Performance artists have employed many tactics to shake people out of their complacency. They’ve taken gunshots (Chis Burden). Smeared their naked body with chocolate (Karen Finley). Enticed strangers to insert themselves between nude models to enter the Museum of Modern Art (Marina Abramovic), and extracted readable scrolls from their vagina (Carolee Schneemann). To that list of provocateurs you can add Lin Yilin, a Chinese artist who’s been living in the U.S. since 2001. To get an idea of his modus operandi, consider Lin’s protest of a police incident he witnessed in China. He reenacted it in Paris by handcuffing his wrist to his ankle and then walking in that painfully contorted position down the Champs-Élysées.
Most recently, in Golden Journey, a series of videotaped actions that reference the history of body-based performance art and civil disobedience, the artist transforms himself into a human log. Laying on the ground with his arms clasped to his sides, he slowly rolls down some of SF’s steepest streets, avoiding serious injury by surrounding himself with a coterie of minders who allow his body to bump against their heels, thereby regulating its downhill progress. The processions, which appear on wall-sized video projections, move at such a measured pace they feel almost funereal. In several shots where we see Lin’s bruised face, it’s hard not to think of the self-flagellation inflicted by mystics.
Is this journey through the topography of SF a spiritual exercise? From the evidence, it’s difficult to assess Lin’s thoughts, feelings or state of mind as he bumps awkwardly down Powell and Little Lombard Streets, across the Golden Gate Bridge (with U.S. Navy fighter jets streaking overhead) and through Chinatown, site of the first American flag erected in SF. Despite the obvious beating he’s taking, his eyes remain mostly closed, his face, expressionless. By contrast, Lin’s companions appear intensely focused as they resist gravity on his behalf.
With no target or clear-cut political statement being made, we look elsewhere for meaning: to our own reactions and to the those of passersby, all the while cheering Lin on for what feels like a noble act.
On upper Nob Hill, most people don’t notice him. Or, if they do, it’s with a quick dismissive glance, as if such behavior were part of the everyday freak show that is San Francisco. Things change a bit in Chinatown. When Lin walks around dragging the long train of a ceremonial lion costume by the tail, locals notice. So do tourists clinging to a cable car. Lin’s roll across the Golden Gate Bridge garners plenty of attention, too, and it is against this backdrop, of speeding cars and the U.S. Navy’s display of air power during Fleet Week, that Lin’s display of passive resistance registers strongest.
An equally satisfying part of the show comes when Lin and crew inch their way down Lombard – not on the sidewalk, but right down the middle of the cobblestone track, slowing traffic to a crawl. The video shifts between close ups of the procession and long shots, and in the former, where a red SUV trails the artist’s body by only a few feet, we see how thoroughly disruptive this act is. Amazingly, no horns sound, no tempers flare. Tourists become willing participants. Watching the video made me feel like cheering: He’s thrown gum into the machinery and it’s sticking!
If you’re wondering whether there’s an explicit “critique” lurking in all of this, there is. You’ll find it in a video in which the artist, wearing the aforementioned lion suit, is shown in SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries gyrating to a steady drumbeat. The tail the costume is made of dollar bills, and in the gallery installation it’s thrust through a cinderblock wall. This transparent swipe at capitalism is well-deserved: Lin’s hometown of Gaungzhou, China’s third-largest a city, has been transformed by full-on development, and the corrosive power of money made and spent too fast is something this artist understands well.
What makes no sense in this exhibit is the graffiti on the walls. If it’s an attempt to buy street cred with an overlay of urban grit, it falls flat. Lin’s videos, supplemented by aerial still shots, situate us exactly where we need to be: in the middle of a city whose planners thought, from afar, that the place was flat. (That, by the way, is how a conventional urban grid was superimposed over the hills of San Francisco.)
Lin, by rolling down those hills, came to understand that miscalculation bodily, in roughly the same way his forbearers did when they arrived here as laborers during the Gold Rush. Their bitter journey – like Lin’s – turned out to be anything but golden, and by bodily interjecting himself into the territory on which those events took place, he brings both the past and the present into sharper focus.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Lin Yilin: “Golden Journey” @ Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute, through July 28, 2012.