Existential Beauty: The Art of Lin Jingjing
By Richard Vine
“I” am silent in the darkness, begging for an explanation in solitude.
Contemporary Chinese art made its initial impact, both at home and abroad, through methods that were surprising and galvanizing but far from subtle: Big Face painting, shocking live performance, large-scale anecdotal sculpture, bizarre staged photography, and irreverent video.
This bold esthetic, which would have been a jolt to any culture, was particularly unsettling in a land steeped in refined ink-wash painting and quiet contemplative poetry.
Once the post-Mao Opening Up policy took hold, two forms of brash visual rhetoric—Cultural Revolution propaganda and Western-style advertising—seemed to merge in the insouciant art of post-Opening China.
The later waves of Chinese avant-garde artists, those who have come of age since 1990, in the new era of rising prosperity and social liberalization, know little of a shared political trauma or a common cause. For them, dizzying change and dislocation—physical, social, psychological—are the prevailing issues, and their artistic responses have proved as diverse, as atomistic, as their individual experiences. Women artists in particular, affected by Western feminism but wary of formal doctrines and group activities, have tended to center their work on private sources and concerns.
Lin Jingjing, who did graduate study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, has contributed notably to this discourse, embracing femininity without resorting to either sentimentality or lasciviousness. In paintings, altered objects and installations, she addresses some of the most wrenching themes imaginable—death, loss, loneliness, betrayal—with a remarkable sophistication and restraint, even at times a touch of humor.
Dresses (2006-09), for example, features a variety of white shifts, variously embellished with cotton balls and lace, displayed against flat lacey backgrounds punctuated by grids of round photo portals. Some of the garments are innocently girlish, some more alluring, and some customized to blatantly evoke female genitalia.
The multiple photos, identical in each case, range from rose blossoms with their petals surgically stitched together to shots of a hyper-realistic sex doll in provocative poses.
The interplay of virginal and erotic elements bespeaks not only the dualistic nature of marriage but the larger paradox of femininity itself—at once elevated and degraded, purified and reviled, worshiped and subjugated.
A desire to escape the low and mundane seems to animate the departed figures in the photo installation I Want to Fly (2006-08).
To create the effect, Lin asked individuals to jump energetically while she photographed them from a low angle.
She then juxtaposed the cutout shape of each leaping figure, seemingly stitched or bandaged into place, against street scenes or construction-site images.
Some of the resulting pictures were mounted on suspended heart-shaped hand mirrors with wings, reinforcing the Baudelairean impetus to transcend self-reflection and pass n’importe où hors de ce monde (“anywhere out of this world”).
But there is clearly a downside to this wish.
To be ourselves, Lin’s missing persons imply, we must be free to define our own goals and fulfill our own nature.
Yet how can we, as human beings, fulfill ourselves except through connections, however onerous?
Even the smallest social unit, the couple, is subject to this dilemma.
For Never Apart (2009), Lin cut one figure out of each of several bride-and-groom photos and inserted them on opposing inner surfaces of rectangular compacts. Here, to be “open” means to be apart; the spouses are together—or almost so—only in the darkness of the closed case.
The 300-unit "I Want to be with You Forever" (2008-09) separates the marital pairs even more poignantly—one (almost always the man) embracing a partner-shaped void on the surface of a toy bed, while the absent mate hovers perpetually on the canopy overhead.
At the heart of the human condition, Lin suggests, lies an unfulfilled longing—a quest for genuine connection that inevitably, given the self-contradictions of human nature, translates into a vacillation between solitude and ritualized but imperfect union.
Beyond the romantic pair lies the family and society—equally necessary, equally encumbering, equally flawed. Lin’s most complex examination of this problem, the series “Nobody Knows I Was There, Nobody Knows I Was Not There,” so far encompasses three related bodies of work.
Private Memories (2009) is a traditional Chinese medicine chest with 90 drawers, each now devoted not to herbs or other medicinal substances but to extended-family photographs from roughly the last 100 years.
The yellowing images—depicting parents, grandparents, distant aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.—lie tenderly on beds of cotton, implying a respect for “precious” blood ties and the collective past. Yet every figure has been literally defaced—its visage cut out, leaving a hole.
This act of intimate vandalism, rendering the individuals anonymous, is Lin’s mildly shocking way of reminding us that families are constituted largely of roles that persist across time and historical circumstance, regardless of who plays the parts in turn.
Each drawer contains, in effect, a treatment for illusion. Just as medicine works in like fashion on every person, no matter who they are, we all serve as father, mother, brother, etc., in fundamentally similar ways. In the end, only those conventions remain; no potion can cure death or prevent the annihilation of personal memory.
CCTV News (2008) explores public roles from the same disabused perspective. Small metal boxes, their lids emblazoned with multiple Coca-Cola logos, bear stitched-on photos of organized group events—meetings, concerts, calisthenics, political rallies—with the myriad participants clearly shown but the leader cut out, leaving only a ghostly void. This evokes not only the shadowy nature of much official leadership but also the loss of self that is entailed, for followers and directors alike, once strict social organization comes into play.
The news, we are reminded, is often a montage of such scenes, conceptually disjunctive and recounted in an eerily dispassionate “professional” manner, while Coke and other mass-market products reign increasingly over the distribution of vital information.
Such, too, is the import of Public Memories (2011), the third component of “Nobody Knows I was there ,Nobody know I was not there . . . ,” in which a wide variety of photographic scenes from the past and present (including dance presentations, group portraits, award ceremonies, airplane boardings and exits, key movie moments, and colloquies ranging from intimate to diplomatic) are cast in bright monochrome colors, with selected faces and figures stitched over.
The sewing creates a partial erasure of that character on the recto side and a thread silhouette on the blank verso. The simple device makes a telling point: in groups and daily situations, the self is somewhat eradicated; yet without these interactions, one feels meaningless and adrift.
The vulnerability of that self is most movingly represented by the stitched-together blossoms highlighted in the photographic suite " Rose Rose" (2008-09).
The flowers, traditionally associated with women and romance, are shown singly in close-up or as bouquets jammed into garments and shoes, the long green stems evoking lower bodies and legs. The tender pink petals, meanwhile, recall skin—provocative when bursting from openings in the clothes, delicate when seen at close range knit together with sutures. Opening flowers often represent nubile women and their vaginas, while wilting flowers stand for the transience of life. But Lin offers something new: blossoms sewn together as though in the hope of recovery, thus emblemizing the wounds that flesh and soul alike are heir to.
In the installation Insecure Security (2011)—the title seems to summarize Lin’s take on human relationships—real threads, as red and attenuated as blood vessels, hold together pieces of white clothing or fill the interiors of ornate white slippers. The very ties that unite us, it seems, may also limit our growth.
That idea is explored in great depth and detail in the ongoing project Color of Memory (2010-). The end product may be a series of paintings and wall texts, but the essence of this work resides in its process. Lin asks various people to tell her three things: their single most painful memory, the object they associate with it, and the color that the memory brings to mind. She then makes a deliberately crude monochrome painting of the object in the color specified, and exhibits it with a text transcribing the Q&A between subject and artist. Everything about the project is memorable—the candor of the participants, the emotional rawness of their recollections, the aptness of their object and color choices, the dreamlike power of Lin’s renderings.
The stories are heartbreaking: a woman who loses her three-year-old daughter forever at a shopping mall; a medical student who watches a patient die on the operating table under the hands of a skilled surgeon; a wife who receives a letter from her husband’s pregnant girlfriend, and responds by terminating her own pregnancy and her marriage. In Lin’s world, we are all damaged flowers—holding ourselves together by force of will, hoping to transcend grief, beautiful in our fragile persistence.
In the recent performance installation I (2011), the artist invited participants to sit with books and patiently cover all the text, line by line, with white correction tape, leaving only the punctuation and the word “I.” This “correction,” an erasure of all that describes, defines, qualifies, enriches, and contextualizes the self, results in hauntingly minimal volumes. The pages are as white as marble slabs; language is reduced to the cogito (the “I” of Descartes’s “I think; therefore I am”) and a few vestiges (periods, commas, quotation marks, etc.) of its former situation, its contingency, in a vanished physical and conceptual milieu.
In existentialist terms, the world is composed entirely of the “I” and the “not-I,” pure consciousness and brute things, the self and the Other. Yet there is, and can be, no pure intellection; every thought is a thought about something. And the most disturbing, most challenging something is another mind.
The loss of family and friends, imprisonment, illness, political repression—all these and more tend to isolate us (a fact that makes this work exceptionally effective across cultures). But always we find around us the lingering signs of other subjectivities, other judgments and desires, other plans. So long as we live, the “I” will ceaselessly wrangle with history and the conflicting wishes of others. The push-pull of interacting wills—sometimes contending, sometimes cooperating—continues without pause, until death brings obliteration, a perfect nothingness.
Lin Jingjing’s contribution to contemporary Chinese art is thus two-fold. She couples a focus on individual experience (in what has for centuries been a collectivist culture) with art-making of unassuming skill. The amalgam generates a distinct form of beauty—existentialism melded with subdued artistry, and permeated with simple human care. In short, Lin’s vision is compassionate, transcultural, and mature.
(Richard Vine : Managing Editor of "Art in America" Magazine)