3.15 / Review

Golden Journey

By Ellen Tani May 18, 2012

When I attended the opening of Golden Journey, the exhibition by the Chinese artist Lin Yilin currently on view at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), I did not expect to see graffiti covering the walls of the Walter and McBean Galleries. Created by students at SFAI, the graffiti is a visual echo chamber of the urban soundtrack that accompanies the large-scale video projections of Lin’s San Francisco–based performances, developed during a 2011 residency at the Kadist Art Foundation and documented by photographs and sculptural installations.

The exhibition’s title references Lin’s exploratory relationship to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Golden City.” The six performance works feature the artist traversing major landmarks—the Golden Gate Bridge, the hairpin turns of Lombard Street, and Powell Street from Chinatown to Market Street—by rolling, slowly. His limbs slack, Lin allows even his head to roll along the ground, as if trying to imprint all parts of himself onto the city’s streets and vice versa. A blockade of collaborators shuffles silently in front of the rolling Lin, pacing his slow turnover and announcing his movement as a quiet public spectacle. Like the hull of an arctic tanker, they carve space out of pedestrian traffic for Lin’s processional intervention. Sited in a major, fast-paced city, the whole thing is so spectacularly unremarkable, so slow and deliberate, that it becomes a kind of radical action. The African-American performance artist William Pope.L, whose politically inflected “crawls” resonate strongly with Lin’s prostrate navigations, spoke of the body disrupting the order of things as a form of physical discourse: “Bottom line: artists don’t make art, they make conversations. They make things happen. They change the world.”1

In Lin’s previous work, such conversations have typically addressed his native Guangzhou, China. As a cofounder of the Guangzhou-based artist collaborative Big-Tail-Elephant Group in 1990, Lin addressed the rapid urbanization of this southern Chinese city and its transformation into a megacity. In his 1995 work, Safely Maneuvering Across Lin He Road, the artist appropriated materials from a major skyscraper construction site to build his own cinderblock wall that he gradually moved, block by block, across a busy thoroughfare.

The cinderblock wall is a popular motif in Lin’s oeuvre, and one such wall divides the main space of the cavernous gallery at SFAI. The wall appears to have trapped the body of a papier-mâché ceremonial Chinese lion, whose head rests on the ground next to a drum. To present a cultural icon as if it were a prized kill caught in the concrete teeth of capitalist development is a biting criticism on its own; that the lion’s body is made of dollar bills attests to the commodified, desacralized status of this icon. Lin has addressed the defanging of cultural symbols in earlier work: I am on the Right (1997) featured the artist on all fours on a sculptural pedestal opposite a small family of stone lions, similar to those that once adorned the gates of imperial residences and that now flank office buildings and banks in China. While Lin’s work in China sharply criticizes the way in which the shift from a communist to capitalist economy forces cultural commodification, the dialogues surrounding his San Francisco–based works are more ambiguous.

Lin Yillin. Golden Hill, 2011 (still); single-channel video; 36.05 min. Courtesy of the Artist and Walter and McBean Galleries. 
Lin Yillin. Golden Lion, 2012; installation view, Golden Journey, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist and Walter and McBean Galleries. 

In the performance Golden Lion, Lin wears a lion-dance costume backward, allowing its head to drag on the ground behind him while he strolls unremarkably through Chinatown. But this simple gesture transforms a normally communal spectacle into an ordinary, solitary movement while Lin’s rolling performances transform a simple, ordinary movement into spectacle. The conversation at hand in the latter addresses the physics of a body’s movement in a foreign space. Upon visiting San Francisco for the first time, Lin oriented himself through topographical exploration, seeking adaptation through basic movements. He concluded that the simple rotation of his body was a test of both his physical limits and his endurance of the city’s surfaces.

Along with a phenomenological dimension, Lin’s interventions also bring cultural awareness to the realm of pedestrianism. Think of the artist’s roll down Powell Street in Golden Hill (2011), the largest video projection in the exhibition. What is it like to feel the streetcar rumblings through one’s body rather than to hear or see it? What is it like, as a contemporary Chinese artist, to roll through Chinatown—where the first American flag was erected in San Francisco, this city of initial Chinese immigration to the United States—and to accumulate the downhill wear of traveling to Market Street, home to the spectacular annual Chinese New Year parade, where that cultural legacy survives nearly two centuries later?

Golden Journey is at once a travel narrative and a series of disruptions in the fabric of everyday life. Lin’s performance interventions and the graffiti that accompanies them are forms of social discourse and, as such, are a kind of last gasp for a critical aesthetics. In his 1978 text, The Faith of Graffiti, Norman Mailer writes: “The last reference of painting or sculpture is the wall on which something can be hung, or the floor on which a piece can sit. That must now disappear. The art-piece enters the artist: sometimes the work can only be experienced within his psyche.”2 While contemporary Chinese artists are often expected to unveil something of China’s exotic modernization process through their work, this is not always their focus or intent. It is refreshing, then, that the work in Golden Journey says more about San Francisco, transmitted through the artist’s body, than about Chinese modernization. Rather, Lin seeks to carve out space in his audience’s memory by turning the performances into time-based landmarks of the physical landmarks that we in our pedestrian lives often blindly walk by.




Lin Yilin: Golden Journey is on view at Walter and McBean Galleries, at the San Francisco Art Institute, through July 28, 2012.


  1. Lowery Stokes Sims, “William Pope.L: An Interview,” in William Pope.L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America, ed. Mark H. C. Bessire (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 64–65.
  2. Norman Mailer, The Faith of Graffiti (New York: Praeger, 1974), no pagination.

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