Los Angeles gallery Commonwealth & Council, an artist-run space in a Koreatown walk-up, is infested — fungi, caterpillars, even crystals multiply unchecked — but never fear: these welcome growths are part of Candice Lin’s latest solo show, The mountain. All manner of community is paramount in Lin’s art; in fact the show’s continued health is the solemn responsibility of gallerist Young Chung, whose regular tasks now include feeding a hand-blown glass jar’s worth of silkworms. Subject to a different economy, a silk factory would have boiled the insects alive by now, their carcasses just so much waste from their product. Here, in C&C’s care, the silkworms might live out their natural lives, while their bodies serve instead as small symbols of a sweeping colonial violence. By the show’s final week, the silkworms are snuggly cocooned in their own precious excreta. The jar is lined with plenty of wilted mulberry leaves, their favored food, which form a little sea around their home’s main ornament: a ceramic outline of a ship. And if we, too, find ourselves vitrined in a nightmare — why squirm at a little empathy for our fellow creatures?
Travis Diehl: I wonder if we could start with the aesthetic punch of a lot of your pieces — among others, I’m thinking of the tar-covered stalk of corn, embedded with pigs’ teeth and fur (Displaced Pig (Cornfield)) — where colonialist themes often condense into a kind of sci-fi biological horror. How do you think of these moments?
Candice Lin: In most of my works for the last several years, I am interested in using materials in ways that disrupt what Mel Y. Chen has called “animacy hierarchy”— a distribution of the value of aliveness or deadness to different forms in the world. These attributions are embedded in racialized, gendered, sexualized language.
In Displaced Pig (Cornfield), I was thinking about digital and biological forms of wrapping one being in the skin of another. I wanted to create a representation of a field of corn, skinned on its surface like a mammal. Meaning and material begin to slip here: these moments of uncanny displacement are with us always in everyday life in ordinary and spectacular forms, like a human face appearing in the texture of a tree trunk. (Or, conversely, the case of Dede Koswara, “the tree man,” whose illness — Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia — caused branch-like growths to erupt from his human limbs.) These displacements seem to create a kind of material taboo. Like other kinds of taboos, the breaking of them creates a transgressive charge.
TD: Is it important for you to disturb your viewer?
CL: Disturbance for me is not an end goal, but a part of the emotional process that happens when
something usually seen as neutral and naturalized is suddenly broken open and revealed as ideology. My hope is that the disturbance or horror that you point out is in proximity to curiosity, awe and wonder. I do not want it to act in service of a closing off.
TD: Can “fear” be a weapon against fear? I’m thinking here of the literal weapons you designed based on insects that breed through traumatic insemination…
CL: I’m uneasy with the implication that you see my work as mobilizing fear as a strategy. The spear-like sculptures I made based on insect genitalia were about the fetishization of violence, specifically sexual and gendered violence — and about the ways in which this kind of violence literally shaped the female body through coevolution. Fear easily becomes, as we’ve so obviously seen in recent politics, a political weapon. I think our emotions around insecurity are too easily mobilized for didactic purposes often at odds with our greater security. In the art I make I’m not trying to mobilize feelings of fear for any statement or belief; I’m not trying to indoctrinate or manipulate my viewers.
TD: Right — I think fear might be too broad a category for our purposes — the uncanny, disturbing quality we’ve mentioned comes closer. I mean, you can be afraid of mice, you can be afraid of terrorism, or you can be afraid to break a taboo — that is, to give up the security of certain ways of seeing the world. Your work deals in the latter. But you also sometimes force the issue, no? You take the fear that would rule others, and turn that weapon into a tool. In one piece visitors could drink tequila with dead scorpions floating in it: I think of it as an inoculation, as if through taking small doses of poison we can trade fear for understanding.
CL: I like that. I do often think about making work as a ritualistic act that involves or implicates
the viewer along with myself in some kind of material re-arrangement that also re/dis-orients
TD: This also plays out in another way — there’s a tension between the pristine idealism of the gallery — the “white” cube, even — and the threat
of contamination presented by your work. There are rotting, seeping, even living elements in some of your sculptures. At Commonwealth & Council, for example, are caterpillars, fungus, human urine…?
CL: I was thinking a lot about the porousness of bodies and seeking ways to use materials that highlight contamination. This work reconsiders how invested we are as a culture in an idea of “possessive individualism.” In reality, the idea of our bodies existing as “pure,” or without bacterial or viral presence, is a theoretical abstraction, like an idea of pure water in contrast to distilled urine. So I am thinking about contamination. But the contamination I’m thinking about has less to do with the white cube, and perhaps more to do with the “white” self, by which I mean a particular ideology of individualism that comes from an imperial or colonial mindset.
I don’t experience Commonwealth & Council as a white cube space, but the opposite: warm and domestic. Young Chung and his friends have built a unique community there — queer, intergenerational, primarily people of color — and I wanted to make a show that looked at “hospitality” from a complicated position of porousness and interconnection. I was thinking about the act of caretaking between individuals and across species. But I was also thinking about the inadvertent (and purposeful) kinds of violence and invasion involved in being interconnected, and the constant negotiation and transgression of boundaries that connection entails. The urine was gathered from a group of people that are part of the C&C community and distilled into a water-like liquid that gets rid of things like urea but retains the hormones or pharmaceuticals that the donors ingested. I was interested in sharing other people’s medical and pharmaceutical choices as an aspect of what it means to be in an inextricable community. This “pharmacopornographic” water (if you will) is then used to grow two kinds of mushrooms taken by humans as supplements for memory and immune health. It literally influences the act of living and remembrance.
With the silkworms I was thinking about the intertwined relationships of colonial violence between insects and humans. I implicate the gallerist in this power play too: they assume a role of care-taker, and have actual beings that live or die depending on their level of care. Usually the artist is supposed to do the work of care-taking in the studio and bring to the gallery the finished stable product, but this way it gets a lot messier. The act of caretaking becomes continual, co-constituted, unending, tending away from stable, coherent individual selves and towards rot, entropy, and dissolution.
TD: Could “artistic risk” be a kind of allegory for the wider risks of self-expression, and the fears and taboos arrayed against it? An interplay between inhibition and prohibition? Are you afraid to lose yourself, or to surrender your ego? Or is this the condition of making your art?
CL: For me, artistic risk is less about self-expression and more about a dissolution of the self. Risk here has to do with being willing to not be in control, to not have all the answers, to be willing to let materials shape some of the meaning, to learn from the process, and to reject the idea of mastery, or of having a set aesthetic or set of ideas that I perform consistently.
I am more interested in having exchanges with people that forge intimacy. I want to probe the boundaries of what we are comfortable talking about and doing together. I don’t know if I think about it as risk so much as a way to feel like an actual flow of real emotional exchange is happening and being shared in. I think making work operates similarly to my personal interactions, pushing people’s (and my own) limits of comfort, how vulnerable we can be together, how much can be shared, how much fun we can have fucking things up together.