather one’s thoughts. The artist brings us closer to his dealing with, possibly, one of the hottest public issues in China today — the commodification of land. Lin’s installation of a stone brick wall alongside a billboard-sized photographic canvas and videos, being operated simultaneously, were created in the wake of forced artist studios evictions and the subsequent demolition in the Beijing’s various art districts in early 2010.  


What strategies does an artist employ while engaging with the threat-inspiring events unfolding around him? In the face of intimidation, events that triggered a vocal yet soundless scream provoked a sense of helplessness and disempowerment even as he confronts a collective madness. Communal terror and violence, Lin’s narrative relies on a certain directness and is equally complex and powerful. Two inter-connecting videos, consisting of documented materials from Lin’s personal encounters of a charged atmosphere taking place in Lin’s studio zone between the demonstrators and the authorities, and the filming of the same area six months later, after the demolition of the studios.


Lin’s strategy of visually summoning up the nature of land terror was by taking a stand as a “surveyor” of terrain, recalling and rummaging through the debris of memory even as he approaches a visual action, exemplified by his filming of a fellow artist/friend in the second video. As if to map their collective conscience, the artist/friend is seen walking along the “mountain” of ruins and at the end of the shoot, uttering a sighing remark that revealed humanity and land share a common symbolic and semantic bond, i.e. the ability to “kill”, linked as they were by the thread of violence that ran through them. We question their state of being just as we would our own up to the point in which we share the same haziness, the same sense of searching, that same world-weariness that hangs over Lin and his artist/friend. Few have the power to make us tremble for what is at stake.


Variously edgy, elegiac, and hopeful, the scenarios here, the sights and the sounds as portrayed by the artist, deal with the idea of a conflicting dichotomy of capitalistic and socio-cultural order, an indictment of the way human greed has stoked communal flames.


In Mainland China today, there are still perpetual issues dealing with the rights of land policies that are still affecting the livelihoods of the lower social class, especially in regards to development and its validation. How a piece of land affects everyday life in Lin’s own country, as compared to Thailand, this project challenges how we look at the world immediately around us, the role of art and its relationship to society within this context.


In Lin’s precise articulation of the grammar of the everyday, essentially, it’s about us and our future.