Hou Hanru
Hou Hanru: This exhibition is the result came out of your residency with Kadist Art Foundation last year. How did you conceive the project?
Lin Yilin: It is often in a rush when I go to other places and cities to make works for exhibitions. Because of the invitation from Kadist Foundation this time, I was able to stay in the city for three months. With abundant time, I could get to understand the city in depth. I walked around many streets and talked to many people, including some senior Chinese Americans as well as teachers and students from the San Francisco Art Institute. I communicated with people of different ages, including young people from China and other places who came here to study. I received relatively ample information and resources which enabled me to take time to shape my thoughts. San Francisco’s geographic environment and the characteristics of being a tourist city have given me very refreshing feeling at the beginning. I started to think about the project after the feeling of freshness gradually faded away.
Hou: You mentioned in your artist statement that the geographic environment is a key element in the project. At the initial thinking stage, what was your understanding of San Francisco’s geographic environment?
Lin: In general, my first understanding to the place was no different compared to an ordinary tourist. My initial feeling was about its means of transportation, the hilly ground, and its location next to the ocean. However these are all impressions on the surface. Ultimately, what touched me the most came from the conversation I had with Mr. David Lei, who has lived in Chinatown for many years. He shared with me a lot of interesting stories of Chinatown and things happened around it. This allowed me, in a short period of time, to have an in-depth understanding of the city and the relationship between its history and geography. This has greatly stimulated and influenced my work.  
Hou: One the one hand, you explore the effects the geography has created on the cultural history; on the other hand, you try very had to test the physical limit of body through the use of your own body.
Lin: Actually at first, I was not sure if this series of works could be realized. It would interfere with the public traffic. I had no knowledge of the police here or the regulations, and to what extend these aspects would affect my performance. However, I did sense the possibility of executing these performances, as the city control seemed to be loose. At the same time, my performances are often simple and straightforward. They are not the ones that will create big interruptions to the people and the surroundings. 
Hou: In other words, the performance is about your own individual limit instead of the limit of public tolerance. 
Lin: I have considered both aspects. Because for the realization and completion of one work, as an individual or the subject, you have to consider the interactions you are going to have with the surroundings and the people around you. No matter what and how you do during a performance, as long as you are conducting it in public space, you have to think about the feasibility. This kind of feasibility can reach a point, say, a critical point that will create the relationship with the artwork itself. I think it is not easy to seek for this critical point because some work can be conducted in certain places while other places cannot accommodate. Then you have to consider your body and what reactions you would cause to the surroundings. These are the main elements that I think about for my work. 
Hou: Your practice particularly emphasize on the interactive relationship between the body and the urban space. Can you explain how did you decide the quantity and locations of the performances this time? Why it is four instead of five? In addition, in terms of your body: as an individual inside of the city, you not only test the physical limit of your own body but also interfere with the general order of the streets to certain extend and interfere with the normal behaviors of the people around.
Lin: I considered the four locations to realize my performance. Actually I thought about a lot more. I was concerned about certain places would not be able to allow me to conduct certain performance or the policemen would come and stop me. The initial selections were focused on the feasibility. After the first performance, I would be able to discover what kind of feedback I would have, for example, how the so-called officials in this city would interact with me. Because my work all happened in public space, other people would possibly interfere with the process as well. So there was a process, step by step. I mentioned just now that I had sufficient time. I did not need to finish everything within a week. What was your second question? 
Hou: The Golden Gate Bridget, Downtown, Chinatown, and Lombard Street. They are all obvious tourist locations…
Lin: Because all these locations are challenging. There are more people around these places, including both locals and tourists. The traffic, vehicles, cable cars, pedestrian flow around there, all have become a reason and an element that made my works legitimated. Therefore, the performances are not sole investigations on pure artistic language or concept. When entering a city’s urban space, one has to cultivate a close relationship with the space. I think these four locations have the potential of reaching this kind of relationship.
Hou: How did you choose such a simple gesture: rolling, rolling on the ground?
Lin: I think the feeling that San Francisco provides me is very different from the ones from other metropolitans in China, or even New York City. These other cities have strong characteristics, such as social issues related to politics, culture and economy, etc. But for San Francisco, I applied simple method which was to utilize the geographic condition. For what I created, I did not want to have it get too close to any specific aspect, not too close to culture nor to politics. Because this place is neutral, in a neutral zone. And of course, when other people saw me being a Chinese or Asian, they might associate the project with history and immigration. Therefore, I want to use the simplest action to expand the scope of people’s perspectives, to open it up.         
Hou: But you still use a lot of elements that are closely related to China, or life of Chinese immigrants, such as the Lion Dance, as well as the backdrop of Chinatown. In addition, the title of the project is related to the golden color.
Lin: What you brought up was developed at a later stage of the project. The most important part of this whole series is the rolling action. In terms of using the “lion” was from the later on exploration of Chinatown. We can divide the series into two sections: the rolling on the street as the main part, and the other part is about Chinatown. When I was chatting with David Lei on street one day, we coincidentally ran into the boss of the Lion Dance Team. We went to visit his Lion Dance institute and I saw a few “Lions”(the Lion Dance costumes) there. I did not think of involving this element at the time. Then my ideas expended when planning the performance in Chinatown. I had an idea of shooting a wondrous spectacle on the high-rises in Chinatown. On the rooftop of every building, there would be a Lion Dance team. Actually, I don’t ponder or care too much about the cultural significance or meaning of these Chinese elements. I just use them intuitively. 
Hou: Do you think the way your approach it also directly relates to your own life experience as a Chinese artist who has lived in USA for the past 10 years? Such as the sensitivity you have towards the topics about immigration and the experience you have from working in different context internationally in recent years.
Lin: I don’t really care about this. As you know, I used the Chinese lion sculptures from ancient times in my previous works in the 1990s. I had not moved to the USA back then. The application of these Chinese elements flows with my thinking of my work. If the idea clicks, I will use them. In the Chinese art scene, the issues of Chinese elements have been the center of a long-term discussion. I think if one really cares about them, his/her practice might be problematic. No matter if he/she actually uses them or deliberately avoids them, the practice is always problematic. When looking back after a period of time, this kind of criticism would not be essential or making any sense anymore.
Hou: Often, your work tests the limit of body and you exaggerate this kind of test to a level that is cynical and ironic. I think your work always implies certain irony towards cultural symbols, for example, the use of Chinese elements, and money – one of the main purposes for many Chinese who immigrate to overseas is intended to make a fortune. Money is a very central issue. The appearance of money in your work therefore satirizes the existed system and order of politics and urban life. Within this context, the sarcasm provides you a new space of imagination and allows the conditions for your actions to be considered as artistic. 
Lin: First of all, I don’t think my work is about testing my body’s limit. In my performance, I never exhaust my body to the point of a tolerance and endurance limit. Everybody can conduct these actions in my work. Most of times, when I am done with my performance, I don’t feel tired or a sense of hardship. I don’t suffer from tolerating any big harm toward my body. My work has been considered as reaching some sort of limit is because other people never attempt to execute these simple and repetitive actions.  What I worry the most is that I would be unable to complete the work. As I am not an athlete, my physical strength is not that good and I don’t have enough endurance either.  Some of the physical actions are impossible for me. Even for athletes, some of the actions in other performance works are not achievable because these actions demand a long period of devoted time. For example, the work by Tehching Hsieh which took him a year to accomplish. It is a tremendous challenge of one’s own conscious volition.  I think the arduousness and hardship of my work are something on the surface. I like the actions and gestures that are out of the regular sphere of daily life and people would not usually conduct. Then I will repetitively continue the process with the actions. The second point is about the use of “money.” In 1990s, the rapid economy growth in China resulted a series of urban and societal problems. These phenomena greatly provoked me to bring the “currency” directly into my practice.  At the same time, economy activities have led to the globalization, accompanied with various exchange and negotiations. These, of course, are not new topics. But the key is how these can be reflected through my practice. I am more interested in exploring the methodology of my practice which is the most important.
Hou: Your new work is evidently connected to the series of work you have made in the past 10 years, including the performance in urban environment and the way you interact with architectural space. In particular, your application of the “wall” as an important element as well as the gesture of occupying the streets are consistent. During the time, your practice has extended from Guangzhou to the whole country, then to the West, and to the more international and globalized context. How do you see these progresses?
Lin: I do think there is an important transformation. I was born and raised in Guangzhou, a city in Southern China. This city has been providing me a lot of energy for my practice. I felt I was the local, the “owner” of the city then. I could seek opportunities that stimulate my practice and work in that city.  I also understood that the works I created were unique in the context of China. When it comes to my earlier works, people would definitely interpret them from the social context of this region. Ever since I have the opportunity to realize my work in a foreign country, I start to feel it is not easy to transport the most essential and intrinsic aspects of my work into a different field and context. Many artists are encountering such issues, including artists from the West. If they have to create a site-specific or time-based work in China, they will come across the conflicts caused by the difference of the local culture and society. The valuable quality that originally inherited in the work will decrease or alter. Are these intrinsic qualities still having effects? Or perhaps they have turned into the outer form or a shell of the content? After all, the energy fields where the artist and his/her work are situated have completely changed.  But this time, I have had a long time to spend so I considered my adaptation and transformation has been very good.
Hou: Why is it good? Can you elaborate that?
Lin: Because when you go to a new place, your excitement points are usually not something essential. You can only get the impression of the city from a perspective of an outsider. Although I did not live here for a long time either only a total of three months it has been able to allow me to pass a beginning stage with a kind of cultural curiosity psychology. I was able to held back and transform some of my creative impulses on the surface to something deeper and to put myself in a natural statues when I worked on the ideas of the work.
Hou: The locations you chose are mostly tourist destinations but at the same time they are also related to the titles of your series (Golden Journey): San Francisco (Jiu Jin Shan, in Chinese literarily means Old Golden Mountain), the idea of the “Golden,” such as golden flags, golden flowers and golden mountains. What are your ideas on this aspect? Obviously, to use “Gold” as your title reflects the understanding of the mentality of Chinese Americans. 
Lin: Some people will certainly think the titles are too ordinary or even vulgar without much consideration. I indeed thought about this issue. During my three months’ time in San Francisco last year, there were many things happened in USA, especially the Occupying Wall Street Movement.  I went to participate some of the activities organized by the labor unions here. I took pictures of their gatherings and protests. However, I felt these events were too in time. Although I felt emotionally close to the people when I participated their activities, there was a big distance in terms of our sense of identity belonging. I did not want to play a role as a journalist. I would rather go back to the cliché or old-fashioned perspective as Chinese Americans. No matter from which regime and dynasty in China, in particular, Ming and Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and today the Communist China, the ruling classes have always been using the color gold to describe their grand enterprise and to envision the future. I also thought about the socialist novel Golden Light Boulevard that I read when I was young. It is all about the description of an idealized society, creating a kind of ready-made and easy-understanding Utopia.  I am not sure if this is a kind of propaganda or perhaps it is my reflection after receiving that propaganda. 
Hou: Being brainwashed.
Lin: I don’t know. Anyway, it is not worth it to explain these in my new works. Walking in Chinatown, you can easily spot shop signboards with names such as “Golden Flower” and “Golden Mountain,” etc; they are all over the places. On contrast, by titling my work with such vulgar terms, I feel the viewers would not think about anything “golden” after they see the exhibition. The works and titles are not related. This is what I expect. Just as the merchandises sold in those shops have nothing to do with their signboards.
Hou: Here lies the tension between the content and the titles as well as between your individual behavior and the grand social background, such as the Occupying Wall Street Movement we just mentioned. Consciously or unconsciously, many activities on the streets nowadays are perceived as social protesting events. Is this kind of tension - the tension between your personal use of the streets and the bigger societal background - the most powerful aspect of your work? Because the tension points directly towards a very unique historical moment but at the same time, it is expressed through a very personal and private way.
Lin: I remember during my performance at Lombard Street, someone around us was yelling: “they are protesting!” Although this narrow street is public, residential buildings are right next to it. Neighbors think that the area is private and belong to them. This is exactly why I would like to use this kind of method to intervene with the American city. Similar to Occupying Wall Street Movement, the protestors in New York City were also conducting their activities in a private park. The only difference is that we spent less time there which avoid the policemen to come and expel us.
Hou: Your performance and your work have a kind of direct or indirect political implication. It is not necessarily aiming at one specific event. Instead, it comes out from the process when individuals invade and interfere with public space. It can be considered as a political power and a critical power.
Lin: The difference between my modes of thinking now and in the early years when I was in Guangzhou is that I have turned the critical impulse, in other words, the products embodied through the very intense emotion in my work, to an attitude, an accustomed attitude. It is not because of any current political events or some other political conflicts between China and the West that trigger me to make works like these.
Hou: Which means that this criticality is the normality.
Lin: What I meant by an accustomed attitude is that I will not criticize everyday but instead I reflect. I have done these works through contemplation and I will not generate specific criticism towards any certain period of time.
Hou: In addition, this reflection is expressed through a kind of body language, a very special and absurd language, or let’s says, an eccentric body language.
Lin: Yes, it is not normal. I’d often like to seek scenario like this: it puzzles people and leads them to inquire: “What is he doing with this? What is this for?”
Hou: More often, your practice has been trying to involve collaborations with other people. For example, you collaborated with the audience at dCOUMENTA 12 in 2007; and then in Thailand, you also worked with the locals; this time, the collaboration is among you and the students at SFAI, Kadist Foundation’s team and friends from the local art circle. How do you look at these collaborative relationships? What made you to collaborate in these ways? 
Lin: This is interesting. In earlier years, I conducted my performance solely by myself. However, when you think from a more materialistic angle, it was not just myself either. There were many bricks involved. Of course, I don’t mean to be so cold and describe the people who participate this time are like bricks in my previous works. The participants are not bricks because I can manipulate the bricks but not them. In the performance, the series of actions I chose would generate some interesting encounters. I requested the participants to conduct the basic movements, such as walking. I would not let them do anything irregular like what I would do. They behaved naturally with actions in everyday life, such as walking and playing. Then, my actions hampered theirs. A kind of relationship was formed during the process.
Hou: Therefore this kind of relationship has allowed you to reconsider the position of an individual in urban space. In other words, the relationship was not about you look at things through the lens of these participants, but instead, you all together formed a temporary community.
Lin: Yes. I think this aspect is very important. I would merge with my participants and became a collective community through artistic interventions and ways of actions. I also want to absorb the people on the street and in the surroundings into this collective. This can create a wondrous spectacle, involving both the viewer and the ones are being viewed. It is a picture composed of both the conscious and unconscious individual. 
Hou: The last question is about the exhibition itself. This time we decide to introduce graffiti to the exhibition space and endow it with a new context.
Lin: Yes. I think your proposal is a really good idea. Actually, I’ve never seen other people making graffiti before. People come out to do this in the middle of the night I think. It is done in the so-called public space, but in fact can only been done in the shadow without sunshine in a very covert atmosphere.
Hou: Therefore your works actually open up a space which enable us to experience the possibility without the sun shining or under an alternative sunshine.
Lin: Yes. Very interesting. In the exhibition, you can see the participants in the video; however, people who did the graffiti left and their identities are unveiled, instead, they left their work here. I really enjoy this kind of relationship. Every aspect we talked about all contribute to the overall atmosphere of the exhibition.
Hou: Our exhibition, just like your performance, has created an underground alterative space.
Lin: The graffiti on the wall is not decorative. It provides the opportunity of energy exchange. I feel very touched by this aspect.
Hou: The space is not a hermetic a space. Instead, it implants a new energy space to the existing urban space.
Lin: Yes. It indeed brings all the exits where energy is emitting from the corners of the city to the exhibition space. I gradually feel that I can experience the energy exchange in the process.