Ending Game II (清场), 2018. Ink and Xuan paper on wood panel, 28 x 26 in. Photo: Jason Mandella, Courtesy Helwaser Gallery, © Lin Yan

Tradition and Independence: A Conversation with Lin Yan

Lin Yan belongs to a distinguished line of Chinese artists. Her grandfather and grandmother were pioneers of modern art in China, and her parents, Lin Gang and Pang Tao, opened the Central Academy of Fine Art oil painting studio in the 1980s. Lin Yan graduated from the Central Academy in 1984 and later moved to the United States, receiving her degree from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania in 1989. In 1993, she moved with her husband, the painter Wei Jia, to Brooklyn, where she continues to live. She currently works primarily with molded paper, creating sculptures in which everyday objects become the basis of three-dimensional forms and installations with which viewers interact over time. In her current exhibition “Origin Point,” on view at Helwaser Gallery in New York through January 30, 2020, she responds to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest with Alioth, an installation of cast-paper reliefs made from tree branches and trunks.

Monument 9, 2008. Xuan paper and ink, 124 x 57 x 8 in. Photo: © Lin Yan, Courtesy Dresden State Art Collection and Fou Gallery, New York

Jonathan Goodman: You come from a family with three generations of women artists, including yourself. How have your mother and grandmother influenced you?
Lin Yan: All of my mother’s family members are painters and art educators. Grandfather Pang Xunqin (Hiunkin Pang) went to Paris to study art when he was 19 in the mid-1920s; he was greatly influenced by Modernism. At that time, many young Chinese artists and scholars studied in Europe or Japan and brought Western techniques back to China for the first time. Pang played a leading role in China’s early modern art world and was a pioneer in the modern design field. My grandmother Qiu Ti (Schudy) was also a very talented painter, one of the first women oil painters in China. She did inspired research on Chinese classical art, including stone carving, murals, and craft arts. The modern Chinese art started by her generation opened up a new era. But eight years of the Sino-Japanese War, followed by domestic war and more than two decades of political brainwashing, as well as tight controls restricting any art practice except political propaganda and socialist realism, killed art, culture, and free thinking from the 1950s through the 1970s. In my family, critical thinking and respect for the independence of the artist somehow survived and was passed on to me.

I was very lucky to be able to play freely with art materials behind my family’s closed doors. Of course, my parents worried about me not being able to make a living; when I was in college, my father told me, “You have to walk with two legs.” I studied hard and did well, meeting and even surpassing all requirements for classical painting and drawing techniques. I loved what we learned—art of the Renaissance, Impressionist painting. I was determined to become a free artist in the future. In 1985, when China had just opened its doors to the world, going to America or Europe was my best option.

Regeneration of Hope — Alioth (希望重生 – 玉衡), 2019. Two-part installation, sculpture: ink, Xuan paper, and cotton string; ceiling: pins and cotton string, sculpture: 48 x 28 in., ceiling: dimensions variable. Photo: Phoebe d’Heurle, Courtesy Helwaser Gallery, © Lin Yan

JG: While you travel back to China regularly, you live in New York, with a studio in Long Island City. Why have you stayed?
LY: I came here when I was 24 on a student visa. A week after I graduated from graduate school, with my parents on their first visit to America, we glued our eyes to the television and watched thousands of Chinese students demonstrating for freedom and democracy in Tiananmen Square. The movement was crushed horribly in blood on June 4, 1989. We were worried and uncertain about what would happen. I got a full-time job as a color separator in a silkscreen printing company in Los Angeles. In 1991, I gave birth to my son, and we moved to New York in 1993. During the late 1990s, many Chinese artists returned to take advantage of a newly opened art market and the international attention given to Chinese contemporary art. But my young son was attending school here, and that, along with my preference for a free and down-to-earth lifestyle, convinced me to stay in the States.

JG: How has New York influenced you as an artist?
LY: New York City has offered me space physically but also, more importantly, psychologically. It challenges me to find my way, helping me to become who I am, and it allows me to be myself. I never stopped loving this city, no matter my fortune, good or bad, as an artist in Brooklyn.

JG: Why is making sculpture from paper an effective process for you?
LY: As an immigrant and world traveler, I found myself doing a lot of work spontaneously. I was addressing the concept of home and a sense of belonging. Challenges in dislocation motivate me to create work that is different from both Western and Chinese artists of the past. The materials for making sculpture let me be close to my own culture, yet overlook it from a distance. The paper that I use—Xuan paper—is still considered a major medium in China. It is traditional, handmade paper, used for ink painting and calligraphy for thousands of years. Unlike ink artists who use ink and water with a brush to create an image on paper, I pay more attention to texture, choosing thick or thin paper to collage, crumble, tear, sew, or mount—all in an effort to explore material possibilities. The further I go on this path, the more fulfilled I feel.

Gateway, 2017. Ink and Xuan paper, 122 x 48 in. Photo: © Lin Yan, Courtesy Fou Gallery, New York

JG: You also make molds of objects and surfaces. How does this work technically, and what are the aesthetic implications?
LY: Xuan paper looks very thin and delicate. Making molds from objects and surfaces for casting with paper is an ongoing process. I was amazed by how strong and solid the shape could be, even as the results were warm and intimate. It communicates with me in a rich language—one that I love more than conventional sculpture materials. I believe the Tai Ji symbol—the black and white Yin and Yang symbol—is everywhere in my life and work. My thesis in graduate school, “Tai Ji in My Paintings,” addressed the same concept when I was an oil painter 30 years ago. I wrote: “Tai Ji is represented by the following symbol: Yin, the black part, and Yang, the white part, exist as one unit in which each side includes the opposite elements. The curved line in between is symbolic of perpetual movement.” I hope my work communicates a symbolic contemplation of my own spirituality.

JG: While you show in New York, it looks like you are more active in China. Is there a reason for this? Do you still consider yourself a Chinese artist?
LY: Since I started spending more time with my parents in Beijing over the last two or three years, I’ve become interested in gaining more exhibition opportunities in China. I participated in a huge exhibition, “New Ink Art in China 1978–2018,” at the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum. I was glad my ink and paper installation was accepted. My time is now equally divided between New York and Beijing.

Installation view of Phecda, 2017. Xuan paper, 167.8 x 82.3 x 27.9 in. Photo: © 2018 Lin Yan, Courtesy Wanying Art Museum, Shijiazhuang

Fou Gallery in Brooklyn plays an important role for young Chinese artists based in New York. Last summer, curator Echo He offered me a chance to make works based on the doors, windows, and radiators inside the gallery, which is an old brownstone. Using paper, I cast the original ceiling molding, wooden doors, and windows—the idea was to have a dialogue with the building’s past. Touching these architecture details made me feel like a proud Brooklyn artist.

JG: Could you describe your installation Inverted Shadow?
LY: It was part of a solo show with the same title at Leo Gallery in Shanghai in 2018. Inverted Shadow (2017–18) is a four- to five-square-meter maze built from hundreds of sheets of white paper hanging from the ceiling, with the structure accompanied by its reflection in dark water. Visitors were invited to step on cement blocks like those found on construction sites. Thus they found themselves walking through the narrow path of water, touched by soft paper on both sides of their bodies. It was like making your way through a three-dimensional ink wash painting. The path was so narrow that you could only go forward, turn without knowing where your steps would take you, and continue to the destination—also the starting point.

Inverted Shadow (detail), 2017–18. Xuan paper, bricks, water, and mirror, 236 x 199 x 134 in. Photo: © Lin Yan, Courtesy Leo Gallery, Shanghai

The minimal form echoes the concept of empty space in landscape scroll paintings. There is a small open space inside the paper maze. It’s a place for a break, enabling viewers to look up and breathe, imagine, or meditate. As you continue watching the steps, walking on the found objects, it reflects the rhythm of real life again. Yin and Yang, up and down, white and black, in and out, spiritual and daily life, still and flow, dry and wet, are all in one. Humankind, animal lives, and nature are all connected.

Inverted Shadow which was shown in the south, reflects an earlier installation done in the north: Phecda (2017), named after the third star of the Big Dipper. If I were, in fact, closer to heaven and earth in the north of China, then, after coming to the south—to Jiangnan, or south of the Yangtze River—the moist air has given me a glimpse of water, another indispensable natural resource.

JG: What about “Common Words in Chinese,” a group of works that includes the installation Common Words—Fu?
LY: The characters in these works (常见字: 芙-福-府-富, 敷-浮-腐-缚) have the same pronunciation with different tones. Each one means something totally different. The first four, which sound more cheerful, indicate the following—followers, lucky or happy, house or home, and prosperity—while the last four correspond to almost opposing meanings—apply or perfunctory, float or impetuous, rotten or corrupt, tie up or restrain. They are all pronounced “Fu.” In the last few years, I’ve often seen them in print and heard them in conversation. They refer to certain social issues, as well as to our era of fast economic growth. I made 24 paper pieces, focusing on textures and layers, and a site-specific installation in an old country house. The English words embedded in the middle of each painting are “Rose,” “Empire,” and “Pray.” I made the three molds from old Brooklyn bricks. The letters come from the brick companies’ names, but they also show my attitude in my works.

Common Words – Empire, Pray, Roses 10, 2018. Ink and Xuan paper, 55.5 x 27.6 in. Photo: Jason Mandella, Courtesy Helwaser Gallery, © Lin Yan

This was the first time that I participated in an exhibition in the remote countryside. I stayed a couple of days to create the installation inside the house. I liked getting up very early, walking on the slippery stone path made damp by morning dew, and passing through the muddy grass field to the exhibition space. I didn’t want to do anything to break up the tranquility. I had no intention of disturbing the energy that nature gives us. The power of nature itself is so profound and unified; any self-centered, manmade object placed against it may look shallow and weak.

So I studied my space, a traditional wooden house in an old Duan family courtyard. I wanted to find a way to awaken its energy and show its beauty. The house had two pillars that attracted me. In Common Words—Fu (2018), I used a fine hemp rope and handmade Xuan paper to work around them. The beauty of the space and my work enhanced each other. I tried to give up anything extraneous and keep all relationships simple, harmonious, and effortless. My inner thoughts stayed behind the scenes, merely part of the working process.

JG: Is it fair to say that your work belongs to an international practice rather than a specifically Chinese one?
LY: It is not a question I have ever asked myself. When I work in China, especially for a site-specific installation, I research the local culture. My materials come from a tradition begun thousands of years ago. I am well connected with ancient Chinese art, but I work with my own perspective and methods, which may not be very Chinese. Contemporary sculpture can’t be defined by one culture, one nation, anymore.

Common Words – Fu, 2018. Xuan paper, hemp rope, and pillar, installation view. Photo: © Lin Yan, Courtesy Guang’an Field Art Biennale Guang’an, China and Fou Gallery, New York

JG: Do you make maquettes or draw before you construct a sculpture?
LY: Sometimes I draw different versions before I start. Sometimes I experiment with maquettes and drafts for exhibition proposals. For installations, I also need to calculate a lot and solve technical problems for every step of the process. That’s more detail-oriented.

JG: Your generation of Chinese artists came of age in the 1980s. How do you see that decade? Is it as important as many people felt at the time?
LY: In my lifetime, I have witnessed two mighty forces damaging to art and culture in China. One was the long-term political turbulence, which ended in the late 1970s. The other is the nationwide worship of money that has dominated people’s minds since the 1990s. During the 1980s, we had a few comfortable years when we could enjoy reading good books, and we had relative freedom of speech and expression. That taste of freedom, along with the sense of unknown adventure in 1980s, is what we miss most today.