Manray Hsu

Manray Hsu: You had been residing in China and the U.S for the past years. The political climate in U.S., especially during the Bush administration has obviously had an influence on your work, and this influence is shown in your work. Can you tell me something about this? 

Lin Yilin: I moved to New York in May of 2001, Bush had gone into power shortly before I moved there and he had taken and implemented a strong and harsh policy towards China, the crash of the U.S. reconnaissance plane and Chinese jet fighter which ended with the U.S. plane crashing into Hainan Province was a big incident during that time. Soon after I arrived in New York was the 911 Incident, I witnessed a lot of historical incidences during those years in U.S. Other than 911, there was also the big power-cut, after that was U.S. military action against Afghanistan and Iraq. I am not American, therefore without doubt I see America as an outsider with an unbiased point of view. In U.S. I have access to news about China which were unavailable in China. After the change in my identity, I see things in comparison, my art involves a lot of comparisons between China and U.S.
I engaged 2 performances in New York, it involved the nationalism in U.S. and China. The second piece was based upon the military actions of U.S. against Iraq and of course they were a continuation of using bricks as the medium for my art.

Hsu: The piece where you involved Iraq and bricks indicate your continuation of your conceptual thoughts on your art for the past 10 years and more. Can you tell us more about that piece and how you applied bricks and walls into the military actions of U.S. against Iraq?

Lin: I was invited by Mrs Melissa Chiu, that art piece was performed in Asia Society in New York, it was named "A Kind of Machine Called 'Liberation'". The word “Liberation” is most interesting. I had heard it repeatedly in my childhood, the mainland always talked about liberating Taiwan. You are from Taiwan, so, I’m sure you are acquainted with this history. Bush claimed to liberate Iraq and took military actions in the name of righteousness; I made this piece in the name of Liberation.
I always use bricks, bricks are simple and easy to be incorporated into a construction. When incorporated into the society, it takes relationships with the human body, with man. Ever since the creation of this art piece, I incorporated a second participant whereas before I was the only participant in my performance art. I asked a Caucasian student to ride a children’s bicycle on top of this art piece, round and round aiming to sabotage this piece. In the end, I was unharmed but the student injured his ankle, although the injury wasn’t planned as a part of the performance but it’s an  ironic metaphor for some of the outcomes of the actions by the U.S. and the international society.

Hsu: When reflected in everyday life, a brick constructs a wall and these walls would then construct a building, therefore, a brick is a positive matter. Combined with another frame of thought, the brick can reflect its negative aspects in the sense that a wall is built to be knocked down, military actions are to tear down walls, the Great Wall of China is also a wall. In your art there are concepts of negativity, in your performance, you emphasized the mobility of a wall to insinuate the destructive possibilities of a wall. 

Can you talk more about the recent changes in U.S? The rapid political and economic development in China is an indication of the changes of the nation’s perception towards the masses on many different levels. Getting back to the art pieces in this exhibition, you expressed nationalism and patriotism, are such “isms” still very evident in China? Is patriotism still evident in the new trend of social consumerism?

Lin: I find patriotism somewhat strange. I remember receiving disciplined patriot education at school when I was little, the patriotism doctrine at school nowadays are less hard-lined than that of the Cultural Revolution days. The incidents that took place this year, such as the Tibet Independence Demonstrations abroad, protest against the Western Media had brought out the patriotism of the younger generation of Chinese, in other words, it was brought out by a negative historical events rather than a positive means, such as education.
Comparing with U.S., the American way of patriotism is instilled in its everyday life, it starts from elementary school, Hollywood pictures have the same patriotism, and competitive sports, we can see American patriotism in every corner, many of the American household would fly the American flag in front of their house. In China, one would see less of such apparent patriotism. In a certain historical event, when Chinese feels they are being bullied or shamed, this patriotism would be brought out once again.

Hsu: Every country needs to teach its people to be patriotic, behind every country is its military, a need to be defended, a clear definition of boarders. The appearance of Terrorism obscured the definition of boarders. U.S. used Anti-Terrorism as a cunning tactic to invade Iraq. Homeland Security is put in charge of dealing with terrorism. By invading Iraq, the question of boarder is combined with terrorism; Iraq needed to become the cradle of terrorism and be connected with Al Quaeda to be legitimately invaded.

Generally speaking, every country have the same tendencies, but its appearance and quantity is different, the methods are different. It is the same case for Taiwan but we are still unsure of how will “patriotism” be brought out in Taiwan? It depends on the policy of mainland China. In recent years, the Chinese Government is becoming clearer with the general opinion of the people of Taiwan and that is to pay less attention to the voice of Taiwan Independence, as it is only the voice of a minority used for political purposes. I think the political climate in the modernization of mainland China is special, special in the way that the entire nation is under capitalistic management and controlling the peoples’ perception towards the government, manipulating the masses’ perceptive of security. Up till now, Internet control and information control is still very evident in mainland China. Does your exhibition have a governmental theme? Do you feel it’s a big problem to be watched by the government since there is a criticism towards the government. What are your thoughts on this?

Lin: I don’t consider my art a criticism against the government, military action or commercial action, they are all the most fundament of human behavior, it is a matter of man’s ability to survive. Leading figures are involved in my art and my aim was not to criticize but to draw parallels, these parallels are sought between Chinese military or Chinese soldiers and American soldiers. This comparison calls out from afar and is used as a point of connection in my art, I grew up in Mao’s age and its undoubtedly left its ingrained mark. My years living abroad happened to be during the height of Bush’s military actions abroad. As a medium, I tie them together and use it as the centre idea for this exhibition. Thus, this exhibition seems like a love-triangle. Of course, whenever an artist consider himself to be the center of the society is ridiculous but it is this precise ridicule which becomes a mediation, this mediation allows different perspectives on the present and the past.
I don’t know what the outcome of the exhibition would be nor do I have experience in solo exhibitions in Beijing, I just hope there would be people coming to see it.

Hsu: As an Chinese artist who spends his time traveling back and forth between the 2 places, what are your considerations of your identity? What is the general perception of the American art circles towards an Chinese artist, what are their expectations, do they have an distinct way of seeing art? Is it different when they see and South Korean artist or a Taiwan artist or a German artist?

Lin: I think Chinese artist have their special background, for an artist born and raised and educated in China and later moved to the west, it is still difficult for one’s artistic creativity to be completely detached from Chinese education. In the West, especially in New York where it is highly ethnically diverse, Western art critic would attach great importance to the artist’s ethnic background to his art and become accustomed to seeking this connection, we may see it as a way to seek one’s roots or to seek the artistic icon of different skin color. As an indigenous Chinese artist, it is difficult to think like a “international artist” because there is a problem of language familiarity. Most Chinese artist think in Chinese and are not familiar in reading art essays in for example English. For most Chinese artists, their English schooling didn’t go that well, the new generation of Chinese artists who went to study abroad would speak much better English but it seems there isn’t a change from the roots level amongst the new generation of Chinese artists, maybe Taiwan experienced this stage earlier than the mainland.
Nowadays Chinese artists enjoy advantages, they needn’t explain themselves so much. China is a nation already very special, a phenomenon unprecedented amongst all nations-capitalism, socialism and an economical lifestyle in co-existence. Such national status explains a lot already. As an overseas artist, others would think of him as an international artist but their frame of mind isn’t completely like an international artist. Because they are traveling “back and forth”, they will of course carry with them elements from both sides but that makes them indefinite. Some would call this nomadic, is this nomadic way of life a good or bad thing to an artist? I think it is only the special phenomenon of a special period in history.

Hsu: Within the artist’s nomadic lifestyle, exists what you said earlier, indefinite, instability. This instability isn’t instability of life but that of the perception and way of thinking, it is a instability or a lack of ground beneath the art pieces. How much Chinese element is used in your art and what is Chinese element, this is a subject widely discussed in recent years. Also, you discussed education experience which sounded like collectivism, you live in the U.S. among such an unstable environment, on one hand, it can be said that there seems to be a lack of pattern we can follow to understand your art and on the other hand it can be said that we as artists are always looking and creating new ways of expression, maybe the different ways of expression is the hard part to understand.
For example, the art pieces in this exhibition, seems to be a gap of understanding, because it involves who it is that comes and see your art, how much do they (the audience) understand about China, how much do they understand about the U.S. Due to this gap of understanding, the obscurity of the art piece is heightened, making the form of the art piece even more obscured. For example, in the documentary film <8分钟>, the film maker does not plan what it is that they are documenting everything comes as they are. Your description is a cop car rolls up in Time Square. What is it that you are actually documenting, although it is documented but it wasn’t part of the plan. Only when screening this documentary do you find the true intention of this documentary but it only becomes clear after the filming and this still becomes an integral idea of the documentary.
Documentary film makers attach great importance to the representational aspect of documentary film making and it is carried into political level. Your art work is an connection of your life in China and U.S. You found some interesting points of connection, for example patriotism and heroism which can be used as a means to mobilize the masses. I think there are 2 point s of obscurity in this art piece, as an artist, you may think that this is the connection point, whereas the documentary film which I mentioned is a matter of art form, the audience can see what it is that you are trying to portray but when I see it I may find something different and that creates a gap.
What does your nomadic state mean to you? The American art field would not apply the history of South Korea or Taiwan when seeing the art from a South Korean artist or a Taiwan artist. South Korean and Taiwan artists would consider themselves to be the successors of internationalism. In every art piece lies the artist’s personal tragedies, and their growing process under a certain way of education, this is something Taiwan artist share as well.
Another question. After you came back to China and saw the state of economic development and the vibrant art market, what is your observation of Chinese contemporary art scene? Especially when art is in connection with politics, what is your observation to contemporary art?

Lin: I think the state of he Chinese contemporary art scene is chaotic and murky. You don’t know how their art should be categorized. Especially after the commercialism of recent years, people’s standards seem to be in accordance with the price in auction sale. What is the direction of the Chinese contemporary art? No one can say. But I think the recent economic crisis is a good thing for art to return to its original state. This needs the effort of many and not just the numerous famous artists exhibiting heir art in a few famous art galleries.
Chinese contemporary art needs the getting rid of art theory, it will make the artists become arrogant since there are no standards restricting them. Many mediocre artists will be flattered by others and become very successful, this is most harmful for Chinese contemporary art.
Hsu: On a certain level this is the same for the international art scene. I feel the distortion is abundant under media sensationalization in China at present. There seems to be a vacuum of art critique but it is not necessarily a bad thing. You were right to say that it takes more than a few artists to turn things around but its more a question of how to change the way of thought, how to be when under public pressure, how to keep a certain distance away from the art market, these are all questions difficult to resolve.
Lets talk of one of my observance, of course, it is not raised by myself only-what role does an artist play in society? What relationship does an artist keep with the society? Artists are considered to be advanced thinkers and that creates and independence but independent only of the society, the artists are observed by the art market and not free from media sensationalization, therefore he is not truly independent.
There is a middle class emerging in China, they have a certain control over the government. Are you familiar with protest in Xiamen against Taiwan Longxiang Chemical Factory?

Lin: Yes I am.

Hsu: That type of protest is a contemporary type of protest, middle class takes to the streets in a happy mood, they are not protesting against government policy nor do they demonstrate in the name of freedom of speech but against a chemical factory directly affecting their lives. This is something the government should acknowledge and reply to.
This is a kind of power over the government, a power unlike Falungong’s mass rally nor intellectuals and politicians protesting for change in government policy but a voice calling the government to be responsible for its actions, it is indeed a new kind of political power.
In the U.S., you may be familiar with artists gathering to talk about political issues, some of these talks are aimed directly at a special political phenomenon backed by a strong sense of democracy as opposed to expressing their political views through their art. Their views are not often seen on political reading material and their political views are not that apparent either.
Have you noticed such a change in the contemporary Chinese art scene? What in your opinion is the artists’ relationship with society?

Lin: In my opinion, of course, it may not be the full picture, I think the Chinese artists are absent in this aspect, they like the middle class which are the everyday people fending for their own interest, against local government or entrepreneurs….fending against their own gains or this new kind of power. In recent years, Chinese artists are seeking their own gains, in this perspective, they are the same with the majority of the people, unlike the messiah worrying over the issues at large.
Of course there is one thing we as artists try to engage in, or we try to engage ourselves in, though it is very difficult. Some artists may create art work that’s related to a certain incident but it is difficult to create a dialogue with the society at large. The Chinese society is in lack of a platform for dialogue or discussion, whereas in the west there are many such platforms. China has only an art environment and an art system still taking shape, much of the discussion still involves only the artistic ideas of individual artists. There aren’t such trends taking shape at such stage in China.

Hsu: As a curator, I feel such trends are given to me. There are so many biennales in Asia opening in September this year, Shanghai Biennale, a Turkish curator and I organized the Taipei Biennale. In Taipei Biennale, there are a lot of art works expressing much political-criticism, many people who had gone to both Shanghai Biennale and Taipei Biennale say that almost all of the art works exhibited in the Taipei Biennale can not be shown in Shanghai Biennale, of course, this is maybe exaggerated. As a curator, I was able to organize such a exhibition depended a lot on the political freedom of the political freedom in Taiwan or a political climate of anarchism. After the political liberalization in Taiwan, the freedom of speech for Anarchism in Taiwan is abundant. Did you know, in the street of Taipei, even in front of a police station, one can burn the national flag of Republic of China (Taiwan Authority) the police wouldn’t stop you, everyday people would also not file charges against you.
Of course, as a curator and an artist, it is interesting to contemplate whether or not we can put this freedom to use. Although Taiwan have this space for anarchism, art works and exhibitions involving politics are still rare in the recent years, artists also have a tendency not to discuss the issues at large. Instead we see mediocre exhibitions with artworks which are conservative in thought. We enjoy this freedom, it is constantly around us and it exist in different ways, the question is can we use this freedom and do things with it and realize our so called “political imagination”.
Although my knowledge about mainland China is limited, I still want to ask. In this chaotic state of China, which of course have its own freedom within this chaos, in this special kind of chaos, are artists able to use this freedom? Do artists realize this freedom and try to use it? Such as making a documentary?

Lin: Yes, one of the questions you raised was the relationship between artists and the political environment, lets talk about this first, your so called freedom should be a freedom which exist below and not a freedom to chitchat on a platform. The freedom below allows things to take shape that’s above rational knowledge, or to be creative in ways that’s unconventional. This type may not be widely in existence in the west which is why Chinese art attract attention of the art circles and the west. Living in a country with such unique character allows artists to show their true talent and create their unique art. But, as an artist, if his directions are unclear and abuse this power given to him by the society, the chaos in this society can also make him completely lose his direction.
I think in the artistic climate of China at present, many artists can create many great works but speaking of a long term career, it is difficult for an artist to be focused and dedicated to change something which he feels to be important. Often, the artworks expresses personal sentiments, whereas reasoning can be carried onto a philosophical level, the space for this is very limited, before long an artist would run out of space.
As an artist living in these two places, what can I do? Returning here, I feel no different to other people, that’s because, I had already lived here for so long but in my exchanges with the others I notice that I had already changed somewhat. Before, I could incorporate this city into my system and close myself off and be directly in connection with it. Now, I feel the boarder and this system to be obscured. I think as a so called international artist, I search for a new perception of aestheticism and what’s most advanced. As a Chinese artist, I don’t think my art language is that of globalization and 90’s post-colonialism like so many other Chinese artists, they implement a lot of traditional Chinese elements and icons into their artwork, these elements have their identity value and can help the west to differentiate to the culture that they are used to. But as an artist in accordance to my age, I try to combine reality and artistic expression. For us, this boarder is broader thus more difficult to succeed.

Hsu: Right. “to succeed” is a direction followed by artists, this is applicable to American art circles, can they in the end solve the mystery of the “Chinese Knot”, the “Chinese Knot” is what you said about perceiving Chinese artist through a mentality of post colonialism. When can American art critique circles began to search new art and art form. New things had already started to emerge in some artwork, what is their true difference between art in the 90’s and the art at present, this is the question.
According to my observations, the European art critique circles is much more subtle and divers than the American circles, of course both are very repetitive, more and more curators are noticing through exhibitions how the artists combines art cultures from both sides, this is one aspect. Another aspect is that this sought for connection is another reflection of globalization, this shows a opportunity for another type of art critique to emerge. Speaking for myself, as an Asian curator, I am involved in art critique and being active in Europe, I feel sensitive to such questions.
The Chinese art circles shows some apparent limitations. When art critique or curators see contemporary Chinese art, it is difficult to surpass the phenomenon of post-colonialism, in other words, what’s uniquely Chinese, a modernization of China in its own way. In your art however, I see a new perspective, as an international artist, you are able to uphold your own stand-point, your own positioning in life under this globalization. This is something I see in your art. But does the American art critique circle see this is another question.

Lin: Yes, What you say is very interesting. Maybe for my kind of artist, this perplexity is what the value is. Maybe this perplexity of the minority is a sign that one day it is applicable to the masses, Not now but maybe in the future.