Chen Tong

Today, works that are called “projects” or “plans” often emphasize their contemporaneity by employing the display of a comprehensive process, one that might include the reasoning behind, prerequisites to, or project proposals, materials, views, documentations and dialogues, all which are subsequently collected into a book that represents the same process. It’s not hard to see how, through such a process, fashionable sociological rhetoric surpasses the name of aesthetics, and becomes latent to the character and the significance of works, ultimately limiting the scope of discussion.


Superficially at least, the two scenes in “Whose Land? Whose Art?” realized at just about the same time, and implemented not too far away from each other, also seem to belong to the standard model outlined above, especially in light of Lin Yilin’s inclusion of actual facts into one of the scenes. But the dual-sided implication in the question that he takes as title, recalling “the artist’s land” and “art about the land,” also reminds us that a tangled and murky relationship exists between the two, and this multilayered relationship is both fragile and uncertain. The techniques Lin Yilin uses to deal with these issues, do not derive inherently from such relationships, but are more like repetitions of his earlier performances––virtual behavior in a fixed space and under conditions (such as in Safely Manoeuvring Across Linhe Road, 1995), or documenting behavior/performance in a given space or conditions (as in People’s Square, 2008). That is to say, sociological analysis is not a prerequisite concept to understanding his works and dialogue. For example, because of existent laws, it is impossible to protect the art zones that naturally took shape in on the outskirts of Beijing. Thus, at a certain moment, there is almost no difference between artist activism, and pure artist action, one that is knowingly unachievable. I call such an action, with no expectations for potential results, an “unnecessary action.” If such an action were predicted to have an outcome, then any form of its documentation could not become a work of art.


Without a doubt, and this is not only in the case of Lin Yilin’s work, no artist’s documentary work would be able to circumvent a superficial level of social manifestation, and thus we are willing to allow sociological analysis within the scope of formalist art, and we need only to observe whether or not the work achieves progress in revealing the uncertain nature of reality. In Bangkok, when this superficial sociological nature was manifested in a foreign gallery, it clearly implied that the event or action had no validity, and the tension between the action and concept were thus enhanced, and the function of the gallery was suddenly changed. Thus, if a sociological analysis were necessary, then the first step should be to analyze the artist’s strategy for arranging his themes within the gallery space.


Through Lin Yilin’s integral conceptual approach, “unnecessary actions” are substituted respectively into two interrelated themes of “the artist’s land” and “art about the land.” Just as Lin Yilin has genuinely appeared in activist activities, his involvement with struggles over land (housing) interests afforded him some creative “fortunes,” the opportunity for him to repeat the same work, and the chance to allow twenty years of “space” related work to appear even more minimized, even more pure; perhaps this can distill some of the sociological elements of the project, allowing for persistent forms to be emphasized––such as “architecture,” and the “bricks” that perform as architectural elements. It is important to point this out, otherwise we cannot find a justification for realizing two projects in two different locations within Thailand (although in fact, they are two different spatial themes in two different contexts). 


Although the “dialogue” is habitually carried along by narration, logic and conclusions, to the extent that all the topics discussed are permeated with sociological significance, the “tableau” remains in such a unique position throughout that it cannot be discussed. It exists, or is a storage unit. We could even say that without it, there would be no basis for discussion. Returning to art, perhaps all we need is a definitive restitution of the tableau, before truly ascertaining the unique aesthetic significance of this project.


But this is extremely difficult. Today’s contemporary art world is no longer an isolated, clearly demarcated discipline. In the name of interdisciplinary studies, it has ultimately been taken hostage by sociology (or its companion anthropology), and taken to a nameless place, where art is unable to save itself. Enabled by scientific analysis, the belief persists that it is impossible for topical art to exist in a motivation-less state, despite the fact that a motivation-less state is quite suitable for analysis of language speech and logic, but in these conditions, I borrow Li Oufan’s quote of an American critic’s evaluation of “nouveau roman” literature: anything left of reality becomes a concept “lacking in vitamins.” Therefore, there seems to be two roads before us: the first is using realist methods to reflect on reality, the second is to use methods in opposition to realism to intervene in reality. Both lead to reality, and both give the impression that art can only arrive at its moral terminus through such a way, otherwise they would be seen as selfish and irresponsible. 


Simply pointing this out is not to say that contemporary art is defending its artistic qualities before a dim future. No, quite to the contrary. And thus artists have always been interested and passionate about his or her work, because we believe that we are wearing our masks, sustaining our misgivings towards reality, and are suspect of all prescribed value and order. Ultimately, even if the artist has been taken hostage, there is a trail left behind for the pursuing rescuer.


Lin Yilin describes the Chiangmai portion of the project as an extension of the idyllic charms of being surrounded by utopian atmosphere, which allowed participants various interpretations. If I were to describe Lin Yilin’s scene in the vast fields surrounding Chiangmai, I would say that he has constructed his topic via the “tableau.” At this moment, his actions are that of a cloud wandering poet or a Chinese shanshui (landscape) painter. Regardless of the fact the Land Foundation emphasizes “social participation,” for this city-dwelling artist––and the project participants––the fields are primarily a landscape, secondly they embody an issue of land rights (“whose land?”). We believe that in these circumstances, personal interests are not touched upon, and only a small portion of people concern themselves with land rights. To put it another way, in any landscape, excluding the influence of specific events, issues of land rights are truly unable to occupy our minds; to the contrary, by free associating between the terms “culture” and “farming,” we are able to naturally transition from landscape to soil, to crops, and then to the agrarian economics that accompany them, perhaps even to farming populations and basic education. All of these associations and the attention paid to the issues, regardless if they are immanent or only spoken of, as long as they originate in agrarian culture, will include traditional qualities of art. The type of contemporary art that believes it originates in urbanity has always carefully avoided agrarian culture, and as a last resort, will draw from sociological or anthropological statistical data to cover up the scenery. The problem seems to appear at this juncture: we think that since a transition from the landscape tableau to economic environment exists, discussions of art works must return to a social level, and analysis of art forms are just tools to aid these themes.


As described above, when applied to contemporary art, this becomes a disturbing basis for argument. Therefore, in order to establish that extremely necessary sense of uncertainty, no matter if it stems from reality or from inner being, we must locate ourselves throughout in a purely aesthetic point of view. Only in this way is the social nature of a work engendered during its execution (we can resolve these components separately, but the goal of our analysis is to describe the state of uncertainty, unlike the way we examine the Song dynasty scroll painting Along the River During the Qing Ming Festival (Qingming shanghetu), and the evidence of the economic and social conditions of the time it presents in its tableau, and different from thinking that a socially-based analysis is the only basis for ranking contemporary art in a position at the forefront of our era).


Doubtless, the contemporaneity of Lin Yilin’s land project is reflected in precisely the individualized way in which he reconstructs the relationship between “culture” and “farming.” This is a two-dimensional construction, and is simultaneously the construction of a movement, so therefore a philosophical analysis of the concepts at work seems even more pertinent. If we are willing to minimize the significance of “culture,” and to prescribe its limitations at merely the visual level, this is the “tableau” that results from observing the landscape. Unlike a shanshui painting, this “tableau” is composed by the series of actions that unfolded on the fields: first is the Land Foundation’s “participatory platform,” which played the role of generating social components in Lin Yilin’s project; second is Lin Yilin’s reconfiguration of the painstakingly planned ground plan at the Land. It seems as if he intentionally ignored the contractual requirement for participation, merely sketching a motionless tableau that would appear within the required time specifications. Returning to the “ego,” and maintaining his autobiographical expression, Lin Yilin constructed a wall in both the Bangkok gallery and the country outside of Chiangmai––this brought him special comfort¬, for this isn’t his first wall. The wall erected in the Chiangmai fields abruptly cuts into the natural landscape, it looks like a screen for projecting films at dusk, but this is no window on the world. Despite his reserving a small square opening in the wall through which we might see, it’s actual function is to allow for an enormous weighing machine, which Lin Yilin calls a “hand-held farm implement.” From a functional angle, the cultural purpose of the scale has historically been to “unify weights and measures,” and on a realistic level it enables “trade and equality”; on a visual level, Lin Yilin is proposing the necessity for a falsified practicality, therefore in the series of actions that followed––the weighing and documenting of weights––an art scene was transformed into a variety show stage. When an exaggeratedly large scale “invents” and performs as an entertaining tool, it becomes a strategy for undermining socially-based interpretations.  

In Chiangmai, a corresponding strategy unfolded on top of the wall, it is the title of my article, and the image on the cover of this book: fishing.


When we approached the scene in Chiangmai, we could see five or six people in the distance sitting on the top of the wall. Each one held a fishing rod, they looked as if they were fishing. However, because they were too far away, and we only saw their backs, I could only say that they appeared relaxed and at ease, holding relaxed postures that any person who was fishing would find difficult to achieve––there were no fish to catch. Their lines were submerged in a drainage ditch, with a patch of earth 5 or 6 meters wide between the water and the wall upon which they sat. Although to the other side of the wall there was a reservoir, they needed to but turn around, and the illusion of fishing would have transformed into an effective performance piece.


As the weighing began, the fishermen sitting on the wall also began to change, one would come down, another would go up, but no matter how they changed, as fishermen, they seemed to be under a magic spell, merely sitting and resolutely clutching their fishing poles, their gazes fixed in the distance. They sat and went through the motions, completely indifferent to the action happening below. The relationship between the top and bottom of the wall––which we might read as a signifying a larger context––was severed.


At that moment, I was reminded of a poem by Ming dynasty poet Han Yike which I often write on my own works that are gifted in social courtesy: 


       Whence come the colors of the spring, lost on the avenue among peach blossoms.

       The fishermen give their word, between them lies the Wuling river.


The theme of fishing reappears consistently throughout the history of painting, it belongs to the Chinese genre of “fish, firewood, farming, reading” paintings, it is quite secular, and moreover, is old and conservative. There are precious few masterpieces of this genre left behind, and it seems even more difficult for this theme converge with contemporary life, even less capable of bringing any new possibilities to art. Thus, we must examine it outside the realm of painting, or look at “fishing” from a perspective based in everyday life, otherwise, we are unable to say that this action played any substantial role in Chiangmai. In contemporary art, themes do not enter the discussion independent of the concepts they represent, even in dialogue it seems inappropriate to use “themes” as a concept. Contemporary art(ists) often position themselves in opposition to tradition, putting a greater focus on the characteristics of the event; in lieu of the ordinary or the routine, events may surpass materials in becoming the conceptual vehicle. In Bangkok, when the forced evictions that play a tragic role in society became the theme of the exhibition, we realized that the gallery space was located in an interventionist position, but at the same time it was a null space, because dialogues or actions in another country are clearly not conducive to changing the facts a thousand miles away.


In Chiangmai, Lin Yilin seemed to construct an authentic relationship between art and the land, but was consciously aware that this relationship necessarily exists far from the interference of reality, therefore, the actual people who comprised the “fishing scene” eliminated any other possibility outside from fishing. They didn’t even participate in the performance of “weighing” individuals, they merely appeared as small minor characters in the tableau (the landscape). Inspecting Lin Yilin’s sketch of these fishing characters, I can surmise that the inclusion of these characters was deliberate, and not of inferior importance to the overall composition of this project. In other words, by borrowing the “fishing scene” from traditional painting he employs a “point of view” outside of the main subject to frame his ideas, Lin Yilin once again breaks through the grand narratives of spatial plans that are so easy to fall into, thereby revealing a game of sociological analysis, and giving expression to a desire to return the “acte gratuit” back to the realm of contemporary art. Such as desire originates in the artist’s own creative procedures, and is ultimately an autobiographical expression.


However, just as questioning the topical significance derived from the timeless “fishing scene” in painting, the “acte gratuit” is decisively not absent from contemporary life. Of course, it is surely not “participatory,” nor is it “interactive.” Twenty years after the phrase “contemporary art” appeared, we can finally observe the idea of the “acte gratuit” as proposed by Duchamp returning to our dialogue. 



Translated by Lee Ambrozy