Lin Yilin and the Rise of the Chinese Trans-national Avant-garde


door David Garcia

The rise of China has a surprising manifestation in the entry of a growing number of impressive Chinese artists into the international contemporary art world. Anyone who visited the latest (and undervalued) Dokumenta XII, 2007, will have been struck by the quality, variety and sheer quantity of the contributions by Chinese artists. What is not much commented on however is remarkable is the way that the 'vector' of the visual arts has functioned in ways that seem to short circuit some of the restrictions on expression in the general Chinese media. Once again we see how the fragile claims to political relevance of contemporary art is based on the way that it is able to articulate certain conceptions of human freedom. In the case of Chinese art these freedoms have been able to arise in the context of small locally embedded audiences without the benefit of accompanying institutional structures, galleries, critics, journals, curators, museums.

Most of this kind of support for Chinese experimental art seems to come from the western curators. In part this is because a significant number of Chinese artists have chosen to speak our 'language', by which I mean they have adopted the lexicon of western contemporary art practice and used it to explore and to navigate their own experiences of rapid modernisation. The benefits of this kind of political 'economy' flows in both directions; the language of contemporary art practice seems fit for the purpose of navigating the extreme volatility of current Chinese experience and our tired cultural vocabularies are enlivened and transformed by their collision with a new context. But still it is clearly highly problematic that the audience for this work is seldom a local Chinese audience.

Lin Yilin

One of the most original of these artists is Lin Yilin who is a founding member of Big Tailed Elephant, an art group based in Guangzho. As a group they have produced installations, public art, and performance that express a 'radical take on Guangzhou's spatial transformation from feudal to modern'. They came to international prominence during the 1990s. Yilin exemplifies the way in which these artists (with little or no local audience for contemporary art) have succeeded in refreshing the established parameters of the western avant-garde visual art by juxtaposing this language with the lived experience China's turbo capitalism.

Yilin's own work fuses the formal vocabulary of conceptualism, performance and minimalism which he then deploys, into brief collisions with the frenzied pace of China's urban spaces, through a series of remarkable performances and installations. His best work intensifies our sense the frenetic pace of China's development by momentarily interrupting the flow or slowing down events, producing a (relatively) 'still point in a turning world'.

I came across his work through what has become his signiture piece 'Safely Manoeuvering Across Lin He Road,' which was made as far back as 1995.

In this work Yilin transports a wall, brick by brick across the busy road making and unmaking the wall as the traffic swirls around him. His absorbtion in this action has the effect of momentarily slowing the dizzying pace of one of the world's most frenzied metropolis. 'The wall is no longer a fixed structure but moves across the street a transient boundary'.

For the Amsterdam screen based art project Visual Foreign Correspondents we invited him to contribute a work

And made a short interview pasted below.

The piece Yilin contributed is a video of a performance, which was inspired by a scene witnessed by the artist in which a prisoner was being taken by the police with his hand shackled to his own foot forcing the prisoner to stumble along the road.

Yillin recreates something of this. The video depicts the artist struggling along a busy street with one hand handcuffed to his leg. The camera follows at a distance recording the both the artist's faltering progress and the variety reactions, ranging from astonishment to indifference, from fellow pedestrians. Shackled to himself, the artist shuffles along, desperately trying to keep up with the city's furious pace. In this work Yilin momentarily embodies something beyond a local situated experience of China today, he also reflects the lives of many around the world struggling to keep pace with the effects of fast and furious globalization.

A short interview with Lin Yilin

David Garcia: Artists often become well known as individuals but draw energy from groups and networks. Historically you are associated with The Big Tail Elephant can you speak about the origins of this group and its subsequent development. Does this network remain and is it still important for you'

Lin Yilin:
In 1990, Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui and myself organized the group 'Big Elephant Tail'. We held the first exhibition in 1991, and continued to do one exhibition or event every year until 1998. Xu Tan joined us after the exhibition in 1992. 'The Big Elephant' is a group that does not advocate doctrines. All of the artists live in Guangzhou and respectively completed their projects when the exhibition was coming. The art forms include installation, performance, video, photography, digital work and so on. Most of the content reflects the issues of Chinese urban life, and pure research on art concept. In 2006, we established our own studios respectively. What is sad is that Liang Juhui left us forever in this year due to a medical incident. Although we haven't gathered to make a group exhibition for almost 10 years, we are all developing our own career and lives in different cities. We still keep lots of communications. Now we launch a new round of 'Big Tail Elephant' exhibition. The present situation becomes very interesting. Our background is not only Guangzhou anymore. It is more like a product of globalization. The Internet and the frequent long-distance flights unite us together. Undoubtedly the cross-boundary and cross-cultural creativities will be extremely challenging and stimulating.

D.G. What were the forces and possibilities that enabled your group to emerge'

L.Y. There are two points that concerns our group. First, our creations are based on the context of the development of art history, especially in the field of contemporary art. Second, the city we live is Guangzhou, the place where China's earliest urban renewal and economic reform started. We were doing arts in a social laboratory. Undoubtedly we could be the vanguard in East Asia's rapid urbanization during the 1990s.

D.G. Institutionally how did your art education support you. Were there teachers who inspired you' What are the possibilities now for intervening creatively to nurture Chinese art and cultural education'

L.Y. In the China's art colleges, what we learned were mostly about Chinese or the western traditional art skills. The knowledge of modern and contemporary art was achieved by self-study. The teachers in art institutions reopened after the Cultural Revolution had little influence on art. We admired the Chinese or Foreign Masters in books. There are many such figures influenced us in spirit. Surely, what enlightened me are minimalism and conceptual art. Freedom is the precondition for art to intervene society and education. There are still too many bureaucratic institutions in Chinese society. The intervention of Contemporary art on education just begins; meanwhile pure academic research is interfered by a strong business environment. China requires revival from all aspects, not only on the economic front.

D.G. Your work seems to deal with boundaries and constraints. As art in the late 20th century became all about problematising boundaries your work seems to be part of this process, it is part of what looks like a post-studio practice. Daily life is your studio where you act out your works. But how true is this in reality' Do you have something like a studio practice running alongside your interventions?

L.Y. Indeed, Chinese society is undergoing great changes. There are many problems and contradictions as emerged out of this process which stimulates the reading of a new world. Some alleged boundary problems emerge according to western values. There are different views and methods about how to resolve these issues. Various issues also stimulate the artists to think and express. As a Chinese artist came here in the 1990s, I had creative experiences without conventional studio or places for presenting formal exhibitions. Then making art on the street becomes the fastest and easiest way to express, which is closer to reality. After 2001, when I lived in New York living a solitary life without a studio, having difficulties in language for communication and being away from the local art circle. From the geographical edge of art map of the 1990s (Guangzhou) to the psychological edge of the centre of the new millennium (New York), I find new possibilities to create in the gaps.

D.G. The development of the western modernism has been a slow and sometimes a struggle against conservative institutions (the struggle also gives these projects an energy). But it was rarely just the artists working alone. There was always an art audience, an art market and art commentators or critics. The rapid growth and entry of Chinese contemporary art seems to be coming into existence in another way can you say a little about this.

L.Y. Modern Chinese society suffered several strong changes so that traditional culture no longer exists, especially after experiencing the Cultural Revolution. Along with the impact of economic development, the official cultural system had also lost its authoritative position, thus in the process of a new system emerges; Chinese contemporary art confronts social reformation. With a large number of art galleries and museums established in recent years, it seems that institutions similar to the one from the west are emerging. Perhaps it is merely a shell. Is its content totally the same with that of the west? It is becoming unpredictable that all people are involved in this Great Leap Forward of art.

As you deployed the language of contemporary art practice in the Chinese situation, and then re-cycle it back for sophisticated western audiences what responsibility do you think Chinese artists (or others) have in developing local Chinese audiences or publics?
Would this not be the next important step? How to proceed on this?

L.Y. This is not just the responsibility of Chinese artists. We have to rebuild the art and social transmission channels. Chinese contemporary artists now have the opportunities to teach their practical experience and knowledge, and by Biennial Exhibition the art galleries offer the public more chances to experience and get acquainted with contemporary art. At the same time, a large number of galleries and art space had emerged these years, shortening the distance between contemporary art and the public. But the rapidly popular art market also brings the trial to the artists. Chinese contemporary artists take the risk to change the isolated status suddenly to become brand name stars. If Chinese contemporary art cannot develop a particular theory, then ultimately they would only be expensive craftwork for this period of history.

D.G. In western informational economy there is an obsession with creativity, originality and innovation. Does anything like this operate in China'

This is both part of maintaining competitive advantage but historically it is also connected with a very particular conception of human freedom as a process of self-articulation or self creation. How do you see this? Am I describing a typically bourgeois western concept of selfish individualism here? Or is something like it emerging in China. Or was it there all along but hidden?

To the history of Chinese society, it takes a slow process to accept new things, often faced with strong resistance. But ultimately the new things would be digested as parts of Chinese cultural characters. Thus, creativity and innovation have to be divorced from the freedom of individualism and to be hidden in the dispersive communities.

D.G. Boundaries and boundary objects are a central component for thinking about contemporary art. It can raise in all kinds of ways the myths we westerners have about the quest for freedom. Is true freedom a world without boundaries? Or is freedom about being able to participate in how those boundaries are drawn? Do thoughts about different kinds of freedom operate in your work or am I mis-reading it?

L.Y. From the ancient times to the present, Chinese people never have the tradition and custom to talk about freedom. The input of the western idea influenced the modern Chinese intellectuals, but it seems that it hadn't been rooted in the land. I think freedom and power are inseparable. Human being cannot have all aspects of powers, so the definition of freedom is always specific to the different societies and regions. I have interests in using limited freedom to cross borders to see what can be established.

Visual Foreign Correspondents

Lin Yilin's work (and this interview) is featured as part of Visual Foreign Correspondent, an independent platform in which 11 artists from around the world are invited each month to give their personal visual commentary on events and situations from their locally situated perspective, with works especially created for urban screens (and other screen based platforms). This project will give people in the streets of Amsterdam a brief window into other regions, peoples and other kinds of imagination. VFC is realized in collaboration with The Globalised Crystal Ball a series year long series of monthly discussions in which leading thinkers from around the world address the current phase of globalization and the impact of the newly emerging constellations of power.

Visual Foreign Correspondent

Lin Yilin's website

The Globalised Crystal Ball