Roundtable Discussion in Thailand (1)

Josef Ng
The discussion of "Whose Land? Whose Art?", it was held in the Bangkok Art and Culture Center on December 16th, 2010. The speakers are,
Josef Ng/curator of this project & moderator of discussion
Kamin Lertchaipraset/artist & co-founder of The Land
Ou Ning/curator & Chief editor of "CHUTZPAH" magazine             
Chen Tong/director of Libreria Borges Institute for Contemporary Art in Guangzhou & teacher at the Guangzhou Fine Arts Academy
Pandit Chanrochanakit/political scientist & teacher at Ramkamheang University     
Sun Dongdong/art critic & editor of "LEAP" magazine         
Zheng Lin/director of Tang Contemporary Art           
Lin Yilin/artist
Josef Ng: Welcome to the forum of "Whose Land? Whose Art?." One can’t deny the present fact of the post-urban explorations and dialogues relating to the shifting realities in China now. Curatorial process always proceeds in accidents and coincidences. The project went through collective experiences, and under different realities and settings, I am particularly pleased that I could use the occasion to experience how the artist, the supporting organizations, and myself as the curator, conjuring up negotiations and processes to define the project. 
When we were discussing about working together, Lin was also trying to solve an immediate issue to finding a new studio during the time when the demolition of artist studios was becoming a major issue in Beijing. This project then came about during a casual discussion with The Land Foundation about a possible project and the name of Lin Yilin came up to invite the artist to propose to do something within the site of The Land. Drawing on local knowledge, public participations and effectual dialogues, this project provided an opportunity for all of us to engage and see how certain notions are being represented differently in different sociocultural settings.
In this forum, I will try not to only focus about this project per se but also to expand to issues revolving about the dynamics of how land in China and in Thailand, with their varying values, is being defined in the face of post-urban expansion. And to delve deeper on the nature and value of land insofar as commodification plays a large role in defining how land is evaluated. And we have a good group of speakers from various backgrounds to share with us about this. Especially since China is undergoing major modification of land usage in rapid pace.
Okay, I was now just cut short my talk. Let’s start with the artist himself. What is your recollection of how the project was initiated? Can you give us a brief rundown?
Lin Yilin: Let me say a little bit about my initial thoughts after seeing the Land in Chiangmai and my artistic intentions.
After seeing the Land, I learned that the artists here have been working for more than a decade, and that they have a very good foundation. I wondered if I could bring some new elements to this foundation. I’m originally from China, and have lived in the west; I’m pretty familiar with both places. When I discovered the Land is about the boundaries between art and non-art, I attempted to take social issues, especially Chinese social elements, and bring them to the Land, while at the same time, I didn’t want to deviate from their original intentions. It’s very opportune that Tang Contemporary is supp
orting this project, I think that these two conditions are reflected over the two different segments, and that they can inject new dialogues. I’m not clear if the Land has hosted performances before, but I wanted to use the performance to draw in the audience, while at the same time I considered the Land’s decade of experience, and the need to bring artists of different social backgrounds to participate in the project. I don’t want to describe too much the details of my project or the performance, I feel the same about the videos and the installation in the gallery space. I believe that participating in the project alone engaged a certain momentum, and in that sense, I’ve already arrived at my goal. 
Josef Ng:  The performance, for me, engendered a consensus consciousness between the wall and the public. Each participant scrawled his/her names, among in English, in Thai or in Chinese onto the wall after being weighed by the artist. They gave themselves up to the openness of the wall and their identities, being represented here by the names, shaped a collective experience. It was as if we were exercising our presence of the place; surrounding democratically around the wall at The Land.
Leading to The Land, I shall invite our first speaker of the day, Kamin Lertchaipraset, co-founder, to share with us about The Land and its developmental objectives. 
Kamin Lertchaiprasert: In the forum here, I like to begin on the background of how The Land was first conceived. Initially, my idea was just to make a retirement house. Later, we expanded into extending invitations to friends to build houses. And the concept is that nobody should own the land and the houses. ‘No ownership’ in this farm space. When we were in Chiangmai, the more I chatted with Lin Yilin, I find out that this concept is actually rather similar in China. And that is nobody in the country owns any land given that the government controls and takes care of it.
I try to understand the circumstances in China while also trying to come to terms about what I want for the situation of The Land foundation. I don’t know if it’s correct or not but I feel each environment has their own relationship between people who live there and the social government or whoever controls it. And perhaps, due to the nature of human beings, they are never satisfied with themselves. Whatever they have now, they will find another resolution. If you find development, if you have too much democracy, you find something else. If you don’t have freedom, you find democracy maybe that’s the nature of humanity. I don’t know if it’s correct or not but I try to understand this.
I find this is kind of similar to a site specific of culture or ‘life specific’. It depends on many things. You cannot just put this culture to fit that culture, this law to fit that law; everything is adapted from time to time. I can comprehend the way the Chinese government is taking care of the whole Land system in China because, in my opinion, I guess there are a lot of people who might need this government to help. However because of the size and the rapid growth of the country, this system might not work in the future because many people can able to support themselves. Nevertheless, I don’t want to discuss about this but I just want to say what I’m thinking and I want to learn what the Chinese are thinking in the situation. But I think we cannot use this idea to fit into that idea or that idea to transplant into this space.
Josef Ng: Speaking of space, the root of the Lin’s project with regards to the Land, and the attempt to define it, knowledge or no knowledge, support or no support, is not just about being reflexive of the space it is in. It is a place within a space. It is a landscape where fundamentals are also engaged architecturally. Speaking of architecture, our next speaker, Ou Ning, is an architect and a curator. Let us welcome him to speak on the dynamics of social and architectural in lieu of Lin’s project.
Ou Ning: Actually I’m not an architect, I was just the chief curator of 2009 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. I would like to share some idea about Lin Yilin’s work for the Land Project.
To understand Lin Yilin’s work, you have to look back to the land system in China, how the land system was set up. Before 1949, when the Communist Party started their revolution, they wanted to call the farmers to participate the revolution then they promised to give the land to the farmers if they participated the Communist Party and the revolution. So when the PRC was found the Communist Party designed the land system in two parts: the urban land owned by the state and the rural land owned by the villagers, but, collectively. During the different years, the Communist Party, first distributed the land to the farmers, but sometimes they took it back from the farmers, for example, during the People’s Commune period. When Deng Xiaoping led the country, he returned the land to the farmers again, but when the urbanization movement started in China, all the cities expanded very fast, they needed more land for urban development, so the government took the land back from farmers again.
In my opinion, the land and property is always the main reason to cause the social problems. Today in China, because of a lot of developers wanting more land, they grab the land from the farmers with very low costs, and farmers can never share in the achievements of the Open-Door policy of the past 30 years. So a lot of farmers try to fight against the government to get better compensations and the intellectuals also criticize the over urbanization phenomenon and some of the intellectuals and artists leave the cities and go back to the countryside to start the contemporary Rural Reconstruction Movement. They just want to follow the same movement in the 1930s, led by Y.C. James Yen.
I saw Lin Yilin’s work for The Land project, he built the wall again, which is a very important symbolized element of his works. He built the wall in the rice field and he used the scale, inviting people to weigh themselves and then created a very successful public space for activities. I think this recreated the public life in the countryside. He recreated something like the traditional agricultural events. And for his exhibition in Tang Gallery in Bangkok, he shows some videos about artists’ protest against the demolition in the village outside Beijing. Actually, his works are talking about both urban and rural issues, focusing on the same problem, the land problem, the problem which was caused by the land ownership system.
Josef Ng: To talk about the land system, this is the essence of the project. But (you) as a curator, also deal with a lot of architectural works… I see this work as an architectural intervention into a system, which I think it is quite untypical of Chinese artists, maybe with exceptions like Ai Weiwei and a few more. What do you think of this architecture… like coming to see it as a door instead of a wall? Because you see this wall is somehow a metaphorical setting to a traditional Chinese courtyard. And its a door opening to the outside setting of The Land, instead of being a hinderance. What do you think about this?
Ou Ning:  I would like to take Lin Yilin’s work as a social architecture not as a physical architecture. Actually, I think he is an anti-organization artist. I am not so interested in physical architecture. That is why I am always interested in the some architects, who work in the rural area. They help to organize farmers to build their house. They exchange the labor. That’s very good that to return to the basic spirit.
Social architecture is more important than physical architecture. We can often see a lot of architects trying to build for public life, but actually, it doesn’t work. In China, a lot of governments build city squares, but nobody will use it. That means we need to do some social engineering to organize the people to empower them to participate in the political life. So for my opinion, we should develop more social architecture than physical architecture.
Josef Ng: Social architecture for me is also the memory of places. They are undergoing developments. It’s not just about how an engineering of a social political protocol could be utilized in a project like this. Now I like to invite Dr. Pandit Chanrochanakit, a political scientist who teaches at Ramkamheang University, to give us his perspective on land as thematicizing a socio-political premise. 
Pandit Chanrochanakit: I feel more than excited to be a part of this forum. Well, let me begin. I came across the idea on the terms, “The land has eyes.” I want to talk about Land Art and imagined space. I would like to draw our attention to a couple of artists and the notion of space and place. Landschaft, in the original meaning during the dark ages and middle ages, is a collection of dwellings built within an area of cultivated land surrounded by an unknown neighbor which is the wilderness. Then the Dutch people adopted the word and deployed it to convey the meaning of an area of land that could be represented by a surveyor or artist as map and painting. This is a very interesting notion of landscape and space. So in the 17th century, Landschaft could mean an area that was represented by a surveyor or artist so when you talk about landscape, it means looking from above, a view from above, from a higher view and looking at suburban area, there should be street, forest, and village. You see the timeline here, I want to give you some idea when it was in the middle age. It was between 5th century - 15th century and then the renaissance came around 16th century. So it is a long time ago that people have imagined the land differently. So what constitutes the place and the space? The space I took from a book that cited Yi Fu Tuan  - I think he is a geographer -, and he said that, “Where space feels torridly familiar to us, it becomes place.” Therefore, space is something that has no meaning until we dwell and fill it in, so the place becomes familiar and known to us. It is somewhere that belongs to us in the spiritual. It’s not a possessive sense and to which we belong, so place is space in which the process of remembrance continues to activate the past as something which, to quote the philosopher Henri Dergson, “lived and acted rather that represented.”
In Lin Yilin’s exhibition at Tang Contemporary Art – Bangkok, we could see a lot of negotiations between human and space; human and place. In one of the videos exhibited, you see lots of people, including the urban people, rural farmers, also including artists, trying to protect the land, protect the notion of the place that the have inherited or lived in. Then, in the same video, we would have the government trying to reclaim the land, the rights over the land, the space and impose a new meaning on the land. What we see is a relation of power, negotiation between power of the poor, of the farmer, and the artist. I want to divert a little to the notion of socialism.
Get back to the notion of socialism. What is socialism? I think many of us are familiar with the basic understanding of what socialism emphasizes. They emphasize in the notion of community. Secondly, it is a cooperation of equality and class politics. They try to demolish the social class and make people equal, and the last, which is interestingly, that we have been talking about, is common property. Everyone shares a stake of their rights over the land, over the space, over the place. So we can see the continually notion of communism from Karl Marx to Mao Zedong. Here is a propaganda poster that I took from wikipedia, thanks to wikileaks, the great turning point we saw here is the Deng Xiaoping era. Deng Xiaoping once said the “poverty is not socialism” (extracted from wikipedia). In the Guangzhou meeting in 1962, he made a famous phrase, “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.” Poverty is not socialism. We should be able to be become rich too. We should be able to enjoy the fruits of the earth. This is very interesting to see what’s going on after Deng Xiaoping took the power.
Then what we see here, coming back to the art, we have Francis Alÿs in Lima, Peru (Showing slides). This is a famous artwork where the artist worked with the public to express the idea how an artist ‘can move a mountain’. He arranged the people along the mountain and with a shovel, everyone just tried to push a little bit of the sand in front of them little by little. It’s a really religious work that delves onto the faith of Christianity but actually I think the artist was trying to express something differently. Actually this is what he said, “here, we attempt to create a kind of land art for the landless and with the help of hundreds of people and the chapel, we have created a social allegory. The story is not validated by any physical traces or addition to the landscape. Only in its repetition and transmission is the work actualized.”
I’ll try to go a little bit further to push our conversation. There is another work that I would like to draw our attention to now. This is the work from Mel Chin, born in Texas, 1961. This is the dumpster site so a lot of heavy metal left in the land. No one could eat the fruits from the land so what he started to do is to plant lots of vegetables that could absorb cadmium, zinc, and lead. Then he took the plants to a recycle process factory. This is the way he healed the land so this is another very interesting notion of land. This is very fascinating because, for example, in Thailand’s Mae-Sod, a district of Tak province, was poisoned by mining so they started planting sugarcane and extract the juices from the sugarcane and make ethyl alcohol in order to purify the land.
The relation between the artist and the land and the nature, we see here are three different strategies. We see Alÿs as the artist who move the mountain, we see Chin who wanted to heal the land and the last one, Lin Yilin, our good exemplar here. The Chinese artist tries to negotiate and to show what is going on in the usage of land in China and took that issue to his projects here in Thailand. This is very fascinating because it’s going on somewhere else. For example in Thailand’s case Mae-Sod, a district of Taak province was poisoned by mining so they started planting sugarcane and extract sugarcane and do ethyl alcohol in order to purify the land. This is something tangible here but what Yilin tries to show here is the negotiation between state and people and artist and farmer and land developer. A close relation between state and developer on the one hand, and artist, farmer, villager on the other side. We saw the video, right (showing slides)? A close relation between state and developer on the one hand and artist, farmer, villager on the other side. Also another video shown in Tang Gallery we saw, the one that he walks in front of Champs-Elysees with handcuffs…I think that reminds me a lot of mobility but I want to stop here first. I’ll talk later about what I planed in the second part.
Josef Ng: Thank you to Pandit for his researched findings. The dynamics of China’s rapidly changing landscapes form a visual canvas against which reality and illusion frequently collide. In this context, the project is embedded on how Lin captures the dislocation of the city and its resident in the face of its own shifting reality. I would now like to draw your attention to Chen Tong, an art critic and teacher based in Guangzhou.
Chen Tong: I’ve known Lin Yilin for many years, and thus have a relatively good understanding of his work. I’ve noticed that his practice actually has some political-economic implications. These implications have framed the complete aesthetic value of his work today. Speaking of the exhibition, perhaps the more we discuss it, especially of the videos and images in the gallery discussing issues of land use, the work seems to have legal significance.
When we return to the work in Chiangmai, we realize it has political economic significance, because its scale made it easy for us to associate with an earlier sculptural work which has also been recreated by Cai Guo-qiang, “Rent Collection Yard.” In the original incarnation, one aspect it realized was the plight of the laborer, in addition, the exploiter in opposition to the laborer.
What this sculpture reflected at this historical point in time, was the condition just raised by Ou Ning: once the Communist party promises to give the land to the people, you could throw yourself completely into the revolutionary cause. But this Communist party policy, if Mao Zedong was considered the executor, could only be a temporary implementation. Mao was more interested in what the land would eventually become, for example, his imaginary ideal situation would be if all Chinese land was level like Russia. Only then could machines be used to plow the land, and Chinese modernization would be fast.
Thus, I believe that Mao had already moved beyond land ideologies in the 1950s, when he specifically noted in some important documents that agricultural machination was the most important issue. That issue is actually similar to our situation today, that is, the urban population. Actually the Chinese real estate industry was formed after Deng Xiaoping’s appeal, and we finally realized that issues of land rights existed. For the entire in these forty, almost fifty years between 1949 to the late 1980s, urban dwellers were never conscious of land use issues, they only wanted a space.  
So the work in Tang Contemporary’s gallery space appears to be about land rights, but is actually about the right to a space; this is because it’s difficult for us to judge the aesthetic value of land today. For urbanites, the aesthetic value of land only exists after it has been built into a space, this space has only its interior architectural form, and that includes its relationship to the city, to the scenery, etc. Only after land becomes a space can it become a problem, if it was merely land, I don’t think that there would be a problem.
So, if we look back on Mao’s thoughts on land or land policy from this angle, it is very clear, actually everything is identical, and we don’t pay attention to land rights. We don’t concern ourselves with who owns the land, but how it is used. For example, the late 1960s to the late 1970s was China’s most famous communal farming movement, in which terraced farms were built in high mountain regions. At that time the idea wasn’t that everyone would use their own land, but that it belonged to the collective, and everyone was whole-heartedly absorbed in the cause of terracing the lands. Later this policy was diligently followed across the whole of China, in all mountainous regions, and these terraces were built anywhere with mountains. This created some beautiful landscapes, scenery which later found its way into many paintings by shanshui (landscape) painters. Later, in hilly regions such as those south of the Yangtze in Hunan and Jiangxi, many twisted fields were transformed into lines, or two fields were combined into one, which made it more convenient for farm machinery to work the fields.
In this period, issues of land rights were under control, the problem didn’t exist. No matter whether in the country or the city, there were no problems. After Deng Xiaoping policy, land was once again returned to the individuals, and issues of land rights emerged. But today farmers are most interested in how they can exchange their lands for more money, for example, if highway construction projects reclaim their land, they can make a large sum. Of course, farmers think primarily of how to build houses on their land, this is their life’s ideal, but at the same time they will abandon their land to go to the city to work.
To many Chinese people, going above the level of interests, in today’s agitated interests, especially for the farming population, this touches upon the issue of land rights, but it is not in order to protect the land in any naturalistic cultural value, it is more related to personal interests; when you give more in reparations, land can easily be passed on, it could become a highway or a high-speed rail, or be developed into a factory.
Intellectuals through the ages have always envisioned their own image of the land. Especially in shanshui painting in history; in works like Lin Yilin’s, there is a sense of imagined land, of imagined form.
I think the contemporaneous significance of Lin Yilin’s work lies in the fact that it surpasses this kind of fantasy, to a great extent, this is because his work brings in concepts of the political economy. This is a magical initiative. Why did he use a weighing machine? He is completely capable of conceiving something else, why a scale? I think this is also an issue to focus on. If he was only considering practical aspects or the function of work, he might have never thought of the scale, but since he has brought it into the work, I believe he is thinking from the angle of the political economy.
It reminded me of another one of his works in the 1990s, in which he built a simple brick wall outside a coffee shop in the city, and he sandwiched money between the bricks; this work was called 100 Pieces and 1000 Pieces
I want to say that the aesthetic in Lin Yilin’s work is founded upon the political economy, but his works are unrelated to legal issues. It seems that Chinese law has been perfecting itself in merely the past decade or so, while even if China has had a political economy the previous several decades, it has never had law, and doesn’t concern itself with legal issues.
Of course our situation today is complex, in Lin Yilin’s work I primarily see concepts at the level of the political economy, and there exists some implications of the legal system, as well as other elements, which are what make the work enchanting. But its charm lies in the fact that Lin didn’t try to cut completely into reality. He came to a halt when he reached the social margins. Those are my thoughts.