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Candice Lin: A Tribute to Erosion

Poet CAConrad looks at the ways in which the artist addresses the corrosive role of empire in our daily lives

The US poet Erica Kaufman writes: ‘Thriving requires more than just survival.’ Candice Lin’s 2013 exhibition at Galeria Quadrado Azul in Porto, ‘The Long-lasting Intimacy of Strangers’, honoured that requirement, as has much of her subsequent work. Lin’s title is a quote from biologist Lynn Margulis, who proposed symbiosis – the process by which two different life forms aid one another to the advantage of both – as being central to evolution. We have trillions of bacteria in our bodies that we could not live without and they, in turn, need the shelter and food we provide for them. Contrary to the neo-Darwinists, Margulis theorized that evolution is not a war of competitive traits; rather, it sees different species working together and, in fact, the greatest leaps in evolutionary history have been accomplished through interspecies co-operation. Central to Lin’s exhibition was Metamorphosis in Space (2013): a giant, human-sized roach lying on a bed, constructed of papier mâché, clay and silver paint. (Silver’s metaphysical properties are said to be healing to our psychic and emotional bodies.) The creature lies with its head on a pillow and legs and antenna curled inward. At Galeria Quadrado Azul, the surrounding room was wallpapered with a repeating pattern of purple jellyfish, suggesting, perhaps, that the insect – a clear reference to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis (1915) – has found respite from ‘uneasy dreams’ in the purely non-human subconscious of the jellyfish.

My immediate question after seeing the giant insect on the bed was: is it sleeping or dead? Is this an autopsy about to be performed? Or maybe we might see it as a wake, one we are invited to attend. Unlike Samsa’s family, do we have the compassion, do we have the empathy not just to tolerate but to love this creature? What is the condition of this giant, silver bug? How about us? How are our own psychic and emotional bodies? Humans used over five billion pounds of pesticides last year and US citizens purchased 18 thousand tonnes of bullets. Both are ammunition for a war on two fronts: one against the planet, one against ourselves. To my mind, Lin’s work suggests that all our wars salute our own erosion. 

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‘Candice Lin: A Hard White Body’, 2017, exhibition view at Bétonsalon, Paris. Courtesy: the artist, Bétonsalon, Paris, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Aurélien Mole

‘Candice Lin: A Hard White Body’, 2017, exhibition view at Bétonsalon, Paris. Courtesy: the artist, Bétonsalon, Paris, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Aurélien Mole

As top predators, we humans believe in endless choices; we fill supermarket refrigerators with wings, breasts and legs as though it were our divine right to purchase, cook and tear into the flesh of another body with our teeth. Writer-activist Dick Gregory reminds us: ‘Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and brutal taking of life.’ Our disassociating violence towards other species, as well as the violence we do to one another, owes a great deal to the legacy of self-inflicted wounds. There were 45,000 suicides last year in the US alone; that’s roughly 123 people every single day. Many years ago, my secondary school art teacher, in introducing me to what is believed to be Vincent van Gogh’s final work, Wheat Field with Crows (1890), said: ‘This is the picture he painted just before he killed himself.’ He was always emphasizing the need to suffer in order to create, as though any normal life could possibly be lived without suffering. I want to write to him: ‘“The Long-lasting Intimacy of Strangers” is a truly great work of art by Candice Lin as she continues to create and not kill herself! I think you would also love and respect her art as I do, and how her work on colonialism’s ongoing ramifications shows the true violence that lies behind the celebrated glory of discovery.’

In Lin’s large installation from 2017, A Hard White Body – first shown at Bétonsalon in Paris and on view this month at Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts – she re-imagines the bedroom of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, a harrowing story about the consequences of being queer in a homophobic world. (Much of Lin’s work addresses literature and literary history.) In a 1980 interview about the book, Baldwin said that his novel is ‘not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody’. For her installation, Lin produced the bed, sheets and even socks at the centre of the novel’s narrative in unfired porcelain. She moistened the porcelain with urine and water from the Seine in Paris, a river that hundreds of armies have crossed over a period of many centuries to oppress, enslave and conquer. Lin also wet her sculpture with liquid extracted from the medicinal plants that would have been used by the 18th-century French botanist Jeanne Baret, who was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, but had to do so disguised as a man. In bringing Baldwin and Baret together, she exposes multiple layers of oppression by white culture against people of colour, women and queer bodies. Lin’s messy, destructive use of liquids on the white, clay bedroom recalls a brilliant talk given earlier this year by the poet Dawn Lundy Martin at Naropa University in Colorado:

World re-imagining and rebuilding as we return again and again to the repetition of this assault on black, immigrant, queer people and women – this rip in our hearts – is messy and destructive. Art and poetry, I believe, must be messy and destructive, too. We cannot be neat. We cannot stand smiling in front of the roaring crowd.

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System for a Stain, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Gasworks, London, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Andy Keate

Candice Lin, System for a Stain, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Gasworks, London, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Andy Keate

Next year is the centenary of the publication of Sherwood Anderson’s seminal collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Originally, Anderson had wanted the title to be The Book of the Grotesque, but his publisher convinced him to include his theory of the grotesque as an introduction to the book instead. Each story shows how, when we refuse to address and correct false behaviour, we create an interior homunculus which, in turn, fashions exterior grotesque behaviours. Anderson’s century-old book makes me think about life in 2018, especially how white culture, to the detriment of the whole world, continues to fail in understanding how whiteness denies the voices and bodies of many, many others. The reasons for Baldwin and Baret sharing space in Lin’s installation are elusive at first – until, that is, we meditate on the disintegrating force of the liquid against unfired porcelain. How have our daily lives been shaped by empire? Lin has considered this question very carefully. In her 2017 essay, ‘The Body Is a Troubled Thing’, she echoes Anderson’s theory of the transformative grotesque:

When I moved into Echo Park years ago with a roommate who was a video artist, she wanted the iron bars outside her window to be repaired because she was nervous that the mostly Latino neighbours would see ‘two white girls moving in with all this gear’. ‘But I’m not white,’ I said, ‘and your gear is a bunch of old thrift store TVs no one is going to want.’ ‘Oh, you know what I mean,’ she replied. She wanted so much for us to be the same.

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‘Candice Lin: A Hard White Body, a Soft White Worm’, 2018, exhibition view at Portikus, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist, Portikus, Frankfurt, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Helena Schlichting

‘Candice Lin: A Hard White Body, a Soft White Worm’, 2018, exhibition view at Portikus, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist, Portikus, Frankfurt, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Helena Schlichting

When confronted with the racist prose of Walt Whitman, for example – the most beloved, fuzzy, bearded great grey poet – many white people are prone to immediate excuses. But, as discussed in David S. Reynolds’s Walt Whitman’s America (1995), in some essays Whitman wrote that newly freed slaves could not be trusted to vote in presidential elections because they had ‘as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons’. In Horace Traubel’s biography of the poet, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906), Whitman explained to Traubel his take on Darwin’s theory of evolution: ‘The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not.’ Whitman’s belief in the superiority of white bodies and white genes was shared only a handful of decades after his death, when Nazi Germany constructed the death camps in Poland to ensure the elimination of ‘inferior’ races. His famous poem ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ (1865) valorized the genocide of Native Americans and the white expansion to California, deeming both necessary for American progress in the way of export and trade. 

In her contribution to 2018’s ‘Made in L.A.’ at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, La Charada China (2018), Lin explores the forgotten or censored histories of people of colour and how global trade as we know it came to be through colonization and the enforced relocation of many thousands of people to work as slaves. This remarkable installation includes an earthen floor made of seeds, clay and guano. A series of tubes draws kombucha and insect pigment to stain the floor. There is a human silhouette at its centre, filled with opium poppies, sugar and other plants associated with the Opium Wars of the 19th century. Lin’s sculpture highlights how addiction, the demand for natural resources and the suppression of the histories of people of colour are at the heart of international trade routes, ensuring that the US and Europe – through the glow of white soldiers, CEOs, Ronald McDonald and Walt Disney – may continue to dominate the globe.

Candice Lin is an artist based in Los Angeles, USA. In 2018, her work was included in ‘Made in L.A.’ at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Her solo show, ‘A Hard White Body, a Porous Slip’, is on view at the Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, USA, until 28 October.

Main image: La Charada China, 2018, installation view at ‘Made in L.A.’, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Brian Forrest

CAConrad is the author of While Standing in Line for Death (Wave Books), which received the 2018 Lambda Award, and eight other books. They teach regularly at Columbia University, New York, USA, and Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018
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