Lin Jingjing 林菁菁

Lin Jingjing (born 1970) employs varied media including video, photography and performance to explore notions of social and personal identity in the context of modern society. Her works often concern the nature of paradox and depart from a philosophical interest in the human experience.

Lin Jingjing

Lin Jingjing
Image courtesy of the artist

Monica Merlin: As I am researching Chinese women artists, I thought it would be useful to talk directly to the artists. It has been a delight to know that everyone is very happy to be interviewed.

Lin Jingjing: Your approach is quite unique. To be honest, hardly anyone pays much attention to women artists or tries to understand the situation they face in China. Sometimes there are exhibitions of female artists, but they do not really shed any light on anything. The curator simply puts together artworks by women artists without drawing anything meaningful connections between their works. It is all very superficial, so I do not take part in those type of exhibitions. It would be more interesting if they were to look at how things are for women artists from a historical or social perspective. For example, it would be interesting to look at what effect a woman’s gender has had on her, what space is available to her in this society, and why she makes the art she does. But it is strange to think that you should be included in a particular exhibition just because you are a woman. I am not saying I am completely unwilling to take part in an exhibition of women artists, but that it should be a show that has some kind of meaning behind it. So I really like your research topic, since it explores real issues. I am happy to support you.

Monica Merlin: Do you think that by arranging these exhibitions, the curators just want to give women artists a space to exhibit their art, or do you think they have another agenda?

Lin Jingjing: My sense is that there are not many people who are actually considering what women artists are thinking about – why they make their art, and what is special about their work. These are important questions, but nobody really pays them much attention. Instead, curators are just looking for a theme for their exhibitions. It is similar to a person who, when buying shoes, says, ‘I normally wear leather shoes, so this time I should get some cloth shoes instead’. You are only buying the cloth shoes because you normally get leather shoes, not because you think the cloth shoes are really comfortable. Do you see what I mean? If you say to someone, ‘I am a woman artist’, they might reply by saying, ‘Ah, great, we are putting on an exhibition of women artists soon’. They can simply invite you to take part in the exhibition without having seen your art or having a clue about what you do. It is really strange, and completely meaningless.

Monica Merlin: Do you think, generally speaking, that women artists in China face difficulties in finding opportunities to exhibit their works?

Lin Jingjing: Yes, great difficulties.

Monica Merlin: Have you faced these difficulties yourself?

Lin Jingjing: Of course, very often. Sometimes when people organise an exhibition, they might decide to include a few women artists, not because their works provide a contrast to the exhibition as a whole, or match the theme, but because it would be a bit unbalanced if the exhibition consists of all male artists. In most cases, this is the reason the curator includes women artists. Also, male artists are generally very unwilling to talk about art with female artists. They are far more willing to talk about other things, like the clothes you are wearing. This is something I often joke about with other women artists. Often at an exhibition opening, male artists would sit around talking about art, but when they start talking to women artists, they’ll change the conversation to something different.

Monica Merlin: Do they think that you do not understand art because you are a woman, or do they think that the art you make is trivial?

Lin Jingjing: I think they do not feel any need to talk about art with women artists. It is not a conscious choice, it is just the way their mind works. They are just not used to doing it.

Monica Merlin: Do you think that this behaviour is related to traditional views of women?

Lin Jingjing: It is part of their ideas about a woman’s identity. For example, say that you are in a restaurant with your friends having a conversation about culture. And in your group of friends there is someone who is a housekeeper, or a waiter, someone whom you have never talked about culture or art with. When you see them, you would still be very polite, but you would talk to them about other things, such as the weather and clothes – anything but culture. That is because in your mind, there is no need to talk to them about culture. This is how I think it works. Male artists see themselves as playing a different role when talking to female artists, a role in which talking about art does not feature. It is very strange. But of course, I am talking in general terms here – it is not as if every male artist is like this. But on a social level, this is a serious issue. And there are also many other causes behind this problem – I am not saying that men are the only ones responsible for this.

Moreover, this issue is not limited to the art world; it applies to society in general. Modern society generally treats women as a commodity. When your television gets old, you buy a new one. And when you buy any other commodity, you ask yourself a range of questions: Is it easy to use? Does it look nice? Is it in fashion? How much does it cost? This is the way society treats women. Just look at all those fashion magazines that teach you how to be a ‘charming woman’, how to manage your family, how to change yourself in this way or that, how to succeed, how to get a good boyfriend, how to keep your boyfriend, how to put on makeup and look nice… all this stuff. This is all part of a society’s education of women. From girls to grown women, they are always regarded as a commodity. The most important aspect of a commodity, of course, is that it can be replaced. So the problem is not just with one person or one group, but the entire society.

Even women themselves are affected. They think that they should behave in certain ways, or that their most important task is to make themselves look beautiful through plastic surgery and the like. They believe that if they are able to find a man, they will have won the whole world. They treat themselves as commodities. Since the entire society is pushing in this direction, nobody thinks that there is any problem. But female identity is a real issue. It has been present for many years across the whole world, not just in China, Japan or Korea. It is as present on this broad scale as it is in the smaller world of Chinese women artists.

Nowadays, I get the impression that women artists are treated with more importance in the West, partly because people realise that women artists think about things and do things in a different way, which deserves recognition. Another reason might be that people in the West have seen a lot of male artists and they now fancy a change of taste. It is just like what we say in Chinese, ‘thirty years to the east of the river, thirty years to the west’. Compared to the West, the situation in China is a bit trickier. The issues inherent to Chinese society’s views on women are deep-rooted, making them much harder to change.

Monica Merlin: Do you think that feminism requires greater attention in China?

Lin Jingjing: I think it is not quite that simple. I think that feminist issues are part of a greater issue of identity. For example, we have a Women’s Day on 8 March in China, but there is no Men’s Day. It is analogous to the way in which newspapers and online media glorify people for returning someone’s lost wallet. If incidents like this make the media, it means that very few people would actually carry them out, as they become something ‘special’. So the fact that we have a day specially designated as Women’s Day shows that women’s identity has never been given much importance: something special has to be invented to make up for the lack of importance with which women are treated. So I see this as a very dangerous message. It shows how serious the situation is.

Monica Merlin: I agree that there are very complex issues related to women artists in China. By focussing on women in my research, I of course do not want to marginalise them, but aim to understand them and provide them with a space to express their thoughts. But as you just said, this can actually be quite dangerous, as it could lead to isolation. How do you think this problem can be resolved in the future?

Lin Jingjing: It is a strange problem. In fact, if you have a society in which more attention is given to women, feminism becomes less important. It is precisely because so little attention is paid to women that feminism is so important. But on the other hand, if feminism did not exist at all, there would be even less attention for women. It is a paradox.

Monica Merlin: What are your own thoughts on feminism?

Lin Jingjing: For me, feminism is relevant when it is about being able to do things as a woman that can have an effect on others. Feminism becomes meaningless when your actions have no effect whatsoever and you are just trying to use the fact that you are a woman to make what you are doing seem really important. This type of feminism is utterly useless, because all you can do is just shout slogans like ‘women should be equal’. It can never achieve any result, because you have nothing substantive to talk about.

So I think people need to focus more on the way in which women do things, or the ways in which women do things that surpass gender, since many things are completely unrelated to gender. For example, everyone will one day lose the person they love the most, or the person who loves you the most will lose you. This is an unchangeable fact, part of the cruelty of life. This is not a women’s nor a man’s issue: it is a problem that every person must face. So if you can forget about gender completely when talking about issues like this you would discover that you approach these topics simply as a human being. In cases like this, it seems too narrow to talk about feminism, and equality between men and women. It is meaningless. So I think that any meaningful work requires a solid foundation: you need to be doing things, thinking about things, raising questions, and producing outputs. For an artist, whether male or female, these are the important things. It is frankly just strange if you demand attention without this foundation.

Again, in many cases a paradox emerges. It is very difficult to simply say, ‘this should be done’, ‘that must happen’, or even say what inequality is. If you treat yourself as a commodity, then who are you to complain that you are repressed? Who are you to say what inequality is? I think that we as women need to face our own problems too, and look at what we are doing ourselves before we tackle problems of equality or opportunity.

Monica Merlin: Do you feel that many women in your life are willing to treat themselves as commodities, or subconsciously fit into a stereotype?

Lin Jingjing: This is connected to the influence of society as a whole. There is a constant stream of magazines, television shows and voices telling you how to behave, so people are being pushed into these stereotypes. Sometimes, people are pushed into situations they did not choose, and they have no way out. A lot of these issues are not as simple as someone choosing to be a certain way. To truly solve these problems, society as a whole needs to change, especially in our attitude towards women and how we educate about gender.

Monica Merlin: It is immediately apparent when looking at your work that you have a great interest in memory and many of your works deal with it as a theme. Could you talk about your thoughts on memory, and why you think it is important?

Lin Jingjing: I think that one’s personal growth, and the type of person one becomes, are both related to one’s experience. You are gradually shaped into the person you are through the accumulated sum of your experiences. The same principle also applies to the history of a country: the national memories of each decade shape each generation of people. These things influence you in ways that cannot be seen. I gradually became interested in these invisible things – what they are, and how they affect and change people.

I also came to notice an interesting phenomenon among my acquaintances. If a person had been hurt badly, or had gone through a difficult time, he or she would become more forgiving, understanding, calm, and willing to help others. They would also become less selfish, and keener to spend their time on meaningful things. But if someone had a smooth time growing up, and was lucky enough that everything was easy and perfect for them, they would often turn out to be selfish, unable to understand others, and lacking in sympathy. Their attitude towards the world was often one in which they were always asking the world for something, rather than giving something back to the world. When I realised how important people’s experiences were in shaping who they became, I became very interested in thinking about many other invisible things that influence people.

The first thing I came up with was education, the second was family. The third thing was our experiences, what has happened to us in our emotional lives. Later on, I found that these were all connected to pain, and so started work on the series of paintings Colour of Memory. I talked to a lot of people face to face, asking them three questions. Firstly, I asked them what the most painful memory in their life was. Some people would answer straight away, but most would tell a story after a short pause. Secondly, I asked them to tell me about an object connected to this memory. People would reply, for instance, a cup, an alarm clock, or a movement. Finally, I asked them what colour they would choose to represent this memory. People said things like ‘definitely red’, or ‘blue’, or ‘greyish’.

After I asked this question, I told them that the exercise was over and we could talk about other things, but some people would continue talking about the questions, trying to explain why they had chosen a specific colour for their memory. I think that when people answer my three questions, they went through a process of transferring: the first question asks for a memory, which is abstract; the second question asks for an object, which is concrete; and the final question asks for a colour, which is again abstract. So people were asked to mentally transfer something from abstract to something concrete, and then back to something abstract. They had never thought about what colour their memory was, or what object they connected it with, so I got many interesting answers.

These conversations also had a profound impact on me. When someone I invited to take part sat down, he or she had no idea what I was going to ask. Similarly, I had no idea what they would say to me. I knew these questions were quite weighty, so I was worried about how they would react, whether they would be sad, angry, or resistant. For the person answering the questions, he or she had no idea what I was about ask. So both the person asking and the person answering were in a slightly uneasy position, it was very paradoxical.

Later, I painted their chosen objects in their chosen colours. All the objects are very mundane, but the colours strongly contrast each other – the paintings look very colourful when they are put side by side. I had no control over either the colour or the object, and I was not involved in the stories they told me, but I was the one who put them on display. There are many strange and ineffable connections in this world, and in this case I created things that were not connected to me at all. I gave their stories expression, but they still belonged to them. But again, though the memories are theirs, they had never transferred them to any object or colour before, so their answers were a surprise for them too. It was me who pushed them to come up with specific objects and colours. So you see there are many paradoxical connections in this work, which I think very clearly express the state of people’s relationships in today’s society – people form relationships with each other in a way that is totally inexplicable.

Another paradox is that the objects are all very mundane things that everyone has, but when they are painted in colour and placed in a series, they become very beautiful. It is also hard to imagine that these colourful and familiar objects are linked to someone’s most painful memory.

When I started making this work, I brought along a video camera to film people talking, because in the beginning I planned to include a painting component and a video component. My plan was that I would show the video of the actual person speaking, but remove their voice to mask their identity, displaying their words as text somewhere else so you would not know who said what. I also wanted to have a video area where you could watch everyone speaking but not hear them, and find out what they said in another area with the paintings and the text. I was also going to play the sound of a typewriter in the exhibition venue. I planned it this way because I did not want it to become a documentary work, because it would be uninteresting.

However, after working on it for a while, I decided not to include the video component, because after talking with so many people, I realised that the pain does not belong to any particular person – it is shared by all of us. The pain they felt individually is caused by some important factors common to everyone. For example, we all need to feel respected, we all need love, we all need a sense of achievement, and we all need confirmation of our identity. These things have nothing to do with gender, cultural background, age, or profession: we all face the same problems, and we all need the same things. In this sense, one person’s pain is everyone’s pain, and everyone’s pain is our own pain. Pain is something we all have in common. If you look at it from this perspective, there seems to be another paradox – these problems may appear to be personal, but they are in fact universal.

This work had a great effect on me, and moved me more than I had imagined. It was really touching to listen to people tell me about their pain, not because I enjoyed listening to the stories themselves, but because of my realisation that we had so much in common. Even though we are unrelated, we are the same. Because this work had such a major effect on me, I resolved that all my works in future should be similar in nature, focusing on the things you can’t see, and the things that everyone has to face. The world’s problems are my problems.

Some artists are particularly concerned with the environment, AIDS, feminism or other issues. What I came to realise is that in our society, whether in China or elsewhere in the world, we rarely pay much attention to (or take much action concerning) the mental difficulties people face. We are often completely unprepared for coping with things that cause us pain. For example, when children start going to school, what their teachers, parents, and older friends teach them is all part of a training course on how to survive. Nobody ever tells them how to cope with mental difficulties, pain, or the loss of a loved one. All this is simply left blank. Everybody in every generation experiences these mental difficulties, but we do not have any methods for dealing with them. Everybody is left alone to confront these problems, to cope with painful situations without any training, preparation, or help. You might not even have the chance to tell anyone else about it.

This means that everybody, every living being, is facing these situations for the first time without any experience. You can’t pass on your experience to someone else, or give them a helping hand, and you can’t avoid the pain. Everyone has to go through it. So I started to think about what we could do about this. I was talking about it with some friends, and they thought that actually there was nothing we could do, since we lacked the appropriate experience. I think that in a situation like this, where we think that there is no answer and nothing that we can do, it is even more necessary to at least ask what we can do. It might seem like a paradox, but it really is the way things are. We can’t stop asking the question just because we have not found the answer. If there really is no answer, or the answer is impossible, then there is even more of a need to keep asking the question.

Some of my works have really changed my attitude to the world, and influenced the type of work that I chose to do. These are important issues, and even if art cannot provide the answer, I think that there is a great need for it to keep posing the question. Even though art has not given me any answers, it has helped me to think about these issues in greater depth, and prompted others to think about these issues too. As for when the answer will come, that is something beyond our control. I often joke that though we can’t control what will happen, we can control what we do now.

Monica Merlin: So you are saying that in most circumstances in life, we are quite alone.

Lin Jingjing: If you look at the life of an individual, this is the case. Think about this: your grandmother might have faced the same problems your mother faced, but she could not give any advice to your mother; similarly, you and your mother might face the same problems, yet she would not be able to help you either. So you all need to face those problems alone. You feel really sad when you think about the way these problems repeat themselves, since so few people are working on solving them. We are always avoiding such problems, unwilling to discuss them. I think that people are unwilling because these problems are so incredibly present – they have always been with us, and every one of us must face them. It is easier to talk about more trivial things, or other people’s problems. We are so enthusiastic about other people’s problems, but become reticent when it comes to problems concerning ourselves. It is a very strange way of thinking.

Monica Merlin: I think many of your art works are connected to what you have been talking about. Some appear on the surface to be about love or marriage, but actually deal more with loneliness and the struggle for identity.

Lin Jingjing: I guess you are talking about I Want to Be with You Forever. There is a lot of misunderstanding about this work. I took photographs of 300 couples, and cut out the women in all of them, leaving the men embracing an empty space. This work explores issues of female identity: the title is I Want to Be with You Forever, but what ‘you’ refers to remains unknown. You have already decided to be with someone even though you do not know their identity. This might be strange and paradoxical, but it is also a very common issue that occurs every day.

However, the most important aspect of this work has nothing to do with either women or love. The ‘you’ in the title could be anything: it could be an object, a country, a relationship, or anything else you want. It conveys a desperate, emotional need to hold onto something, to possess something. You might not even care what it is, all you know is that because your own identity has been lost, you need to clutch this other thing in order to provide yourself with a sense of security.

Even though this work borrows the language of love, the real question it poses is completely unrelated to love: it raises issues of identity and insecurity. People believe that no matter what this ‘you’ stands for, they will be happy and safe as long as they have it. But in reality, such a thing just does not exist. For example, some people think that once they have a house, they will be happy, but it does not work like this. Once you have something you will soon forget about it, because these things are completely unable to resolve your insecurities or bring you happiness. So the title I Want to Be with You Forever represents the idea of replacement, expressing this paradox.

Another work of mine is called Never Apart. It is made from pocket-sized mirrors, which open up like a book to reveal two mirrors facing each other. I placed a photograph of a kissing couple on one side, and cut out one person to put on the other side. If you hold the mirrors at just the right angle, you can see the couple kissing each other. But it does not work if the angle is even slightly off. Like I Want to Be with You Forever, this work appears to be about love, but actually has nothing to do with love. It is more about how far people are from the things that they yearn after.

The title also expresses a paradox: though it says the couple are ‘never apart’, they are actually always apart, or are at best only connected weakly. This observation is not limited to the relationship between men and women, but applies to all kinds of relationships between people, between people and society, and between people and objects. It is all the same. Our hearts desire to be never apart from those things, but it is just not possible.

I find these paradoxical things really interesting, and I am always trying to find them. Once I find a paradox, I then try to use it to explore different questions. I try to push people to think about these questions, as they are questions that we can’t otherwise bear to discuss. I remember when I Want to Be with You Forever was exhibited, women generally liked it, but men found it disturbing. The difference between the two reactions was really interesting.

Monica Merlin: In your work, you often employ a mix of media, such as installation, performance, and painting. Could you talk about the work titled I?

Lin Jingjing: Like I said, I am really interested in paradoxes in a range of situations, and I consciously seek them out. One day when I was reading, I realised that when people read printed things – like books, newspapers, and magazines – they tend to readily believe whatever is written; they give a lot of credibility to the printed materials. Typed materials are questioned less than those written by hand. So printed materials do not just represent one type of writing, they have a special power to make people believe in them.

Also, I noticed that in modern society, the place you want to go is often the opposite of the place you end up arriving at. I chose the title I to reflect the way in which modern society encourages everybody to make themselves special and different from everyone else. Society says that you are able to succeed or do special things because you are special and different. So it seems that the society encourages one to put oneself first.

In the books that make up the work, I erased all the text apart from the words, ‘I’, ‘me’, and so on. Sometimes, a page would be totally blank apart from the punctuation marks. It looks really strange! If you read a whole book like this, you would get really confused and lost. I wanted to use these books to explore a particular issue: if you concentrate so much on ‘I’ that you erase its connections to the world and to other people, then the ‘I’ is left very prominent but utterly lost. You can’t recognise the ‘I’ since you do not know how it relates to other things. So by trying to make yourself special and strengthen your identity, you end up in the opposite place and lose your identity. It is another paradox.

The work is not just about the self either. There are many similar situations. For example, nowadays we depend more and more on machines, but as a result we have also lost many things; some people spend all their energy on making money, but lose time with their family. Society is full of situations in which you intend to go in one direction but end up going in the completely opposite way. I wanted to use the books as an example to explore this paradox.

I made several different versions of this work. In China, I used Chinese books, and got some students to erase the words. Later, I made a Spanish version in Chile. I reserved nine old desks at the National Library, and got nine people to do the erasing. I do not speak Spanish, but I found out that in Spanish there are two words for ‘I’ – ‘yo’ and ‘mi’. I think the words sound really nice! So I slightly tweaked the performance, getting the people at the desks to say ‘yo’ and ‘mi’ out loud when they encountered the words in the books. Later, I also did a German version of the work in Cologne.

When I exhibited the work in Philadelphia, it was just after Obama’s election, and I wanted to make an English version using one of his campaign speeches. But it was all a bit rushed, and I could not find the text in time. It is a shame, since it would have worked really well with the ‘I’ erased from the many ‘I-will-do-this’ and ‘I-will-do-that’ promises contained in the speech. It would have been fascinating to exhibit one of Obama’s speeches in America with only the ‘I’ left. Unfortunately, I never ended up doing it, because at the time I had arranged to exhibit a different work, and there was no time to accommodate the changes. But I have kept the idea as a proposal. It is another work about paradoxes.

Lin Jingjing, Rose Rose 2011

Lin Jingjing
Rose Rose 2011
Image courtesy of the artist

Monica Merlin: Could you talk about your works Rose Rose and I Want to Fly?

Lin Jingjing: The thing that I find interesting about roses as a flower is that they have thorns. While the thorns are there to protect the flower, this protection only works to an extent. There are a lot of analogous situations in real life: people set up defences to protect themselves, but do they actually work? That is why I think roses are special and why I chose to use them in this work. Again, some people think the roses speak about love, but I chose it really for their thorns and the paradox of self-protection they embody.

When the flower blooms, it is already on its way towards death. So you might think that if you stitch it up before it blooms, you can stop it from dying. But of course this is impossible in reality! So although the intention for stitching the flowers is to save them, the result is actually their destruction. This is another paradox, since it is unclear whether you are protecting or damaging the flower. It is quite paradoxical, and I like that.

That is the initial impetus behind this work. Later, I wanted to get a close-up view of the stitching, which is why the photographs are so large. This way you can see the detail very clearly. When I was doing the stitching, I noticed that the colour of the petals where the needle had pierced them was slightly darker, like a wound. So the flower is very weak, just like life. The visual effect of the close-ups is therefore very strong and striking.

Once, during an exhibition, I saw a woman of about thirty or forty start crying in front of one of the photographs. I thought this was odd, and asked her what had prompted this reaction. She said that she hadn’t come for the exhibition, in fact, she had never been to an exhibition before in her life and did not like contemporary art, museums, or anything similar. She was just waiting for a friend around the corner, and had popped in the exhibition to pass the time. When she saw the stitching in the rose, she realised that this was exactly what she had done to her daughter. Because she wanted her daughter to have a good future, every day she made her do things that she hated and which made her unhappy. The realisation made her really sad, so she started to cry. This left a profound impression on me, as I had never thought that anyone would think about the work in this way. When I first made the work, it was about life, but she prompted me to think more about it.

Later, I made a series of six videos. There were eight photographs originally. The videos were very simple, just one hand cupping a rose and another hand stitching it. I then slowed it down significantly so that you could see the needle breaking through the flower more clearly. When the movement of the needle breaking the flower becomes so slow, the sense of pain is heightened. The speed really changes things.

I have a friend who plays rock music, who came to see this work and really liked it. My friend said that it was an excellent illustration of the extreme violence in our society. This told me that different people approach a work differently and expand its meaning. I was not that aware of this until I talked about this work with others.

That started me thinking. Though I had made both photographs and videos in the Rose Rose series, there was still something that I wanted to express but felt that it hadn’t come across very well. So I started writing and thinking about what else I could do. I then hit upon the idea of staging a live performance. I invited other people to perform it, because rather than viewing the performance as something I would do for other people to watch, it would be something for the performers to do and experience themselves. So all the performances are performed by other people. I do not think there is any point in me performing – it does not represent anything. But if someone else performs the piece, they will be affected, and this will pass onto the audience. I think this is more interesting.

Lin Jingjing, Rose Rose 2011

Lin Jingjing
Rose Rose 2011
Image courtesy of the artist

Later, the National Museum of Chile invited me to hold an exhibition, so I wrote a proposal. The original plan was to hold a solo exhibition in one of their venues in the capital Santiago for one and a half months, and then to move to Concepción for another one and a half months. I proposed a performance of Rose Rose, requesting for over 3,000 fresh large pink roses, and asking local people to do the red stitching. It was really tricky, as they needed to get the right type of roses from North America. But in the end we did it. The performance was made up of people stitching the 3,000 roses in the venue. When they were all sewn up, they were left in the gallery for a month and a half, during which the roses started to shrink and change in colour, making the stitching more prominent.

The proposal was submitted to the National Museum of Chile in Santiago, and the curator replied by saying that while they loved the proposal, they wanted to hold the exhibition in Concepción instead of Santiago. Concepción is Chile’s second city, and was once considered as a potential capital city. It is a very cultured city with many writers and musicians, and its residents are very proud to live there. They look down on Santiago somewhat. But Concepción was the epicentre of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake in February 2010, and it lost many of its residents. People there are still suffering from the pain of this disaster, so the curator thought that the performance would be perfect if it were done in Concepción. I agreed, and so we changed the location to Concepción.

The performance was done in two spaces separated by a wall, but there was access from the front and back. People were sewing up the roses in the first space, and they could walk over to the second space – which was lit with a theatre light – to put the roses down, stand around, or embrace the people who came in. We stood in front of this area while they performed.

We had roughly planned the performance times in advance. While all this was going on, a man from the audience who could speak some English came up to me. I told him to place the roses on the floor with the stitching facing upwards next time he came back to this space. I had spoken very quietly, so I did not know how much he actually understood, but he nodded and went back to the first space. I kept watching him to see what would happen. When he placed the third rose on the floor of the second space, everyone began putting their roses down on either side, gradually forming a pathway with all the stitching faced upwards. We ended up with a twisting path of roses in the second space, and all the people followed this path one by one out of the space. Nobody had told them what to do. The performance ended when the last person walked out of the space, at which point everyone clapped.

It was so beautiful, and so powerful. Everyone there was crying. It was so moving and played out so much better than what I had originally planned. Yet, its success was not down to the fact it was my idea; it was because everyone there was themselves and contributed their power to the performance. It was a very touching performance and it had a very profound effect on me. I think that everyone has power, and if you can find a way to express it, this power can be really strong, beautiful and simply amazing. I realised that this is exactly what I want to do with my art. When everyone was crying, there was no need to talk: you understood everything without words.

After the performance was over, the work became an installation. When we were planning where it would go in the gallery, the museum said that I should write a short summary of the exhibitions that my work had been featured in. But I said I would not write anything. I wanted the visitors to forget everything about the artist, to forget that it was my work. Instead, I wanted them to see the artwork by itself, to remember that it was something that the performers did themselves.

I was very pleased with this decision, as everyone who came in had a perfect experience. I remember there were two women, both housewives over sixty. They had no idea about art, and when an usher invited them to come in, they said that they could not because they did not understand art, and were not feeling well. The usher then told them not to worry about coughing, and just to be themselves. When they went in, they were absolutely perfect. There is a photo of them – all their movements were great. I think this anecdote is related more to life than to art: it is about being yourself and expressing your own power to the full, rather than being a performer or an actor. This is something I really like.

That was a moment when I realised what a great potential art has. These things have all gradually changed the way I make art. You should go about it with the understanding that if some things really moved you, it would move other people as well – perhaps not everyone, but many of us are similar on a basic level. Our emotional needs are all very similar. This is why I am really interested in the type of power that reaches beyond culture and turns people into simple individuals regardless of their culture, background, profession, age, or gender.

Later, the curator of a Sino-Italian biennale in Milan asked me to give a performance at the opening ceremony after seeing my work in Chile. This was held outdoors, on the grass. Given that Italy is so different from Chile, I did not want to do the same performance again. I ended up recruiting a lot of volunteers to take part in the performance. When I met them on the first day, I told them to forget about the performance being my work and just to concentrate on being themselves. I asked them to sew up the roses and then hold onto as many as they could with both hands. Then I asked them to stand on one leg on the grass. On the day, the weather was perfect, very sunny, and the grass was very green. The volunteers were all wearing white tops and black on their lower bodies, and so the combination of green, white, black, and pink looked absolutely beautiful – it was a very relaxing scene to watch.

The performance was designed to be thirty minutes long. When it started, the performers were all standing still on one leg, and everyone in the audience wondered what would happen, and whether the performers were just going to stand there the whole time. After a few minutes, someone fell over because he could not stand up on one leg any longer. I told them to try their hardest, both mentally and physically, to stay standing up until it just was not possible any longer. Their hands kept drooping down from the weight of the flowers. After a while, their bodies started shaking and trembling in an attempt to keep the balance. You saw these minor changes in their bodies before they finally fell over. After another few minutes, you saw them falling over one after one.

After the full thirty minutes, only four people were left, and they were shaking constantly. So despite its simplicity, the performance was still powerful. It was very beautiful, and at the same time very cruel. Though this performance was different from the one in Chile, people’s reactions at the venue were also very interesting. I talked to the performers after it was finished, and they told me that they had been deeply moved by the experience. The power of the performance came from them, not from me. My work just made it possible for them to express their power. I really like this type of empowerment.

I am now planning to stage performances in Hong Kong and New York. In Hong Kong I want to hold a performance on the escalator that goes up the mountain in the residential area called Mid-Levels. It is like one you find in a shopping centre, but this one leads up to a mountain instead. I want to ask some of Hong Kong’s many Filipino housekeepers to take part in it. They will wear white and black clothes while holding the roses, and go up the escalator. It is a very long escalator going up in several sections. There is a staircase beside the escalator for descending, so the people coming down the stairs would see all the performers coming up the escalator in small and large groups.

Monica Merlin: Did you choose to ask Filipino housekeepers because of the recent typhoon?

Lin Jingjing: Not at all. The culture in Hong Kong is quite odd. Many families employ a Filipino maid. The main income in the Philippines consists of remittances from all the Filipino women working as maids overseas. The identity of these women has been completely lost – they do not have a home of their own and live with their employers. This means they do not have anywhere to go on weekends, so you can see many of them sit around in the parks.

Monica Merlin: But now, given what happened in the Philippines with the typhoon, I think that the work could be even more moving for them. It would give them space to think about the fragility of life, just like your work in Concepción.

Lin Jingjing: I have not thought about that, but that is true. The escalator moves very slowly. So if you imagine coming down the stairs and seeing all these people standing in silence, coming up the escalator, I think it would be pretty powerful. The slow speed of the escalator also creates a type of confusion between reality and dream.

I am also planning a performance in May next year in Manhattan. Since the streets and avenues in Manhattan are all numbered, I would like to get several hundred people to stand at every junction. People would stand in their places from, say, two in the afternoon for forty-five minutes, holding a handful of stitched roses. Then after the time is up they could all go on their respective ways. Just imagine how nice it would be to come out of the subway in Manhattan to find someone carrying these roses at each and every junction.

Monica Merlin: Would they have to stitch the roses themselves?

Lin Jingjing: Yes, they would stitch them at home first. Then they would arrive at their places at the set time, say at two in the afternoon, and just stand there for forty-five minutes before going their own way.

Monica Merlin: Is there any angle from which you could see all of them?

Lin Jingjing: I do not know. It is not in the plan. The performance itself is very still and quiet, but movement comes in when they leave. It is also paradoxical. It is a very powerful thing to stand still holding the stitched flowers. I would like to do different performances in different cities, adjusting each performance to react to the city. When I have done all the performances, they can become a themed work as a whole. This work can represent a whole range of meanings. In New York, for example, it speaks about the great trauma created by the 9/11 incident.

The difficulties facing humanity are not experienced by one individual, one country, or any one group; they are universal problems we all face. That is the reason I want to hold performances in all these different locations. I also think it is important to get the local people to perform the work. It is fascinating to see that the act of performing actually had an effect on the performers. They might have never thought that such a simple thing could represent anything, but in fact there are many ways in which the work can connect and relate to their own experiences and identity.

Monica Merlin: Could you talk briefly about I Want to Fly?

Lin Jingjing: This is another work about paradox. The sewn figures in the photographs are empty, and slightly protruding. They exist in between presence and absence. Their wish is to fly away, but the stitching keeps them firmly to where they are, hence the paradox.

Monica Merlin: Do you sometimes feel like you want to fly away to somewhere else?

Lin Jingjing: It is not about me. I think that the ‘I’ in I Want to Fly stands for anyone, all the people who view the work.

Monica Merlin: But I am asking about you. Do you feel like you want to fly away?

Lin Jingjing: Sometimes, yes! But more importantly, it is about the current state of China. At one stage, people in China felt that America was their future, that America’s today is China’s tomorrow. They thought that they should copy the Americans in everything they did so that they could have happy lives. But now, I think people are starting to realise that perhaps America is not our future after all, that it has many problems of its own, problems different from ours. So now people are wondering where our future lies. The whole of society wants to leave poverty behind for a better life and a better environment like those in America. In the most extreme cases, they want to cut all ties with the culture of the past. The Cultural Revolution also played a part in cutting off the past from the present. People think that if they leave China’s past behind, they will be closer to their American dream life. But as your country gradually develops, you come to realise that this is not possible, that you cannot cut off the past so easily. I Want to Fly points out that you cannot actually fly away, and you cannot abandon your history and culture. This is the paradox I wanted to explore in the work.

Another aspect of the work is the material used: cotton is very light, but the theme of the work is very weighty. This is also a paradox – I am crazy about paradoxes! The material itself is not important to me; I was just looking for a way in which to express this paradox. The work is not about cotton, in the same way that Rose Rose is not about roses.

Monica Merlin: Thank you so much for such an interesting interview.

Monica Merlin interviewed Lin Jingjing in her studio in Caochangdi, Beijing on 14 November 2013.
Published 20 March 2018

Tate Research Centre: Asia