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Re: <nettime> Lin Yilin
Brian Holmes on Wed, 28 Nov 2007 03:23:30 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Lin Yilin

It's excellent to read more about Lin Yilin, whose Documenta piece, 
"Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road" (1995) was a great discovery for 
me, one of the best pieces in the show. I'm just returning from Southern 
China, and I visited the Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou where Lin 
recently did an exhibition, more or less hidden away amidst a vegetable 
market in an outlying district not far from the "Love-In Mall" (just 
another typical shopping center overflowing with consumerism). I'm 
extremely curious about the Chinese art scene and I don't quite know 
what to make of it. David Garcia's remarks are a good starting point:

 > What is not much commented on however 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.

Those who went to Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves at the ZKM a few 
months ago could see an amazing example of this short-circuiting by an 
artist named Liu Wei, who braved the absolute prohibition of 
contemporary Chinese society by going out to the campus of Beijing 
University on June 4, 2005 -- the 16th anniversary of the Tiananmen 
Square massacre -- and asking people, "What day is it today?" What the 
video shows over and over, with only one real exception, is people 
breaking off, falling silent, dodging away, usually with a panic look in 
their eyes as the process of self-censorship kicks in, plus a confused 
embarrassment at having it filmed. To get how impressive this is, you 
have to realize that one of the most famous images in the world, the one 
of a man stopping a column of tanks on their way to Tiananmen square, is 
largely unknown in mainland China and of course, strictly censored from 
the Internet. Upon seeing this video I assumed that the author of "A Day 
to Remember" was living in exile, but no, he lives and works in Beijing 
(even if, not surprisingly, the piece does not show up among the videos 
listed on his website, www.lwstudio.com). It is as though critical art, 
which for almost twenty years could only exist in Western exile, were 
finally returning to China.

In my travels and research I have come across a rather short list of 
currently active artists, mostly from the 1990s, who powerfully and 
corrosively explore the kind of limited freedom that Lin Yinlin talks 
about in David's interview. The work that interests me corresponds very 
much to the description that Lin gives of contemporary Chinese art in 
general, and of the Big Tail Elephant group in particular: "It appeared 
as a nondescript monster which, like present day cities in China, 
abruptly came into existence. Driven by the insane and irrational 
consumerism and hedonism permeating China's cities, people have been 
continuously in a state of unaccountable enjoyment, utter ignorance of 
the future and an excitement aroused by fierce competition. Within such 
a scenario, the Big Tail Elephant's art, covering urban issues such as 
urban development, consumerism, traffic, population and sex culture, is 
inevitably imprinted with marks of the times." The video of the artist 
maneuvering across Lin He Road, sheltering from the traffic behind a 
temporary wall of breeze blocks which he displaces brick by brick to 
make the crossing, takes on an incredibly vivid and paradoxical meaning 
when you see the tremendous sprawl of the new cities, choked with 
traffic and polluted, bordering on insanity but at the same time 
gleaming with luxury. The work could be a metaphor of an entire society 
moving decisively ahead under the cover of the very force of 
overdevelopment that is about to become life-threatening, but at the 
same time, that is still the only game in town, the one you've got to 
play to be part of anything. There is a kind of wild and violent 
lucidity to the best of contemporary Chinese art, that asks for a 
response, for a dialogue, for a pragmatically critical engagement with 
the present.

That's not all that's going on, however, and if interesting art was 
definitely able to arise during the 90s in locally embedded situations 
without all the usual art paraphernalia, those days are gone today. What 
you see now is an explosion of art, everywhere in the Chinese cities, 
far beyond the biennials and the attention of the Western curators. In 
Beijing and Shanghai, a new museum is being built everywhere you look, 
there are more galleries than artists, and amidst the hustle and bustle 
of sales it is extremely difficult to get at the meaning of anything. 
Everyone will tell you that there is no difference between artists and 
businessmen in China: Ai Wei Wei, famous for his bicycle installations 
and for bringing a thousand Chinese visitors to the Documenta, is 
basically operating as a land developer on the outskirts of Beijing, and 
he is no exception, art and real estate are very closely linked, while 
the buzzword of "creative industries" becomes omnipresent in the coastal 
cities. The fate of Beijing's Factory 798 / Dashanzi Art District is 
emblematic: after less than five years of tremendously interesting 
"locally embedded" activity, it has escaped being razed for new 
apartment complexes only to become a tourist attraction and luxury 
consumption environment under the watchful eye of the state, which is 
trying to figure out how to tolerate some contemporary art and prove to 
the rest of the world that Olympic China is no longer a land that exiles 
its dissidents. At the same time, it's obviously a highly authoritarian 
state that censors the Internet very severely and clamps down 
immediately on any kind of protest, except the ones that somebody 
decides should be tolerated for reasons that can change tomorrow or in 
the next five minutes. So the degree of schizophrenia is impressive, and 
the apparent lack of any overt critical or even searching discussion in 
public is rather depressive -- even if we are also getting used to that 
here in the USA...

As Lin himself says:

 > 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.

The kind of theory that Lin is talking about will be written in Chinese, 
to address the complexities of a national/imperial situation involving 
1.3 billion people. Nobody but the Chinese artists and intellectuals can 
do that, and I suspect that as the construction and consumption boom 
tops out, enough people will become disgusted with the prevailing 
euphoria and greed to start forming the kinds of marginal circles and 
semi-secret languages that are needed. However, what gets translated on 
the transnational level still matters, particularly in an age when 
communication across borders has become so much more fluid. The 
blockbuster concept shows and facile biennials fit perfectly into the 
ambient meaninglessness. Careful work with specific artists, filmmakers 
and intellectuals who are given enough time and space to develop their 
perceptions and ideas can probably make a real contribution, both to a 
wider understanding of China's situation in the world, and to the more 
intense and detailed debates unfolding within the country. Thanks to 
David and the people at Visual Foreign Correspondent for this material 
from Lin Yinlin, shackled to himself amidst the overwhelming cacophony 
of urban China.

best, Brian

David Garcia wrote:

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

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