Jérôme Sans

September 7, 2008
Guangdong Victory Hotel Guangzhou

Lin Yilin, Born in 1964, Guangzhou. Graduated from the sculpture department of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. In 1991 he co-founded the Big-Tail Elephant Group and now lives and works between Guangzhou and New York. His performance and sculpture works explore the situation åof individuals against the background of China's modern transformation. He has participated in the Venice Biennale and Documenta 12. His major works include Safely Crossing Linhe Road, Our Future and San Mao.

Jérôme Sans: You are very famous for a performance you did, crossing a street in Guangzhou by moving a brick wall. What was the reason for the work at that time?

Lin Yilin: I did that work in l995. The first time I used cinderblocks was in l991, in Guangzhou. At that time, owing to economic shifts in the wake of 1989, Guangzhou was becoming an economic center, and many things were moving in its direction. Guangzhou was probably the most exciting city in China at that time; this is the most basic background.
When I made this work. I was thinking about how in a performance I could make a wall behave like a person, make it cross the street. When I was looking for a site. I saw that Guangzhou was building its tallest building yet, they even claimed at the time it was the tallest in Asia, and so I thought it was meaningful to realize the performance on that street, because this site bore an interesting connection to the city as a whole. Later people have called this one of the representative works dealing with China's urban development. I suppose I was just lucky to have been living in that moment, and in Guangzhou no less, which was the site of China's earliest urban renewals.

JS: Normally a wall is stable, fixed, not movable. But you are talking here about a movable wall. Why?

LYL: I made a number of walls in those few years, and most of them were similar, although they could produce some surprising effects—for example I would put other objects inside a wall, as a way of changing people's attitude toward a simple object. This wall moved, and that was another twist on my idea, on this concept of altering the wall.

JS: Normally a wall is either fixed, or it's destroyed. But here
we have a movable wall.

LYL: Perhaps the most interesting thing about this process of movement is that it unfolds on a pedestrian crosswalk, not on an ordinary road. In this process, the slight disturbance it creates for cars translates into a traffic jam. And this was the most trying thing for me, trying to see the movement of this wall like an animal, moving and not static, owing to my labor, to the life I was giving it.

JS: So the wall was moving because of your life force?

LYL: Yes, I think my most basic starting point was this idea of giving a static,  ordinary object something different. This wall of mine, these bricks, were the most ordinary things you see everywhere.

JS: A wall usually has a start and an end, but this is a fragment of a wall, which looks almost archaeological, like a ruin.  And so I wonder it there is anything here about an archaeology of the contemporary?

LYL: I think these associations you draw are quite interesting I actually just used a small portion of an ordinary wall, but this performance has a way of expanding in meaning, and the interesting thing may be that it allows people to think in other directions.

JS: A fragment. Like in Jean-Luc Godard's films, there is no fixed start or exact end, no indication. It is a fragment of an unknown architecture form, like a ruin.

LYL: That's good. l had never thought of that.

JS: Or perhaps it is like a person with no home making a home for himself, a person with no space of his own carving out a space. But why do you use bricks?

LYL: There are two reasons. First, I am very interested in architecture, and in conceptual and minimalist art, and bricks are able to convey this. Second, when I first started to use bricks, I discovered that they are everywhere, because so many old houses have been torn down. The entire city is a construction site, full of bricks. For very little money, I could buy a truckload of bricks and use them to carry out these major projects.

JS: So you are talking about the deconstruction of the old Chinese history, and the construction of this huge, new China.

LYL: Yes. That period was quite a disturbance for the city dwellers, because there were construction sites everywhere. Even the roads were being rebuilt, destroyed, reconstructed. Everything was covered in ash-that was the situation in the Chinese city of that time.

JS: Do these walls also meat to say that art is a permanent worksite that never ends?

LYL: Absolutely. But another part of it is subconscious. When I was small we built underground air-raid shelters, Mao ordered the people to dig shelters, and even as elementary school students we did our part We would form these long lines from the worksite and we would hand bricks down the line, one student to the next, all the way to the shelter. When I made this work I was not thinking about my childhood, but then it occurred to me that perhaps we have had this intimate relationship with bricks since childhood. I remember then that bricks were made out of clay we found ourselves, molded by hand, then set in a kiln.

JS: The work is somehow as solid as it is fragile-like our life, like our cultures, like our world. Not permanent, but temporary. The walls can be moved, the bricks are light.

LYL: Yes, like the Chinese stock market.

JS: There is the Greek legend of the sword of Damocles, hanging constantly over us.

LYL: Actually, I was thinking more about how to complete this work, because it was actually quite difficult. l had to know my own strength, whether I would be able to bring the bricks across the street. Would the police come? Would the cars run into me? Would traffic get all blocked up? How many bricks did I need? How tall should the wall be, and how long? And cars needed a way to get around. There were many questions of this nature, and I spent a long time thinking out all of the possibilities.

JS: All these walls have an experimental element, their own nature.

LYL:  I hope the wall can change, as in the Result of 1000 Pieces, which I did in 1994 for an art fair, with money pressed between the bricks, I was hoping that viewers would steal the money and in the process knock the wall down. In the end lots of money was stolen, but the wall maintained its shape. Likewise in some performances I stand inside the wall, where for others l am outside it.

JS: Why did the wall in Our Future (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 2008) incorporate a kylin?

LYL: Because in China a kylin is a mythical creature, and it carries different symbolisms. It represents fortune, it offers protection. I tried to play with the direction in which it was displayed, because ordinarily you only see the front of a kylin. Placing the kylin inside the wall perhaps raises a question about China's future, its rough state. Even though this wall is stable and fixed, because of this animal, this sculpture, it takes on a visual effect of collision.

JS: And it is going through the wall. So the wall is like a living body. It's as if it experiences pain. Sometimes it has accidents.

LYL: Yes, Like in this performance, I broke bones in my chest while "swimming" in the wall, I kept rubbing against the bricks, I had failed to consider this before.

JS: How did you not consider that?

LYL: I failed to account for the intensity of my own action I will never "try out" a performance before the actual work. So this performance (A Kind of Machine Called "Liberation") was quite interesting. Many people thought I might be injured, because this other person was on top riding a bicycle, and many bricks fell out. People were worried for my feet, because they were caught inside. Actually, I was fine, and the bicycle rider had problems. His feet were all cut up by the bricks and the bicycle pedals.

JS: Have you ever thought about architecture? Like Ai Weiwei has a whole neighborhood, his own house, something like this?

LYL: I am interested in public art, but architecture seems too complicated. You need relationships with different sorts of people-developers, government officials. I don't like dealing with these people. lf I could just purely do architecture, that could be interesting.

JS: But you might collaborate with architects?

LYL: I did some public art projects with Ai Weiwei. Two actually, first of SOHO New Town in Beijing. I worked before in a company doing interior design, so I have this deep aversion to dealing with powerful people in China.

JS: Who are your references among other artists?

LYL: I am influenced by Minimalism, conceptual art, people like Carl Andre. Of course there have been many intangible influences, like George Segal, a Pop artist who would reproduce people in white and place them in a specific environment – l really liked him when l was in school.

JS: And are you building your own Great Wall? How long will you continue to work with walls?

LYL: You mean how long will I keep making walls?

JS: Will you keep going with this concept of the wall?

LYL: Making these walls is very tiring, so I don't have a precise idea of how long l will keep on going.

JS: As we said before, it is a permanent worksite. It can't have an end, if it did, it would have no sense. Your life is the length of it.

LYL: Yes. And so I have never thought of it as having a set result.

JS: What is the craziest project you didn't complete?

LYL: In 1991 in Berlin I wanted to make a huge wall. In front there was a pool; behind there was a massive sculpture by Henry Moore. I wanted to integrate his sculpture into my wall to make a new work. But they said it was a cultural relic, and so the project could not go forward.

JS: So you could not touch it?

LYL: Right. And why did I want to use Henry Moore? Because when I was a second-year art student, every young Chinese sculptor liked him.

JS: You recently made this piece called San Mao, with a man wearing wings; what is the connection between this piece and the rest of your work?

LYL: I originally studied sculpture. My earlier works all pay attention to society and social problems. So does San Mao. I had an exhibition in Shanghai, and I started looking at the way people walk in that city. It fit with my earlier understanding of San Mao, who was on author writing about Shanghai and who looked of some of the lowest-level social problems in China. These problems are the same today, and that's where the idea came from.

JS: Can you explain this work a bit further?

LYL: When I walk through Shanghai, and particularly when I was making my video there, I found there are so many people like San Mao, sleeping in the pedestrian tunnels, homeless. These scenes disturbed me. On the other end of the Bund, there is a statue of San Mao put up by the government, where he is smiling, healthy and beautiful, nothing like the character in the comics. I felt like the government was exploiting this character from the lower echelons of society, turning him into something that explained how beautiful this society has become. Just below the Shanghai Gallery of Art, where I had my exhibition, there are luxury retailers selling the most expensive Western brands. The space itself resembles a cathedral, opening into the heavens above. So I wanted to get at this in this space. He is not a real angel, but just hung from above with his wings. The visual effect is quite stronge and ambiguous, a bit like an alien, or like an unknown animal, trying to fly into the heavens, into the upscale restaurants above.

JS: You want to give the child a hope?

LYL: No, the child gave himself a hope.

JS: And this box, what is this?

LYL: The installation of crossing the street, the bricks.

JS: With something written on it?

LYL: No, the one with the writing is a different work, made for the exhibition Drive Shaft in Hong Kong. This work is from 1996, and in 1997 Hong Kong was going to return to Chinese sovereignty. At that time Hong Kong grew quite politicized, a topic for worldwide conversation. Political parties appeared from nowhere, collective voices, and yet these organizations and parties were very influenced by the Western political system. I wrote these characters as a way of separating the government organs from the political parties and organizations. In moving this wall, the characters got mixed up, and some bricks were even moved away, as per a police requirement. I did this right next to the immigration department building, and people were waiting in long lines to claim their foreign passports. The line snaked around the wall. The police said the wall was too dangerous, that it must be demolished, as they feared it would harm people. So this work actually took on a number of meanings, but none are evident from the photos. I moved this wall for four days, from the side of the street all the way to the door of the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

JS: So again there is this notion of time, the limits of time.

LYL: When I think about my works, I often consider their relation to the environment and society.

JS: Living in spatial time. Space is time, time is space.

LYL: It is not such a stable space.

JS: How do you see the present of Chinese contemporary art?

LYL: I think it's quite good for individual artists, but overall the interesting thing is that from the '80s until now, in just twenty years of contemporary Chinese art, there have been distinct differences between each period. The '80s, for example, were quite theoretical, as debates took the form of writing. There were very few places for exhibitions then, so people understand art through books, and they discussed it by writing. It was rare for exchange to happen through exhibitions. In the ‘90s, things loosened up a bit. There was a relative state of balance theoretical debates, opportunities to realize works, etc. Today there are so many resources available to artists, especially individual artists. There are many exhibition spaces, and lots of money. But now there's no one left writing about art. So I think if we integrate the best elements of these twenty years, things will  gradually get better.

JS: So there will be no more "wall" between China and the rest of the world, but a platform?

LYL: Yes, a platform, but we are also facing a difficulty: what is value of the things we do as artists, the publicly shared value? This is a tough question now. It is becoming more and more difficult to judge the value of the interventions that artists make. Before, for example, Chinese artists first had value inside of China, and then Western research would set this down, and these artists would gain recognition in the West. And then China would look at them, researching, studying. But that's no longer the case-now the platform is flat, and we see things of the same time as soon as they come out. You look of me, I look of you, but we never think anymore about what it all will mean when we have to write this into history, how we will talk about this. This is extremely difficult, one of the new problems of globalization.

JS: You must make it on your own, thinking that your own knowledge of the world is bigger than your own territory. We all come from a village, but if you go above the walls around that village, you discover other individuals, with other points of view, other problems. Judgment nowadays —like what we saw yesterday—there are so many people lost in judgment.

LYL: You have no way of judging works. Like yesterday's exhibition—the exhibition is up, but the artists are nowhere to be found. Or when we met in London in 1997, I would never have expected that you would ever come to China.

JS: No one can see where we will be tomorrow. That's the beauty of life. Who would have thought ten years ago that China would be at the center of the discussion.

LYL: You never know what the result will be. We just met once then. We shook hands.

(China Talks—Interviews with 32 Contemporary Artists by Jérôme Sans, P34-39, publish by Timezone 8 Limited, 2009)