Exchanges on the Shanghai Bund

Chen Tong
For a long time, people had been puzzled by the material of "brick" which repeatedly appeared in Lin Yilin’s works, and labeled it as his signature as well as a facet of the Big Tail Elephant group. The main reason for this perception is not due to the frequency in which bricks appear in Lin’s work, rather he would mix bricks with other found materials, such as money, water, television and bicycles, etc. His bodily interventions deconstruct the immutability of bricks and walls and transform their inherent characteristics. As a result, both bricks and walls are converted into materials with respect to the language of painting. What is different here is that Lin simultaneously holds both function and ownership. However, Hou Hanru’s analysis of Lin Yilin’s early work changed such propriety: by incorporating the brick wall for his work, Lin "develops a specific strategy to question and negotiate with the relationship between people and the changing environments.” Hou’s judgment finally described an apt image of the Big Tail Elephant group: In China, mainly in the south, they are the observers and thinkers on the abnormalities of economic development, as well as the practitioners effecting responses and artistic exchanges with the same aim.
Sociology is undoubtedly one direction of the collective contribution of the Big Tail Elephant group. Lin is no exception. In Lin’s artwork, we may discern clearly the various responses and changing strategies which focus on reality versus the contingency of time. Moreover, what deserves our attention is that all his artworks utilize the use of body - the artist's own body and that of others. Therefore, the core-piece of The Result of 1000 Pieces (1994) typifies an image of Lin: Lin is standing in an empty hole of a brick wall. Perhaps we don’t need to elaborate further on this image. We prefer to believe that the image suggests something else, something greater and with more possibilities. The body appreciates a broader range of usages, and a brick wall is what is left behind.
The imagery of a fading brick wall connotes an expansion of space and possibilities. Yet, what remains are "the unique strategies that question and negotiate with the relationship between people and changing environments." There remains reservations and other meanings. For example, Safely Maneuvered Across Lin He Road (1995) reduces the intrinsic characteristics of a solid material to its minimum. It came almost to a halt. But in 2002, at the First Guangzhou Biennale, the work returned to the original look of the Ideal Housing Standards Series, signaling the sublimation of The Result of 1000 Pieces (1994) where Lin left an empty hole on the wall. Afterwards, in A Kind of Machine Called “Liberation” (2003), he was once again shattered by a game at the Asia Society in New York. Prior to this period, the works reverted to their original status of wall on more than one occasion. For example, a fully covered wall without any gaps in between the bricks was exhibited at the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennial. In another instance, a wall is penetrated by a unicorn which was shown at the First Guangzhou Triennial. Today, we have to think as to why such a cycle exists or whether this is a strategy in itself.
In comparison to the other artists of the Big Tail Elephant group, Lin’s route appears to have achieved a "fold". Are his intentions to make the changes more complex or to play hide-and-seek with us? In 2005, at a forum held at the He Xiangning Museum in Shenzhen, Lin expressed his views on contemporary art. I forgot his original words, but I was moved at the time which prompted me to ask him to give a lecture on the notion of transformation. At that time, although I did not see his later works, I became aware of changes in him. To speak in an absolute manner, the new awareness of Chinese contemporary art can only be gained after spending a period of time outside of China. Meanwhile, such awareness might be regarded as a footnote of his work. A Spatio-temporal Tunnel is a subject of science fiction. (I hope it may belong to the "Generalized Science Fiction" of Susan Sontag!). Yet Lin employs this term to describe his oeuvre after having enriched his life experiences as an artist. From Guangzhou to New York, and from the U.S. to China, with ordinary or extraordinary experiences from "other places", these journeys constitute the material and spatial substance for the tunnel. The shuttling becomes a subject for a body of thoughts. Lin emphasizes time and again that the movement within a tunnel should not be considered as a shuttling act. He does not emphasize speed, which is his temperament. His intention is to wander, or something a bit more loaded. He described himself as a waif and a hybrid of abandonment and self-imposed exile (therefore the image of "San Mao" appears). At a time when the dominant values center on gaining material possessions, we can borrow from Sisyphus. Yet it is entirely possible to consider Lin’s behavior as seemingly stupid, so he can only be placed beyond this age. Lin, the artist who is performing manual labor every time, appears like another Sisyphus during the realization of his projects, such as Safely Maneuvered Across Lin He Road (1995). His actions seem absurd but relevant. Therefore, the significance of his work is not only to resist the reality of an increasingly standardized consumerist society, it still is a form of self-movement and exchange. On this occasion, the Shanghai Gallery of Art provides a physical space for the artist to imagine. To make full use of the Bund as a concept, Lin unifies both the site and the works that can be brought over, thus this process is titled A Spatio-temporal Tunnel. Obviously, the tunnel also extends to the association with the pedestrian tunnel along Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road. This is a crucial strategy for Lin to reestablish the sociological concerns, something that borders between reality and fiction. It is also a way to unify the Bund with a specific moment to give the exhibition a structure.
Thus we are moved not by individual artworks but by what comes among the different pieces. The gallery space becomes a labyrinth; people should not be only interested by individual pieces. Instead, the theme and method of the exhibition reflect on each other: from the symmetrical effect of an endless stream of people in The People’s Square (2008) to the crowd using the Bund tunnels similar to the intermittent screens of Motto (2007) which direct the audience to consider memory and screen movements. Problem (2005), Safety Island (2006), and One Day (2006) conjure up a self-portraiture of Lin’s earlier work, for example, on Lin He Road, in the swimming pool in Hong Kong, at the railway station, and in front of the bank. Since these performances are real, they might be more easily understood than 100 Pieces and 1000 Pieces (1993).
The documentary-like approach in One Day (2006) marks a radical development for Lin. Although the idea is clever; Lin’s concern with the existence of an individual is beyond his anticipation. Therefore, it is not a replica of the fake autobiographies series, such as X Billion and First Person (1998) and My Imagination of a Great Nation (2001). Lin’s imagination of playing the role of a thief is entirely different with other roles, because the thief is not a role everyone can possibly play. Finally, in the same autobiographical system, Lin becomes a well-known San Mao. The smartest trick of the waif, created by Zhang Leping, is when the policeman didn’t allow him to run naked by smearing his upper body with ashes. San Mao fulfills Lin’s will. In order to instigate change, he is equally adept in using ingenious means, whether ambitious or appropriate. Today, Lin returns to the masses, returning to the humanistic aspect of his work that first appeared so strongly in his work. This is temporal. Let’s seize the moment. This is a convergence, both a turning point and a new starting point.
(Chen Tong is the director of Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art in Guangzhou, and teaches at the Chinese Painting department of the Guangzhou Fine Arts Academy)