Monica Merlin (MM) (From Tate Research Center: Asia_Pacific)
interviews Lin Jingjing (LJ) in her studio in Cao chang di Art District, Beijing 2013
Monica: As I’m researching on Chinese women artists, I thought it would be useful to talk directly to the artists, and it has been a delight to know that you all are very happy to be interviewed.
LJ: To be honest, very few people pay much attention or try to understand how things are for women artists in China. Sometimes there are exhibitions of female artists, but they don’t shed light on anything. The curator just sticks a whole load of women together; it is all very superficial. It would be more interesting if they used a historical or societal perspective to look at how things are for women artists. For example, the issue of what effect a woman’s gender has on her, what space is available to her in this society, and her thinking etc. These are interesting questions. But it is strange to think that you should be included in a particular exhibition just because you are a woman. I’m not saying I’m completely unwilling to take part in an exhibition of women artists, just that it should be an exhibition that has some kind of meaning beyond including an artist for her gender alone. So I really like your research topic, since it explores real issues. I’m really happy to be able to support you.
MM: Do you think that by arranging these exhibitions the curators just want to give you a space to exhibit your art, or do they have other aims?
LJ: My sense is that some curators are just looking for a theme for their exhibitions. It is if when buying shoes you said, ‘I normally wear leather shoes, so this time I should get some cloth shoes instead.’ If I say to someone, ‘I’m an artist’, they might reply by saying, ‘Ah, great, we are putting on an exhibition of female artists soon’, but they won’t have a clue about what you do and have never seen your art. They just say they will ask you to take part in an exhibition of female artists. It is really strange, and completely meaningless.
MM: Do you think, generally speaking, that Chinese women artists face difficulties in exhibiting their work?
LJ: Yes, great difficulties.
MM: Have you faced these difficulties yourself?
LJ: Of course, very often. Sometimes when people organize an exhibition they will decide to include a few women artists – to make sure the exhibition doesn’t sound so “unbalanced.” Also, male artists are generally very unwilling to talk about art with female artists. They are far more willing to talk about the clothes you are wearing. This is something I often joke about with other women artists. Often at an exhibition opening, male artists will sit around talking about art, but when they start talking to you they’ll change the conversation to something different.
MM: Do they think that you don’t understand art because you are a woman, or do they think the art you make is trivial?
Li Jingjing: I think they don’t feel any need to talk about art with women artists. It is not a conscious choice, it is just the way their mind works. They are just not in the habit of it!
MM: Do you think that this behaviour is related to traditional views of women?
Li Jingjing: It is part of their ideas about a woman’s identity. I’ll give you an example. Say you’re in a restaurant with your friends having a conversation about culture. And in your group of friends there is someone who is a housekeeper, or a waiter, someone who you have never talked about culture or art with. When you see them, you are still very polite, but you talk to them about other things, the weather, clothes, anything but culture. In your mind-set, there is no need to talk to them about culture. This is how I think it works. Male artists see themselves as playing a different role when talking to you, with no need to talk about art. It is very strange. Of course, I’m talking in general terms here – it is not as if every male artist is like this. But on a societal level, this is a serious issue. And there are also many other reasons behind this problem – I’m not saying that men are the sole reason for this problem. There are a whole range of problems.
Secondly, and this applies to women in society generally and not just to artists, modern society treats women as a commodity. It is just like the way you buy a new TV when your current one gets old. A commodity has a whole range of questions associated with it: Is it easy to use? Does it look nice? Is it in fashion? How much does it cost? Society treats women like a commodity. Just look at fashion magazines telling you how to be a ‘charming woman’, how to manage your family, how to change yourself in this way or that, how to succeed, how to get a good boyfriend, how to keep your boyfriend, how to put on makeup…all this stuff. This is all part of society’s education of women. From girls to grown women, women are always regarded as a commodity. The most important aspect of a commodity, of course, is that it can be replaced. So the problem is not just with one person or one group, it is that the whole direction of society leads to these problems.
This problem also affects how women view themselves. They think that they should behave in certain ways, or that their most important task is to make themselves look beautiful, even through plastic surgery. They see finding a man as the ultimate goal, and eventually treat themselves as commodities. Since the whole of society is pushing in this direction nobody thinks that there is any problem with this. But in reality, female identity is something different than this. This situation has been present for many years across the whole world, not just in China. It occurs on a broad scale, as well as in the smaller world of Chinese women artists.
Nowadays, I get the impression that women artists are treated with more importance in the West. I think that it is partly due to people realising that women artists think about things and do things in a different way, and that this is worthy of praise. The other aspect to it is summed up in the Chinese phrase ‘thirty years to the east of the river, thirty years to the west’ – people have seen a lot of male artists and now fancy a change. In China, on the other hand, the situation is a bit trickier. The issues inherent to Chinese society’s views on women are more serious, and it is not easy to change these deeply rooted ideas.
MM: Do you think that feminism requires greater attention in China?
LJ: I think it is not quite that simple. I think that feminist issues are part of a greater issue of identity. We have a special Women’s Day on the 8th of March in China, but there is no Men’s Day. It is analogous to the way in which newspapers and online media glorify people for returning someone’s lost wallet. If incidents like this make the media, it means that very few people would actually do this, that it is something ‘special’! So the fact that one day has been designated as Women’s Day just goes to show that this identity has never been accorded much importance: something special had to be invented to make up for the lack of importance with which women are treated. I think this is a very dangerous message. It shows how serious the situation is.
MM: I agree that these are very complex issues related to women artists in China. By focussing on women in my research I of course don’t want to marginalise them, but aim at understanding them and providing them with a space to express their own thoughts. But as you just said, this can actually be quite dangerous, as it could lead to isolation. How do you think this problem can be resolved in the future?
LJ: It is a strange problem. In fact, if you have a society in which more attention is given to women, then feminism becomes less needed. It is precisely because so little attention is paid to women that feminism is so important. If feminism didn’t exist, then there would be even less attention for women. It is a paradox.
MM: What are your own thoughts on feminism?
LJ: I think that from a feminist perspective, what is relevant to me is whether you can really do things as a woman that have an effect on others. But if your actions have no effect whatsoever and you try to make yourself important based on the fact that you’re a woman, this is meaningless. This type of feminism is utterly useless, because all you can do is just shout that women should be equal and so on. It can never achieve any result, because you have nothing substantive to talk about.
So I think people need to focus more on the way in which women do things, or the way in which women do things that surpass gender, since many things are completely unrelated to gender. For example, everyone, one day, will lose the person they love the most, or the person who loves you the most will lose you. This is an unchangeable fact, part of the cruelty of life. This is not a women’s issue, or a men’s issue: it is a problem that every person must face. So if you can forget gender completely when talking about issues like this, you can discover that you approach these topics simply as a living being. In this sense, it seems somewhat narrow to talk about feminism and equality between men and women. So I think that a solid foundation is required: you need to be doing these things, thinking about these things, raising questions, and having an impact as an artist, whether male or female.
MM: Do you feel that many women in your life are willing to treat themselves as commodities, or subconsciously fit into a stereotype?
LJ: This is connected to the influence of society as a whole. There is a constant stream of magazines, TV shows, and voices telling you how to be, so people are being pushed into these stereotypes. Sometimes, people have been pushed into situations they didn’t choose, but have no way out of. A lot of these issues aren’t a simple matter of someone choosing to be a certain way. To truly solve these problems, the whole path of society needs to change, especially in its attitude to women and the direction of gender education.
MM: Let’s talk about your art, though of course what we’ve been talking about is also related to your art, as it relates to your thoughts and perspective on the world.
LJ: Of course. Everything you do is related to culture; everything you make is related to your beliefs.
MM: It is immediately apparent when looking at your art that you have a great interest in memory. Many of your works are around the theme of memory. Could you talk about your ideas on memory and why you think it is important?
LJ: I think that a person’s growth, the type of person one becomes, is related to experience. You are gradually shaped into the person you are through the accumulated effect of your experiences. The same principle also applies to the history of a country: the national memories of each decade shape each generation of people. These things influence you in ways that cannot be seen. I gradually realised that I was most interested in these invisible forces that affect and change people, and the reasons for this.
I also came to notice an interesting phenomenon about the people I knew. If a person had been hurt badly, or they had gone through a difficult time, they would become more forgiving, understanding, calm, and willing to help others. They would also become less selfish and keener to spend their time on meaningful things. But if someone had a smooth time growing up, and was lucky enough that everything was easy and perfect for them, they would often turn out to be selfish, unable to understand others, and lacking in sympathy. They would also have a particular mind-set and ask what they can get from the world, rather than asking how they could contribute to it. I found this realisation really interesting and started to think about what influenced people.
The first thing I came up with was education; secondly, family. The third thing was our experiences, what has happened to us in our lives.
I started work on the series of paintings Colour of Memory. I talked to a lot of people face to face, asking them three questions. First I asked them, “What is your most painful memory?” Some people would answer straight away, but most would tell a story after a short pause. Then I asked them, “If that memory could be transformed into an object, what would it be?” For instance, people would reply that it was a cup, an alarm clock, or a movement. Finally, I asked them, “What colour would you use to describe this memory?” They said things like ‘Grey, like the color of dust’, or ‘White, an extremely desolate white.’
There is a process of transformation underway, in which a memory was transformed into and object, which was then transformed into a color.
These conversations had a profound effect on me. When someone I invited to take part sat down, they had no idea what I was going to ask them, and I had no idea what they would say to me. I knew these questions were quite weighty.
I was terrified.
Risk was always present.
Their reliving their experience could be painful for them, and if so, a process that I had hoped would be revealing, might cause unnecessary pain instead.
Later, I painted their chosen objects in their chosen colours. All the objects are very mundane, and all the colours strongly contrasted with each other – the paintings look very colourful when they are put side by side.
I had no control over either the colour or the object, and I wasn’t originally connected to their story, yet I was the one who put it on display.
There are many strange and ineffable connections in this world.
I created these things that are not mine alone.
I gave their memories expression but they still belonged to them. Although the memories are theirs, they had never transferred them to an object or a colour before, and so their answers were a surprise for them too. It was me who pushed them to come up with the object and the colour.
There is a mass of paradoxical connections in this work, which I think very clearly express the state of interpersonal relationships in modern society.
One paradox is that the objects are all very mundane things that everyone has around them, but when they are painted in colour and placed in a series, they become very beautiful. It is hard to imagine that these colourful and familiar objects are linked to the most painful memory of at least one person in this world.
Each narrative is very severe, sorrowful and hesitant. The pain seems to belong to the speaker, and has been compressed into an unknown corner, where hidden wounds cause constant disruption. But in the recounting of this pain, it gradually separates and exists outside of the speaker, away from the pain of the experience. To recount the past is to create anew. Its realness shocks us, to the point that we almost don’t dare to face its realness.
Pain can alter our normally numb state, but it can also make us grow number. This is a paradox.
After asking the questions many times, I realised that the pain did not belong to any particular person: it was our common pain.
Looking at it from this perspective reveals another paradox, in that they appear to be individual problems but are in fact universal ones.
This work had a great effect on me, and was more moving than I had imagined. I resolved that all my work in future should be similar, focusing on the things you can’t see, and the things that everyone has to face. The world’s problems are my problems.
In our society, whether in China or elsewhere in the world, we rarely pay much attention to, take much action in respect of, or do much preparation for the mental difficulties people face. We are often completely unprepared for coping with things that cause us pain. When a child starts going to school until they finish their university, the things they are taught by their teachers, parents, and older friends, are all part of a training course in how to survive. But nobody ever tells them what to do if they encounter mental difficulties, how to deal with pain, or how to cope with losing a loved one. All this is just left blank. Despite these being basic problems that everybody in every generation experiences, we don’t have any methods for facing up to them. Everybody is left lonely in confronting these problems. Everyone is alone, left to cope with the same situations with no training, preparation, or help. You might not even have the chance to tell anyone else about it.
Even though it hasn’t given me any answers, art has helped me to think about these issues in greater depth, and prompted others to think about these issues too. As for when an answer may come, that is something beyond our control.
MM: I think some of your art works appear on the surface to be about love or marriage, but are actually more about loneliness and struggle for identity.
LJ: I guess you’re talking about I Want to Be with You Forever. This work attracts a lot of misunderstanding. I took 300 photographs of couples and cut out the women, leaving the men embracing an empty space. This work also explores issues of female identity: the title is I Want to Be with You Forever, but ‘who’ this ‘you’ is remains an unknown. You’ve already decided to be with someone even though you don’t know their identity. This might be strange and paradoxical, but it is also a very common issue that occurs every day.
However, the most important thing about this work has nothing to do with either women or love. The ‘you’ of the title can be anything: it could be an object, a country, a relationship, or anything else that you want. There is a kind of desperation about the work, suggesting a strong emotional need and desire for something, even though you might not even care what it is. It could be an object, money, another person, a country, anything: you just don’t take the time to care about what it is exactly. All you know is that because your own identity has been lost you need to clutch on tight to this other thing in order to provide yourself with a sense of security.
Even though the work borrows the language of love, the real question it poses is completely unconnected to love: it raises issues of identity and insecurity. People believe that if they are with ‘you’, without caring what this ‘you’ stands for, they will be happy and safe. But in reality such a thing just doesn’t exist. People often think that once they have a house, for example, they will be happy, but it doesn’t work like this. Once you have something you will soon forget that you thought this, as these things are completely unable to resolve your insecurities or bring you happiness. So the title represents the idea of replacement, expressing this paradox.
Another work of mine is called Never Apart. It is made from pocket-sized mirrors, which open up like a book to reveal two mirrors facing each other. I place a photograph of a kissing couple on one side and cut out one person, placing them on the other side. If you hold the mirrors at just the right angle, you can see the couple kissing in the mirrors. But it doesn’t work if the angle is even slightly off. Like I Want to Be with You Forever, this work appears to be about love, but actually has nothing to do with love. It is more about how remote people are from the things that they yearn after.
The title also expresses a paradox: though it says the couple are ‘never apart’, they are actually always apart, or at best connected only weakly. This observation is not limited to the relationships between men and women, but also the relationships between all people, between people and society, and between people and objects. It is all the same. Our hearts desire never to be apart, but this is just not possible.
I find these paradoxical things really interesting, and I am always trying to find them. Once I find a paradox, I then try to use it to explore these questions. I try to push people to think about these questions, as they are questions that we can’t bear to discuss. I remember when I Want to Be with You Forever was being exhibited, women generally liked it, but men found it disturbing. The difference in reactions is really interesting.
MM: You often employ a mix of different media, such as installation, performance, and painting, in your works. Could you talk about your work called I?
LJ: Like I said, I am really interested in finding the paradoxes in a range of different situations, and I consciously seek these out. Once, I had a realisation about printed matter, like books, newspapers, and magazines, when I was reading. When a text is printed, people tend to readily believe it: they think that the text is credible. They question it less than something written in handwriting. So printed matter is not just printed text, it has a special power in addition to this, an ability to make people believe what is printed.
Also, I noticed that in modern society, the place you want to go is often the opposite of the place you arrive at. For example, I chose the title I to reflect the way that modern society appears to encourage everybody to make themselves special, and different from everyone else. Society says that you are able to succeed or do special things because you are special and different. This is how it appears at any rate.
In the books that make up the work, I erased all the text apart from the words, ‘I’, ‘me’, and so on. Sometimes, a page would be totally blank apart from the punctuation marks. It looks really strange! If you started reading a whole book that was like this then you would get really confused and lost. I wanted to use these books to explore a particular issue: if you concentrate so hard on ‘I’ that you erase the connections between ‘I’ and the world, and between ‘I’ and other people, then the ‘I’ that is left behind becomes very prominent, but utterly lost. You can’t recognise the ‘I’ since you don’t know how it connects to other things. So by trying to make yourself special and strengthen your identity, you end up in the opposite place, losing your identity. It is another paradox.
It isn’t just about the self either. There are many similar situations. For example, nowadays we depend on machines more and more, but we’ve also lost many things; some people expend all their energies on making money, but lose time with their family. Society is full of situations in which you intend to go in one direction but end up going in completely the opposite way. I wanted to use the example of the books to explore this paradox.
I made several different editions of this work. In China, I used Chinese books, and got some students to erase the words. Later, I made a Spanish version in Chile. I borrowed nine old desks from the National Library there, and got nine people to do the erasing. I don’t speak Spanish, but I found out that in Spanish there are two words for ‘I’, ‘yo’ and ‘mi’. I think the words sound really nice! In the performance, I tweaked it slightly, getting the people at the desks to say ‘yo’ and ‘mi’ out loud when they appeared in the books. Later I did a German version of the work in Cologne.
MM: Could you talk about your works Rose Rose and I Want to Fly?
LJ: The thing I find interesting about roses as a flower is that they have thorns. Looked at in one way, the thorns are there to protect the flower. However, there is a question over to what extent they can actually protect the flower. There are a lot of analogous situations in China: people try to protect themselves, but how well can they actually do this? That is why I chose to explore the rose in Rose Rose: it is a special flower. Again, some people think I chose a rose for its connection to love, but that isn’t the case. I chose it because of the thorns and the paradox they embody as they fail to protect the flower.
When the flower blooms, it is already on its way towards death. You might think that if you stitch it up before it blooms, you can stop it from dying, but of course this is impossible in reality! So on the one hand, stitching the flowers is intended to save them, but on the other it actually destroys them. This is another paradox, since it is unclear whether you are protecting or damaging the flower. It is quite paradoxical, and I like that.
That was the original impetus behind this work. Later, I wanted to get a close up view of the stitching, which is why the photographs are so large. This way you can see the detail very well. When I was doing the stitching, I noticed that the colour of the petals around the hole the needle went through was slightly darker, like a wound. So the flower is weak, just like life is. The visual effect is really strong because of this.
Once, during an exhibition, I saw a woman of about 30 or 40 start crying in front of one of my “Rose” photographs. I thought this was odd, and asked her what had prompted this reaction. She said that she hadn’t come for the exhibition, and in fact had never been to an exhibition before in her life. Neither did she like contemporary art, museums, or anything similar. She was just waiting for a friend round the corner, and had popped in to pass the time. When she saw the stitching in the rose, she realised that this was exactly what she had done to her daughter. Every day she made her daughter do things she hated and which made her unhappy because she wanted her to have a good future. The realisation made her really sad, and so she started to cry. This left a profound impression on me, as I had never thought that anyone would think about things in this way.
Later, I made a series of six videos. The video was very simple, just one hand cupping a rose and another hand stitching it. I then slowed it right down so you could see the needle breaking through the flower more clearly. When the movement of the needle and the breaking of the flower is so slow, the sense of pain is heightened. The speed changes things.
I have a friend who plays rock music, and came to see this work and really liked it. My friend said that it was an excellent explanation for the extreme violence in our society. This showed me that different people develop the work in different directions.
That started me thinking. Though I had made both photographs and video in the Rose Rose series, there were still some things that I wanted to express that I felt hadn’t come across very well in the work.
The result was a performance piece held in Conception, Chile, which required 3,000 fresh large pink roses to be stitched by over 100 of the local people.
Concepción is Chile’s second city and was once considered as a potential capital city. It is a very cultured city, with many writers and musicians, and its residents are very proud to live there. Concepción was the epicentre of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Chile in February 2010, causing many deaths. As the people who participated are still suffering from the pain of this disaster, the curator thought that the performance was perfectly suited to the community.
The piece begins with participants choosing a rose whose blossom they will stitch closed. After they completed this task they moved into a second space to stand quietly, rose in hand. Following this, everyone ended up putting down their roses in two parallel lines, forming a kind of path. It ended with everyone following the twisting road of roses, one by one, out of the space. When the last person walked out of the space everyone clapped their hands.
It was beautiful, and so powerful. Everyone was crying. It was so moving and so much better than I had planned because everyone there was just being themselves. It was a very touching performance that had a very profound effect on me. I think that everyone has power, and if you can find a way to use it, this power can be really strong – beautiful and simply amazing. I realised that this is exactly what I want to do. There was no need for words then, while everyone was crying: you understood everything without the need for words.
After the performance was over, the roses were left in place for a month and a half. Their slow but steady decay during this time was itself an installation piece.
Another version of the Rose Rose performance took place at the First Biennale Italy-China, Villa Reale Di Monza, Italy, in 2012.
In this version of the piece, I asked the participants to sew up the roses and then hold as many as they could in both hands. Then I asked them to stand on one leg on the grass.
After a short period of time, their arms began to droop down from the weight. Then, their bodies started shaking and trembling in an attempt to keep their balance. You saw these minor changes in their bodies before they finally fell over. After another few minutes, you experienced the violence of it as they fell over one by one.
The performance was 30 minutes long and by the end, only four people were left, shaking constantly. It was very powerful despite its simplicity.
It was brutality in beauty.
A third version of Rose Rose was performed in Hong Kong in 2014. Future versions are being planned for New York and Tehran.
What I have discovered is that the character of the piece has changed dramatically from one version to the next. This is because the individual histories of each of the performers, as well as the character and history of each location determines how the work unfolds. In this regard, I can say that the performers create the work.
MM: Could you talk briefly about your work, I Want to Fly?
LJ: This is a series of photographs that depict a figure in flight. Each figure has been cut out of the photo, and their outlines and the borders of the photographs are then stitched to a background of cloth. The sewn figures in the photographs are empty, and slightly protruding. So the figures exist in between presence and absence. Secondly, their wish is to fly away, but the stitching secures them firmly to where they are. It is yet another work that uses paradox.
MM: Do you sometimes feel like you want to fly away somewhere else?
LJ: It is not about me. I think that the ‘I’ in I Want to Fly stands for anyone, all the people who view the work. It is not me.
MM: But I’m asking about you. Do you feel like you want to fly away?
LJ: Sometimes, yes! But more importantly, it is about the current state of China.
In the past, people in China have felt that America is their future, that America’s today is China’s tomorrow. They thought that we should copy the Americans in everything we did so that we could have happy lives. But now, I think people are starting to realise that perhaps America isn’t our future after all, that it has many problems of its own.
Now people are wondering where our future lies. The whole of society wants to leave poverty and backwardness behind for a better life and environment, like they have in America. In the most extreme cases, they want to cut all ties with the culture of the past. The Cultural Revolution also played a part in cutting off the present from the past to be closer to their American dream life, but as you gradually develop, you come to realise that this is not possible, that you cannot cut the past off so simply.
I Want to Fly says that actually you cannot fly away, and you cannot abandon your history and culture. Another aspect of the work is the material used: cotton is very light, but the theme of the work is very weighty. The material itself isn’t important to me. I was just looking for a way in which to express this paradox, and that is why I chose the material. It is not about cotton, in the same way that Rose Rose is not about roses.
MM: Thank you so much for such an interesting interview.