A framed wooden structure in a hexagonal layout was placed in the centre of the room; a reference to “the chemical compound of benzene, part of a phyto-hormonal change that occurs during the aromatization of certain plants.”
An exploration of botanical knowledge and chemistry, the installation became a ‘slow forming cloud’ that proposed both a cross-pollination and infection between “bodies, ecosystems, and institutions.”
Both artists’ practices are concerned with ecology and botany through a queer re-reading, and invite the viewer to “to lose the illusion of their bodily boundaries and float within the influence of a hormonal mist.” Read our interview with Candice Lin to hear more about these ideas.
“We’ll see how it goes,” says Candice Lin,looking at a glass case full of giant cockroaches in the corner of London’s Gasworks. “They made babies which we were all a little nervous about because there are some gaps. They’re a little worried that they’re going to have an infestation.” The work is a part of the LA-based artist’s first UK solo exhibition that’s called A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour – running September 21 to December 11 – and boasts porcelain, sugar, tea, live silkworms (“cute”), opium, silver and a red dye made from the bodies of insects called cochineal. All of these things are perishable and all of them threaten the clinical ambience of a recently renovated gallery.
The show hasn’t even opened yet and there’s already been an issue with the water filtration system. The makeshift rigging of tubes, glass jars and ceramics, poppy seeds and a couple of potatoes, has been fermenting, distilling and dying its contents into a rich liquid composite that risks spilling out of its wooden container. “Their floor is new and it stains easily,” Lin explains, “but so far it’s not got any red on it.”
Spread between rooms, A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour includes a Chinese reproduction of a Dutch still life with a Chinese porcelain jar, an etching of a slave-driven silver mine, and an upturned ceramic bust of Scottish Botanist and tea-thief Robert Fortune being used as a filter. There’s a pile of books titled Opium for the Masses, Science and Colonial Expansion and The Global Lives of Things holding up one of the copper stills of the aforementioned installation called ‘System for a Stain’. A hose spurts crimson on to a fake marble floor next door. “It actually doesn’t look very brown,” says Lin about the piece that circulates like an artery of bacterial fermentation between the two spaces. “We thought it would look more like menstrual blood. It’s more like a really pretty red.”
When I return to the exhibition two months later, though, the water has turned a rank, congealed brown. The candied vase in the vitrine of cockroaches has melted from the English humidity (“I didn’t think about the weather”), and the room is pungent. The overpowering smell of decay has become a part of the show, becoming assimilated in a violent, though complex life cycle of trade and goods-exchange that affects every living organism, down to the bacteria that runs through them. Suddenly the audio, coming from a speaker over the maroon blot has more meaning:
“My father said you could never trust an Indian no matter how well you thought you knew him, they were mercurial and prone to leave before the contract was up, and so sometimes you had to keep their children.”
When I first heard ‘A Memory Blushing with Innocence,’ Lin’s words, read by Lauren Mackler, were muffled by the noise and excitement of an opening night crowd. Now the room is empty, quiet and stale. The crisp white gloves for leafing through George Psalmanazar’s Physiologus text are now a grimy light-grey. The pages of the made-up language of Formosa written by the self-styled 18th century ‘Oriental chimera’ have been turned enough, and the show is finally ripe. Its references run thick and complex, constantly evolving and seeping through a practice that’s as compelling as it is deeply implicating.
When you talk about the colonial constructs in the language of objects, is the root here in British Imperialism?
Candice Lin: Yeah, my research on these topics started in the Caribbean because I was actually looking at religious objects, or dances, or things that had these elements that migrated, these syncretic objects or dances in Vodou religion that came out of that. From that research in the Caribbean I started thinking about food goods and then from there, I was thinking a lot about the relationship between America, the Caribbean and the UK, or England, at the time. So in this show there is a focus on the way that the objects were important to British culture, like tea, sugar and potatoes.
What do you mean by syncretic objects?
CL: Syncretic objects would be the way that in certain ritualistic dances in Vodou, for example, they have traces of French court dances, freemasonry stepping rituals and military movements. It’s the way that these different histories all get kind of boiled down into a form, or the way certain objects would have these multiple histories in them.
So you mean in terms of a kind of cultural exchange.
CL: Yeah, in the way things are hidden as a way to survive. So with Vodou it’s a way to hide your native religion in the guise of the master’s religion. But I was also interested in ways that things morph over time, creating new meanings and new relationships.
When you say hiding a religion ‘in the guise of the master’s religion,’ which one are you talking about?
CL: Haitian Vodou draws from West African Vodun practiced by the Fon and Ewe people, as well as other religious elements of the Yoruba and Kongo. Those gods were syncretically linked to different Catholic Saints, so they would look like they were worshipping the Virgin Mary but actually they were also worshipping their own god because they weren’t allowed otherwise. That was interesting to me but I was also interested in the way that that got embedded in these daily objects more, and just even in these daily gestures.
It’s also interesting how that works the other way around, in terms of imposing a religion, or an ideology by using the images of another belief system, in the same way that Christianity would have done with Paganism for example.
CL: Yeah, I think that’s true. Paganism and the way the tree symbolism becomes the cross, and then the cross becomes the Aztec crossroads, or the Incan crossroads in the New World. Both have layers of these different meanings kind of packed on top of each other.
I wonder what you think about colonialism, then, as a concept. Your approach seems far more multifaceted.
CL: Yeah, it’s almost as if colonialism is an easy way to talk about it but it is much larger than that. I always say that I’m more looking at, or starting from the imperial or colonial root of the traded object and then it’s something else completely, as it spreads outwards and becomes this layered, complex object with all these different sets of relations going on.
Do you think it’s particularly relevant at this point in time that you’re working with food?
CL: I’m actually kind of moving from food to thinking about plants and bacteria but I think food is so interesting because it’s this shared experience that’s almost a ritual. It’s like a domestic ritual that’s a little bit indoctrinating – food types as a way of learning about culture. Then it’s also this thing that is changing all the time and embroiled in these different cross-cultural moments.
Also, because a lot of my work was much more about sexuality before, there is this idea of the porousness of the body that gets opened up when you talk about food. You’re like, ‘oh yeah, we aren’t these self-contained cases that are individuals, that are protected. We have all of these fissures, this kind of openness.’ So making people eat food that’s outside of the taboos, or making people think about these cultural things while they’re eating, that part is important to me.
You think eating is taboo?
CL: No. I did a meal in 2014 at the Delfina Foundation, where I had dishes that were based on English medieval traditions of making foods that look like one thing but they’re made out of another. One of them was insects and there’s a taboo around the English not eating insects. Then there’s this act of having to change your actual body by ingesting this thing that you find repulsive, physically, and breaking that emotional cultural taboo while you’re doing it.
Also with A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour, transforming these goods into excrement…
CL: …or the excess residue that doesn’t have any purpose.
I first came across your work with the public sculpture for Current LA. Can you tell me something about it?
CL: That work is actually related to some other research for the show here that dealt with water filtration and the use of the history of porcelain, which is one part of the goods that I’m looking at in this show. Porcelain, sugar, tea, opium, silver and cochineal – quite a lot of things [laughs]. I was looking at ways that these historical colonial goods that were traded had language used to describe them that was sometimes racialised, or made in these human surrogates.
That piece in LA was called ‘A Hard White Body’ because of the way porcelain was described, often as this kind of parallel that showed these fears around miscegenation. They would talk about how porcelain could not be stained by tea or coffee, so there’s this kind of fear of foreign products. I’m interested in that with some of these other objects, as well. Tobacco was something I didn’t include but it was also talked about as ‘going mulatto’ when it got a virus. So there was explicit racialised language that was used for these different traded goods but also more subtle ones.
That sort of classification reminds me of the hierarchies embedded in the use of ceramic materials.
CO: Yeah, there’s Bone China, which was the English attempt at making porcelain and used actual bones of animals because of a mistranslation of Chinese. It said kaolin is to the bone as petuntse is to the flesh, and then they translated it literally. [laughs] Like, ‘oh, there’s bones and flesh in this special recipe!’
Can I ask at what point you started becoming interested in the history of…
CL: …things? [laughs]
CL: Always. I don’t know. I think I use my art as a way to synthesise and research things I’m interested in. So if I’m interested in bugs or parasites then I’ll research that and make a show about it. [laughs]
Do you read a lot?
CL: Yeah. I always never know how much I should say because I could go on but I don’t think that everybody needs to know everything.**
Candice Lin is an Los Angeles-based artist. Her A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour is on at London’s Gasworks, running September 21 to December 11, 2016, and The Mountain is on at LA’s Commonwealth & Council, running November 19 to January 7, 2017.
Candice Lin is presenting solo exhibition A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour at London’s Gasworks, opening September 21 and running to December 11.
The show will be the LA-based artist’s first in the UK. It explores histories of slavery and colonialism as it has been shaped by a human attraction to particular colours, tastes, textures and drugs. It focuses on how the desire to wear and consume preceded the will to trade commercial goods and traces the materialist urges at the root of colonial violence.
The artist presents a “low-tech installation”, or system, of tubing, plastic and glass containers, porcelain filters, hot plates, and other hacked household objects (boils, ferments, distills, dyes) and pumps liquid containing colonial trade goods such as cochineal, sugar and tea. Described as a “flayed circulatory system” and ‘fed’ two litres of water each day, the contraption will constantly produce a brownish-red fluid that will be collected in a basin, siphoned off, and congeal in a pool on a marble-like laminate floor in the adjacent gallery.
The organic matter produced echoes histories of trade, “transforming prized, historically-loaded goods into a stain reminiscent of murder, faeces or menstrual blood”.
The Transformation Marathon is literally in full swing when I get there. As in, there are people on the stage, dancing along to swing music. This is the tail end of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s ‘It Looks Very Chaotic but Somehow It Makes Sense’ presentation. The hip guys on stage aren’t actually dancing that convincingly; it brings back memories of a music video I watched a couple of years ago –a set, filled with bright young things, self-consciously 90s but contemporary, doing dad dancing well. This isn’t quite the same; a similar atmosphere of controlled exuberance, but styled by Cos rather than American Apparel, as it were, and the dancing isn’t so compelling. They freeze on command.
Having left Frieze Art Fairthe day before with a bad case of PTSD presenting as a crushing sense of existential angst that hasn’t yet fully worn off, I am not filled with optimism for the day. As they finish, a lady I assume must be Gonzalez-Foerstertells them they’re beautiful: “You are angels. You are my angels.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist takes the stage after this –he’s compère for this section –and he looks frightening. Actually, having never seen him before, I rather think he looks exactly as I suspected he would. Black everything, most people here are wearing black everything, and long hair grown backwards from a bald spot –a wig, as it turns out, he’s in disguise. Obrist introduces Jimmie Durham, Abraham Cruzvillegasand Mark Godfrey. They converse, but the sound is still being adjusted and only bits of it get through. It’s quite a useful window, a moment to adjust to the sort of metaphysical-seeming space created by the endeavour of the marathon.
It’s a daunting thing to approach, 24-plus hours of solid talks and discussions (although I’m only here for five) and in a specifically designed space, Zaha Hadid’s pavilion, in Kensington Gardens, surrounded by embassy-luxury and clean, elegant buildings. The dissonance between this London and South, say, is actually very useful in snapping into the kind of tantric-engagement that this quantity of undiluted cultural-engagement requires.
The four men on-stage finish their conversation, and Obrist introduces Alice Rawsthorn, who takes over as compere so that he can go and change. Rawsthorn discusses design, its transformative power, and the strength of a designed identity. She introduces Gabriel Ann Maher, who has designed the stage, and they explore how gendered design can be. They discuss a project run by Maher that highlighted stark imbalances through information analysis, and break down the stats in a design magazine’s headlines and pictures to reveal that regardless of received wisdom/naïve hope, the playing field is still very far from even. They also tangentially explore the innate functionality of design (versus visual art), as Maher outlines its potential as connective tissue, a kind of solidifying bridge realising the conceptual in performativity.
Later, Obrist returns looking dressed for the event, rather than costumed like a B-Movie evil scientist. I realise a transformation has occurred. Before he introduces an extremely strong series of lectures that take us from 1300 through to 1600 hrs, he tells us a bit about the durational art-works that are happening throughout the marathon.
I have been looking around for Patrick Staff and Candice Lin’s piece, and I find half of it in the Transformation Marathon booklet. The other half is an offering, a baggy containing a smaller baggy and also a rolling paper. Too wide to be Rizla, if I had to guess a brand I’d go OCB. The paper is printed with an ouroboros, circled by a benzene ring. “The shape of the benzene molecule came to the scientist August Kekule through a trance vision he had of… a snake eating its tail. The mystical nature of science.”
“INHALE A FINE HORMONAL MIST” the OCB says. Transformation, here, comes in the consumption of the organic material supplied in the smaller baggy in the bigger one. Transform it how you want; eat it, make it into tea. Smoke it. Staff and Lin’s piece is called ‘Reading and Smoking’.
The project developed out of research into the actual, empirical transformative power of herbalist remedies, the powerful biological effects of naturally occurring and unadulterated biological materials. “What is ancient about herbalism and what is modern about gender transition?” the text asks. “What is modern about herbalism and what is ancient about transitioning?”
Samson Kambalu’s Doing Time is one of the other major art works of the day. Audience members are handcuffed together, Obrist calls it a spatial intervention, a physical drawing. It’s supposed to be inclusive; a means of realizing a physical network. Handcuffs, though, are always ugly. It’s hard to forget that their usual purpose is normally either unsavory or vulgar, sometimes both.
Aimee Meredith Cox converses with Adam Greenfield next. They’re fascinating, and this is the closest I see the day come to acknowledging the kind of liberal-utopian bubble that often surrounds well-meaning people in nice clothes. Cox has recently written a book, Shapeshifters, based on her long-term observation of young Black women in a Detroit homeless shelter. Her background is in professional dance, and she sees a kind of choreography at work in the complex social and survival mechanisms enacted by her objects. “Social choreography, as performed by the young Black women in [her] book,” she writes, “privileges and celebrates the instability and flexibility of identity in variously configured locations.”
In her text in the Transformation Marathon booklet, Cox draws parallels between the choreographer’s command to the dancer: “Stay in your body!” and the necessarily politicized self-occupation of the women in Detroit. “[They] stay in their bodies to rewrite the socially constructed meanings shackled to them… they are aware that if they rely on socially determined assessments to define their self-worth, they would be exiled from their own bodies and any home spaces they might establish for themselves –a state of eternal homelessness.” Cox expands on these notions of home in conversation with Greenfield, exploring bourgeois ideas of safety, reflecting that a safe community is defined as much, if not more, by who it excludes, as by who it contains.
They describe ‘smart citizens’, citizenship as belonging and personhood contingent on access to social structures. “The more privilege you have, the easier it is not to have that sense of connectedness”. They only describe the bubble, though, missing an opportunity to pop it. Rather, the discussion ends with a slightly dispiriting discussion of how it feels to have written a book, while I ponder the resonance of Cox or Greenfield’s phrase, “a rhetoric of openness.”
The Marathon changes gear, here, as Adrian Hon leads the themes away from the explicitly social, and into the web. Hon invented that app that makes you jog faster by synthesizing a zombie apocalypse over headphones, and his experiences in unconventional narrative give weight to his observations about the fundamental conservatism of storytelling and narrative form in the face of technological development. How will we cope with the intensity of what is around the corner, he wonders, when the arts have yet to succeed in capturing one-to-one communication in narrative –fictional cell phones are still unreliable –let alone one-to-many? He also talks about 4Chan, the notorious, anything-goes image board, which I’ve always been a bit too scared to go on; the way it destroys individual identity so utterly through its lack of avatars or handles that the individual transforms. Everyone can be everyone, or just one lonely nerd.
Gabriella Coleman also discusses 4Chan, its role in incubating hacker-cabal Anonymous and the ‘parasitical politics’ of the hacker. The genesis, Coleman says, was in Copyleft, the incredibly clever and subversive safeguard against the co-option or privatisation of freeware or public domain works. What she outlines seems like the most positive case I’ve heard for the capitalist realist rejection of explicit ideology –perhaps better termed as dogma –where digitised fluidity facilitates cooperation between cells; where being a vegan (her example) isn’t a prerequisite for participating in an action. As if to emphasise this point (although I still haven’t quite decided if perhaps it just undermines everything) she tells us that TOR, the anonymity-protecting online invisibility-cloak, is at least partially funded by the US government.
The Marathon transforms again, now, into a territory whose academic strength is reinforced with subjective/emotional experience. Juliet Jacques frames her discussion of transgender experience within a critique of the simplistic and sensationalist poles of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, rejecting the binary that belittles the deeply complex process of transitioning. She presents us with examples, images depicting only the most unreasonable of gendered extremes –bloke-y soldier becomes “Blond Beauty”–and describes how unhelpful and also inaccurate this reportage is. In the course of blogging her transition, Jacques says, she realised that it was simply too slow to provide a consistent narrative; that media’s salacious focus on physical transformation neglects the equally gradual and highly meaningful effect of transition on identity, the self.
Following Peter Wächler‘s reading from a new text, the Marathon changes tack again, as François Jullien is introduced. He’s a very important continental philosopher. Whilst introducing him, Obrist welcomes Gustav Metzger, an activist-art institution, which is exciting but I can’t see him and he doesn’t come on stage. Little portable radio sets are dished out, and Obrist tells us that Jullien is going to be giving his talk in French, and we ought to take one to listen to the interpreter if we don’t speak it. It’s very odd hearing French in one ear and English in the other –especially since the interpreter keeps an irregular rhythm. He’s obviously extremely good, as he keeps pace with Jullien throughout, but it definitely doesn’t help when it comes to understanding the lecture, which is about, I think in part, the differences between Taoist philosophy and Greek, how both are underpinned by different understandings of and relationships to time, and its transformative effects.
He makes a point about cumulative change; we don’t notice ourselves changing until one day we are suddenly old. He says that in Chinese language (I don’t think he specifies which –I assume it’s Mandarin though it could be all) there are no grammatical structures that express tense, that this reflects a fundamentally different approach to time. Of course it does. It’s a fascinating train of thought –where we are, how things are different if we can’t locate ourselves linguistically in relation to the past and future. Forever in the present, presumably. Seeing and engaging with transformation’s process, not pinned to the banal western binaries of Before and After. Before the Marathon it seemed long. After, I was tired. During, there were moments of illumination. **
See here for ‘Looking back at Transformation Marathon, p.2 (EST)’.