Urgent and Indefinite: the method of paradox
Interview with Mi Zhuang
Mizhuang: I’ve noticed that in some of your installations from 2008 and 2009 you used a large amount of film photographs. Is there a certain intent behind this?
Lin: Yes. I really like the texture and material properties of film photographs, especially those that have a bit of age. The passage of time yellows them, warps the colors and damages them. Cracks, folds, fingerprints, stains and moisture change them beyond recognition; moments in time become ashes.
Mizhuang: That’s right. I noticed that you used this particular type of photograph in your installation work “Nobody know I was there , Nobody knows I was not there : Private Memory " . Whose photographs are these?
Lin: These are family photographs, including pictures of my great grandparents, my brothers, my grandparents and my parents’ family members. The photographs span from 1900 to 2000, a century of private photographs.
Mizhuang: I distinctly remember my impressions from seeing this work in the exhibition hall. The exhibition space was very large, and I spotted it from across the room. From afar, my first impression was that it was expansive and poetic, but as I approached it and took in the details, I suddenly tensed up and felt a tingling sensation. I saw all life within those empty outlines, encompassing myself, my family, my sadness and perplexity.
Lin: A photograph is very fragile, yet these fragile carrier bears the weight of infinite meaning.
It is fleeting, yet it serves as the most irrefutable evidence of a certain form of existence;
It is extant evidence, yet it is vanishing evidence;
It affirms a gathering but alludes to parting;
It stores memories and cherishes the past but it also brings injury;
It relieves loneliness and also increases it;
It reminds us of our connections to the past and to others, while also reminding us of the impossibility of connecting with the past and with others;
It chooses our viewing method, yet it does not see our viewing method;
It is touching and yet untouched;
It provides both comfort and discomfort; it is both urgent and indefinite;
It explains the self but is not of the self;
It inserts impossibility and unfamiliarity within the real and familiar; behind that which is not real lays the unobservable truth;
It has powerful virtual authority; it documents and witnesses the ruthlessness of time and the impermanence of life;
It reminds us of the unavoidability of loss, the incurability of suffering; with a sincere profound suffering, it gathers all the scattered people;
Mizhuang: In your work, the paradox formed by ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ gives viewers a powerful mental contrast.
In the work " Nobody knows i was there, Nobody knows I was not there : CCTV News " is from the same series, are the hundreds of photographs from the news?
Lin: Yes, they are all news photographs from CCTV.
I have done much thinking about the concept of ‘news’. One day when I was 30, I was watching the CCTV daily news broadcast, and I suddenly came to the realization that the world does not belong to me, or to anyone for that matter. The world does not and cannot belong to anyone.
In news, there doesn’t have to be any connection between one second and the next. It is in these absurd, seemingly unconnected moments that the world itself becomes connected. If a person’s life is understood through connecting with others, and if this only connection becomes exceedingly strange, then what kind of understanding will result?
Through years of education, Marxism has taught me that human development is inevitable, but every news event I see seems to be completely by chance.
Always at the moment we’re least prepared, the news uses very calm tones to speak of the most terrifying disasters.
This is just like the ruthlessness of life. Who is prepared for the moment when they lose a loved one?
In front of the news, we all become survivors, witnesses to violence, tragedy and disaster. Behind every disaster there is a greater disaster. Each instance of suffering eventually becomes a record of numbers. Every journalist who has reported on a disaster or tragedy moves on to waiting for and discovering the next disaster or tragedy. Who has time to linger on yesterday’s tragedy, even the shocking news from a second ago?
Have you noticed? News reports are so short in every corner of the world, as if the reporters have all undergone the same exact training. It makes us accept tragedy with familiarity, just as we accept celebrations. The news anticipates celebrations and tragedies in the same way, not even placing one before the other. They are watched together by countless viewers before rapidly disappearing, as if they never happened.
Compared to ‘what is happening now’, things like ‘what we have to say’ and ‘what we say’ seem much more important.
Disasters are like culture; they are something we share. This is geography in the truest sense.
Mizhuang: Perhaps our problem is that we don’t know ‘what we have to say’ or even ‘what we can say’.
Lin: Right. On the one hand, it is modern industrial civilization’s endless pursuit of the material, and on the other hand it is the ‘objectification’ of people caused by modern civilization. Materialism has expanded mankind’s interference with the environment beyond its limits, leading to ecological paralysis. The ‘objectification’ of people leads mankind deep into a crisis of meaning.
Massive changes in social ideology and the rise of the internet have led us to separate ‘life’ from the living world. Another side of ‘objectification’ is that it has caused us to separate ‘love’ from the object of our love. Each individual in modern society is haplessly and totally controlled by commercial society, emerging as consumer products which are produced, packaged and sold on a massive scale.
What is the essence of the consumer product? It has been replaced and discarded. Therefore, ‘objectified’ people live in constant fear of ‘falling behind and being discarded’.
Interactions between people have turned into exchanges between objects.
As consumption grows more opulent and diverse, people in an ‘objectified’ society gain more in terms of such factors as self-value, spiritual sense of belonging and sex life, but our emotions grow increasingly empty. Modern civilization and society provide modern people with all kinds of illusory possibilities while misleading them about these possibilities. It provides a consumerist worldview but overturns consumer values. Cruelty can don a glamorous mask, while good intentions get pushed down the road of neglect.
Paradoxes are everywhere.
Mizhuang: That is true. Paradoxes are everywhere. In the installation work " Never Apart ", we see the illusion of coming together and the reality of isolation. Coming together is transient, while isolation is permanent. But the titles take us back to utopia.
Lin: I hope that my artwork can raise issues through paradox and dislocation methods, seeking out the real power of the self’s internal yearnings from the artificial interior of the artwork.
Mizhuang: Let’s return to " Nobody knows I was there, Nobody knows I was not there : CCTV News " . The closest, most central figure in the image is completely empty. It is the ‘self’ in the image, but in actuality, this ‘self’ can be any one of the indistinguishable people in the background. Just as in " Private Memory " , the ‘self’ is not necessarily the artist. Likewise, in the installation work " I want to be with you forever ", the ‘self’ can be the one who is embracing an empty lover, or the empty, embraced ‘self’. ‘You’ can be a person, a country, an object, anything.
Lin: Right. As I see it, art is not about expressing self-experience. This is a very common misconception that people have about art. Art is the thinking that artists reach through their individual experiences. It is a question the artist raises to the self and to the world.
We don’t have to understand our lives or even ourselves, but I think that people must seek out the way in which their lives come together.
By discussing experience, apparently valuable thinking and content that embodies that thought can finally exist independently of the individual.
Mizhuang: During the artistic creation process, and even after the process, what do you think is the connection between you and your artworks?
Lin: At the beginning of the creative process, I have a sense of possession of my expressive methods. It is my ‘object’. It is just like photography to the photographer – it is a hypothetical possession.
The unfolding and implementation of the creation is a process of constantly seeking the appropriate descriptive methods and balance points. Once the descriptive methods and the balance of methods are found, then the artwork is complete; the artwork and its expressive method have been restored to the state of ‘other things’ that are outside of me. I feel that it has become detached from me, and now bears very little connection to me. It needs to connect with the living experiences of other viewers. Though it is something that I created, the audience has no need for pondering how or why I made it. What matters now is how that work affects their individual lives and what thinking it elicits.
The work of art to the artist is like the child to the mother. The child is brought about by the mother, but it does not come for the mother.
Mizhuang: I’ve noticed that your main focus has always been the understanding of life.
Lin: The quest to understand life is more real than culture and it transcends culture, history and politics.
Mizhuang: This reminds me of another of your photographic works, My 365 Days. Though it is presented as a photographic work, I consider it to be a work of performance art. In these diary-style photographs from 365 days we see the hair that comes out of your comb each day, silent yet direct, essential and profound.
Lin: Just a few months ago I was flipping through a magazine and came across a photo essay about families who had lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake and were now pregnant again. They had all had children aged from 8 to 14, but they had died in the earthquake. Now, these mothers harbored new young lives in their swollen bellies. They were no longer young, and looked fragile, weary and tattered, with the calm of someone dealt a heavy blow. They rose up from their tears and prepared to conquer terror and hopelessness with new life.
I found this deeply moving. It is the essence of life.
One day we will lose our loved ones, whether from separation or death. Every life will face this suffering sooner or later, the loss of hope. In the face of life’s brutality, we are all weak and innocent. Our simple attitudes cannot relieve this suffering. But this is an important component of life. To understand brutality is to cherish the life that we still have.
Mizhuang: I was moved in the same way by " Rose Rose ", especially the video segment.
The rose is our life; it undergoes the constantly intertwining splendor and brutality of life.
From your earliest poetry compositions to today’s art, you’ve made quite a leap. I’m curious; can we talk about your childhood? I’d like to understand the experiences that led you to choose poetry. Are there any stories from your childhood that influenced you, that continue to influence you today, influencing your thoughts and your creations?
Lin: Among the various forms of literary expression, poetry is the most versatile and indistinct. It can be fully without logic yet full of rhythm; it can be abstract, even stagnant, but it is free and beyond limitation, full of vast, inexhaustible power.
I really like these qualities. I think that poetry is closest to the soul. It has shown me the true, touching aspect of ‘bounding conception’.
I had a very lonely childhood with almost no friends. I don’t know why. This was especially the case when I was 5, 6 years old, because all of the children near my home were a few years older than me. For children at this age, this is a wide gulf, one that is difficult to cross. Back then I was jealous of all the rowdy boys running about, with their big, boisterous groups, calling out as they charged into one exciting game after another.
Mizhuang: Did you think about joining them?
Lin: Of course I did. I really wanted to, and I tried, but I discovered that the world of boys is a brutal one. For boys, the meaning of violence far surpasses that of anything else. Violence was a part of everyday existence in the 1970s; participation in and the production of violence created glory and satisfaction, and an un-discussed consensus formed around the tacit acceptance of it. This acceptance naturally split people off into rapidly aligning cliques.
In fact, I think that in the 1970s, under a blind and factious mental state, violence was emphasized and fanned to the point of the mundane; violence established a kind of consensus, no matter how illusory. In those times, consensus was most important.
For instance, someone that we all respected passed away, but we established a consensus method for cherishing that person, and this instantly became a lofty, dignified affair. In this atmosphere of consensus, we shed sweet tears, and our shared love for this person became perpetual.
The young me didn’t feel sorrow at all, just an indescribable sense of the sublime.
Consensus is a powerful rationale for violence to become reasonable and legitimate. In consensus, ‘brutality’ and ‘insanity’ become exciting.
Consensus-backed violence is approved, eulogized, worshipped and understood. Consensus-backed violence is legitimate and virtuous, in keeping with emotions and political standpoints.
Violence turns people into ‘objects’; it is the slaughter of ‘objects’ by ‘objects’. Though those ‘objects’ may appear as martyrs or heroes, this cannot change the essential nature of violence.
Mizhuang: These thoughts were also manifested in your 2009 painting series Another Way to Fly. The images featured fighter jets that were built for violence and war, which you covered in beautiful, transparent lace. Is violence bathed in the soft glow of sentimentality still violence? If it is no longer violence, then what is it? What have we made it into?
Lin: The violence here is a metaphor. The discussion of real violence is one aspect. This was more of an exploration of the concepts surrounding violence, the attitudes people have towards violence, even the relationships between modern people. These have all been gradually reduced to a relationship of mutual violence between ‘objectified’ people. This is violence using rather abstract means to continue to embody the consensus of the 1970s in today’s seemingly peaceful world.
None of us want those who were sacrificed in the various forms of violence to call out, like the soldier in J’Accuse, “our sacrifice has been for naught”.
The violence of those boys I knew as a child often played out in my imagination. For a time in my childhood my imaginations and fears of violence became excessive. It was clear that I yearned to join them, but they were very rough with me, especially the youngest boy.
Mizhuang: How old was the youngest boy?
Lin: He was a few months older than me, about my age, but he was the youngest in the group. The oldest boy in the group was two or three years older than him, so this young boy was often also excluded. The older boys would make fun of him, saying that he couldn’t keep up or wasn’t brave enough, so he was under a lot of pressure. He really wanted them to recognize him and see him as part of their group.
I would often secretly follow them. I was very curious about them. I wanted to know everything they were doing, where they were going. When they would discover me, they would stop what they were doing, split up or run off together, taking side streets, jumping over walls or climbing trees to lose me.
Each time they succeeded in losing me was a victory to celebrate. My tears were always accompanied by their cheers from the distance. It made me sad.
Mizhuang: Did it hurt? (Laughs) Was your young soul already wounded?
Lin: I wouldn’t say wounded; at the time I felt that these conflicts were normal. I was the one who chose to spy on them indirectly, shamelessly tailing them. Of course I had to accept the consequences.
I clearly remember this one time where I was following their sounds when the youngest boy jumped out behind me from a tree. He was holding one of those cheap green folding knives that you use to sharpen pencils. He brandished it at me, and with an evil look in his eyes, said some very foul things.
Mizhuang: How did you react?
Lin: I was very angry. I felt that my dignity had been violated. I glared at him, and dared him to repeat it. He immediately repeated it. I got even angrier and dared him to say it again, which he did immediately.
Then I asked if he dared to say it a hundred times.
He was dazed. His mouth moved, but he didn’t make a sound. He put his knife away and ran off without looking back.
Mizhuang: That’s very interesting. What were you thinking?
Lin: I don’t believe it was something I could have really thought out, more of an instinctive reaction. In some impossible way it saved my self-respect and honor, but it also gave me a powerful message – that when you let something become absurd, it will turn into something else, and its qualities and direction are all subject to change. The thing that had dazed that boy actually never really existed. It was a kind of existence that comes from the infinite propagation of reality. Though this infiniteness is not real, it is enough to be absurd. It is a different kind of truth within untruth, the truth of invisible truth, the untruth that overturns truth, the persistence of absurdity. In fearlessness and certainty, it creates power. That boy’s retreat was the retreat of the imagination.
Many years later, after a lot of thinking, I realized that this can be a contemporary art method.
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