Lin Yilin: Golden Journey at San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries presents documentation from a series of interventionist performances conducted by the artist last fall around San Francisco at the invitation of curator Hou Hanru. Guangzhou-born artist Lin, who divides his time between China and New York, focuses on themes of economic globalization and geopolitical conflict in his work; the current exhibition at SFAI is part of the gallery’s programmatic agenda to explore international artists and the urban landscape as a site of artistic production.
An installation at the front of the gallery greets visitors — both evidence from a live performance that took place during the opening and sculptural in its own right. It consists of a traditional Southern Chinese paper mache lion’s head, its trailing tail of U.S. dollars caught in a cinder block wall that obscures the gallery. This work, Golden Lion 2012, lends itself to an overarching interpretation even after the performance. Capitalism and the politically fraught relationship between the United States and China are subverted themes that arise when the work is viewed in the context of an exhibition, each action part of a larger series of inter-related artistic experiments. Upon seeing the street performance videos, a longing to have been among the accidental audience also presents itself — though quiet and simple in their execution, the videos relay the pure spectacle at the core of Lin’s work.
The gallery walls are overtaken by dense graffiti to emulate an urban context for the actions represented here in photographs and videos. The centerpiece of the exhibition, Golden Hill 2011, is a video projected larger than life that takes up an enormous wall in the gallery. As clearly intended, the viewer feels as though she can step into the scene unfolding before her, in this case a streetscape of downtown San Francisco surveyed from Powell Street.
In the video, participants walk in a cluster and advance in slow, measured steps with their hands in their pockets. Their expressions are blank, as if the process is meditative. They do not speak to one another, nor do they engage with passersby. Behind them, literally on their heels, the artist rolls slowly along the ground. His body is perpendicular to the sidewalk and he rolls plank-like, with his arms held straight down at his sides, his palms turned in towards his hips. He too is expressionless, turning his head slowly in the direction of his rotating body. Block after block, the group shuffles forward with Lin behind them. When they reach an intersection, four of the group wordlessly turn and pick Lin up to carry him across the street before gingerly placing him back on the ground where he resumes his slow roll downhill. Seen live, as evidenced in the videos, Lin’s performances confound his audience on the street. In one clip, a cab driver recklessly pulls over to capture the scene with his camera phone.
Watching the audience is revelatory too — it is interesting how much we expect to see people taking pictures, holding their phones at arm’s length to get the image, and how unsurprised we are by the absence of any other engagement. Only a handful of onlookers attempt to talk to the artist, but more often than not the tone is mocking. “Get up!,” a man sneers as he passes. At an intersection, the emotions of one viewer can be read by his body language — he wants to help Lin and is baffled by everyone else’s lack of concern. Short of a few pantomimed lifting gestures, he too does nothing and when the light changes, Lin’s co-conspirators carry him away. Whereas it might have been disconcerting to see the work live, it is also challenging to watch the documentation. The artist is vulnerable to whatever he might roll through on the ground — broken glass, for example — and/or the carelessness of passing pedestrians. During a performance on Lombard Street, his face was contaminated with motor oil, which made him looked bruised. I watched the videos with mounting anxiety and wondered the whole time if he would get kicked in the face.
Lin’s performances likely coincided with the Fleet Week Air Show — in the brochure, he describes Navy fighter planes overhead while conducting a performance along the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge. He speculates that he was being supervised before saying, “At the end, the U. S. Navy understood: This was art. Then they did not come back to disturb us any more.” Of course, this is probably weighting the situation with too much significance — it doesn’t seem very likely that the American war machine pauses to reflect on performance art — but it is safe to say that Lin’s fleeting performances might have stolen more than one onlooker’s attention while the Blue Angels soared overhead.
Lin Yilin: Golden Journey is on view at San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries through July 28, 2012. For more information visit waltermcbean.com. This exhibition is featured as part of the inaugural Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) in San Francisco, initiated by the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium, May 12 – 19, 2012. ACAW is a collaboration among sixteen participating organizations to present exhibitions, tours, receptions, screenings and panel discussions that celebrate the dynamic of Asian contemporary art practice. For more information about ACAW visit asiancontemporarysf.org.