David garcia on Mon, 26 Nov 2007 14:11:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Lin Yilin

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

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  

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.

D.G. 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?

L.Y. 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  

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

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