«Target», or, every narrative is an endless draft – radical and particular

Martina Köppel-Yang

“If it is true that every present creates its proper past, then a particular past can only be understood in relation to a specific present. The actual evidences of the past are impregnated by the present – through what is kept apparent and through what is forgotten or erased. The structural concept of the past is constructed from the perspective of the present: it is the structure of the present that defines that of the past.” [1]


Standards defining our lives, images and symbols conditioning our personality, and narratives building history and identity are central subjects in Lin Yilin’s oeuvre. “Standard Series of Ideal Residence” (1991), one of his first major works, and “Household Goods” (1992) already question the structures that condition our environment and our habits. Brick-walls delineating or objects animating space are inserted in metal structures – eloquent metaphors of Lin’s distrust in given configurations and set outlines.


“Target” is the title of Lin Yilin’s first solo show at Tang Contemporary and in Beijing. Here the artist brings together four works in different media – two videos, one large sculpture and one oil painting, representing historical figures and events, as well as the gigantic figure of a model hero – the artist himself – to reflect on those images and myths haunting and conditioning collective consciousness and memory.




“It’s a strength like no other, it is physical strength and it is an emotional strength” [2]


One evening in 2007, Lin was shooting a video of the army recruiting station at New York’s Time Square, when suddenly several police cars rushed into the square. Something was going on. Lin continued filming for eight minutes. Only several months later he learnt about that evening’s event. He was startled as he understood that he actually had been the witness of an attack against the recruiting station. Lin’s video entitled “8 Minutes” (2008) shows the filmed scene without modification: the police cars with their sirens going, passers-by paying little attention to the whole scene, and the recruiting station with a huge video screen showing a propaganda film, urging young people to join the army. Unmistakable slogans praising military strength and patriotic fervour used in the propaganda video contrast with the soundtrack of the news report that Lin Yilin added to his work. The breach between the reality simulated in the suggestive images of the army propaganda and the actuality of the news event once again revealed to the artist the efficiency of those structures constituting collective consciousness, reminding him on his childhood education. Born in 1964, Lin Yilin grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was impregnated with ideals like for example heroism, or altruism for the good of the people.


It therefore seems logic that “Glorious & Great” (2008), the second video created for this exhibition shows the artist as a superhero. Filmed from below, Lin’s extraordinary self-portrait appears gigantic and overwhelming. Lin, the superhero, determined, is moving ahead, accompanied by a cheerful crowd, Disney-style music and fireworks. The future lies ahead, glorious and great. Yet the hero’s figure is gradually fading, and his image becomes increasingly blurred with every step, making of him a kind of ghost, haunting his public’s dreams and minds throughout history. Again, similar to “8 Minutes” background images and soundtrack are taken from a video filmed in New York, this time on National Day. This time however, the different images combined by the artist enhance each other; either convey the superhero with extreme authenticity or suggest that the actual national celebration is just another fairy tale.



“It is a strength of character and strength of purpose; the strength to do good today, and the strength to do well tomorrow.”


The central piece of the exhibition is “Target” (2008) a huge, painted sculpture of Mao Zedong. Lin made the sculpture according to a famous photo showing Mao aiming with a gun. Legend has it that this was the only time ever he had taken a gun. The Chinese leader’s emblematic figure, even though over life-size, is not represented as a hero but rather as an individual, neither perfect nor intangible, but human and touchable. Maybe this is the reason why the leader seems to know where to aim at.


The sculpture is matched by “Two Soldiers” (2008), an oil painting based on another historical photo. This time Mao is sitting in an army jeep together with American soldiers of the so-called Dixie Mission, the United States Army Observation Group, that arrived in Yan’an on 22 July 1944. The Mission’s task was to establish relations with the People’s Liberation Army and to investigate the Communist Party politically and militarily. The reports were positive and the Chinese Communists were judged a good alley. Yet, after World War II, factions in the American government supporting the Kuomintang condemned the Dixie Mission’s report and advice. History was to be written differently. In “Two Soldiers” Lin Yilin stages the meeting of American and Chinese heroes anew and makes the American and the Chinese narratives converge. He represents the photo twice. Symmetrically mirrored, the doubled images show different orientations, hence versions. The duplication of the images further reduces them to mere patterns. The artist here questions the historical a priori of established narratives and suggests that their figures and elements can be combined arbitrarily, like moulds, fitting the pursued aim. The point of convergence of the two different historical narratives again represents a breach. Imagining it as a breach in the space-time-continuum, allowing a leap back in time, we could presume that history can be rewritten differently.


Accordingly, Lin combines heroes and myths from different cultures and periods: from Maoist China and from the US of the Bush era, as well as different media. His choice of images creates an irritating tension: the figures and images chosen from the Maoist period have a very human and individual stance, while those selected from the contemporary American picture pool express an extremely ideology indoctrinated attitude. Lin asks, what narrative does his kind of historical and cultural medley create and can such mixture provoke deeper insights and more substantial knowledge of social and political realities, of human nature? 




“There is nothing on this green earth that is stronger than …”


Lin Yilin is one of the central figures of contemporary Chinese art, and one of the rare academically trained sculptors in China who managed to convey new sculpture with contemporary concepts and forms. Lin who was trained as a sculptor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980s is known for his works combining sculpture and installation with performance and video. The brick wall was the object with which he could best develop all subjects important in his early work, both sculptural and performative: the wall as a sculpture and as an installation, the wall in progress, as an open process and performance, realized in the public sphere. Often, the artist himself is part of the sculpture/installation, either filling breaches in it, or building and dismantling it. The most renowned example of this kind of work is “Safely Manoeuvring across Linhe Road” (1995) for which the artist moved a wall across a busy road in Guangzhou by building and dismantling it brick by brick. The video of the performance, shown at documenta XII in Kassel in 2007, is part of a body of performances directly intervening in the public sphere in Guangzhou that Lin realized in the1990s together with the Big Tail Elephant Working Group. Lin founded the group, embodiment of contemporary art from Guangdong Province, in 1990 together with Liang Juhui, Xu Tan and Chen Shaoxiong. The Big Tail Elephants are recognized for a critical artistic practice and autonomous positions, both fundamental aspects of Lin Yilin’s oeuvre, too. Lin moved to New York in 2001. Since then, the geographical and cultural dislocation, made him focus on the significance of cultural myths, as evident in works like for example “Missing Dolly” (2005), “I am from Wall Street” (2006) and “San Mao” (2007). In these works the sculptural part is more significant than the performance part, but similar to his early performances, these works too tend to disturb the perception of daily life and environment. They propose a different and critical version of reality, defining the narratives constructing consciousness and perception as a mere and endlessly amendable draft.


Paris, October 2008





[1]Tonio Hölscher, “Tradition und Geschichte. Zwei Typen der Vergangenheit am Beispiel der griechischen Kunst”, in: Assmann/Hölscher (eds.), Kultur und Gedächtnis, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1988: p.115.

[2] All headings are taken from the propaganda video shown at the army recruting station at Time Square.