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  • Sarah Tsung

Interview: Candice Lin

Interview by Sarah Tsung with Candice Lin

ST: Do you find yourself drawn to the material first, then uncovering its history? Or do

you find yourself drawn to histories and then identifying interesting materials/goods

that played important roles within them?

CL: Sometimes my research starts out with a historical subject I want to learn more about, such as the history of 19th-century indentured labor, and from it arise different materials that are related to this history, such as sugar, bone-black charcoal, guano, and cement. Other times I start out being interested in a material, such as my interest in porcelain or indigo—drawn to its sensuous properties and the processes it goes through in transforming into the final ceramic or dyed textile. From there I start to research and learn more about its global histories.

ST: By working with such a wide range of materials, can you talk about the process of

continually choosing and learning how to create with new mediums?

CL: I think I am more interested in experimentation than mastery, so I am always jumping from one material—like [from] learning to paint with lard and wax and pigment to scagliola, which uses hide glue and pigment and plaster. They are two very different processes but were related conceptually because of the animal products used in their processes. This animality was something I was thinking about in relationship to the Slaughterhouse Cases [a landmark US Supreme Court decision in 1873] and the role of indentured Chinese labor in Louisiana. They were new techniques I wanted to learn to use based on their materials, but each one was quite difficult for me because the wax and lard and paint mixture hardens quickly. It’s very different from painting with watercolor or oil paint, and I had to figure that out.

The scagliola was a whole process of mixing pigmented plaster into these gelatinous lumps mixed with hide glue and then layering and cutting them into marble-like patterns, laying them onto forms, and then sanding and polishing them to a high sheen. Certain areas wouldn’t cure and stayed crumbly, so they had to be picked out and patched and it was a very frustrating and confusing process. I had to clear whole areas of my studio for each of these processes, buy new tools for each, and learn a whole different set of skills. I think that’s what keeps it fresh and exciting for me, though.

I had a funny moment where I called the Buddy Rhodes hotline—that’s a specialty concrete company—to ask about their line of clay-like concrete because I thought it could be a viable alternative for the problems I was having with the plaster and I was on the phone for like an hour with the guy until he pretended the line was having a bad connection and hung up on me. And I realized that this is kind of like my fetish, like another person would want to watch ASMR videos and geek out about all the quiet soft sounds—for me, I love to just nerd out and think about fabrication problems and how I would solve them. I do this a lot in teaching, brainstorm with students about how to best fabricate their idea, or problem-solve a material problem they are having. I love these moments when the material is resisting you as the artist—something beautiful often comes out of that struggle that isn’t quite what you intended, but is often beyond you as the artist.

But it does also mean I am constantly struggling and failing as I try to learn new things. Sometimes it’s really hard and I wonder why I don’t just stick to things I know I can do well craftsmanship-wise. But I think that’s because I really enjoy the process of learning and experimenting the most.

ST: What questions are you raising by invoking, exploring, and displaying these colonial

histories? What is the relationship between the histories of colonization and globalization that

you uncover and the present-day contexts in which these works are shown?

CL: I think the questions I am raising are different depending on the installation. For example in 2016, for System of a Stain, I was thinking about the role of small beings like insects or bacteria in generating objects of luxury and beauty—like the allure of the scarlet color that comes from the cochineal insect, or the craze for tea and coffee created through fermentation processes that involve microorganisms. And I was thinking about how these small beings shaped huge global trade and the movement of humans and other animals and plants, and inadvertently other insects and microorganisms.

The works I’ve made looking into the history of 19th-century Chinese indentured labor—the Pigs and Poison trilogy and La Charada China in its various iterations—stemmed from a desire to learn more about the figure of the “coolie” after reading Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents. I wanted to learn more about this history and the role this labor played in relationship to slavery during and post emancipation, and the way it shaped US policies and ideas about immigration, race, and belonging. I started thinking about this work in 2016 and it was concurrent with thinking about the present-day US/Mexico border crisis and other global migrants fleeing war, ethnic persecution, or chaos from collapsing governments. I realized how little I knew about these histories that caused people from many different countries to end up detained on the outside of the US’s borders and wanted to learn more about the history of our immigration policies. Strangely it also tied into the racialization of different historical disease outbreaks, so the work for Pigs and Poison was about US immigration history as it was tied to anti-Asian rhetoric around disease. I started this work in 2018 with no idea that history would repeat itself and make the work so timely (perhaps too timely).

The installation I just finished at the Walker Art Center—Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping—was made during the pandemic and is a very tactile installation because I was imagining how much we would all long to touch objects and other beings, so I created an indigo tent with painted carpets you can enter and rest on. But I was also thinking about histories of contact—so the indigo patterns are drawn from historical ones where colonial or imperial trade introduced new symbolism, processes, or motifs into the aesthetics, thus transforming the traditional indigo textile into a different type of aesthetic pattern. I was looking at Japanese textiles influenced by Dutch and Portuguese trade monograms, Nigerian adire textiles influenced by British colonial symbolism of the British royalty and flag, and Indian chintz textiles influenced by British tastes in floral patterns. I wanted the tent to become a kind of interpretive archive of historical moments of cross-cultural contact, intermingling, and mutual transformation. While beneath the tent, people also were mingling and perhaps transforming each other in smaller, personal ways.

ST: What do you see as the relationship between your work and its settings? What

relationship do you see between the work and its viewer, who may be implicated (or

not implicated) in the materials and histories explored?

CL: Most of my work is immersive installation, which is very much made with the visitor’s experience in mind. I want people to have a bodily experience of the work with all of their senses and to be haunted by the sensuous qualities of the materials that come to us with loaded histories but are recirculating in new relations with the other materials, the space, and the visitors present. Often I ask for the audience’s implication, as I myself as the artist am also implicated, by asking them to participate in interacting with and touching the work (such as in Seeping, Rotting, Resting, and Weeping), or [in another installation] by giving their urine, which is distilled into a liquid that helps to keep the unfired porcelain sculpture pliable and uncracked, or a hot tea that welcomes future visitors, or a pool of liquid slip that slowly rises with each new donation of urine until all the objects and drawings, and research materials are submerged by the slowly rising flood [this describes each of the three iterations of A Hard White Body (2017–2018)].

A Hard White Body and some of my other installations were site specific—thinking about each iteration’s location in Paris, Frankfurt, and Chicago, and tying in specific research and history of that locale into the installation. The Paris installation at Bétonsalon had the unfired porcelain bedroom based loosely on a description of James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, which is set in Paris and which he wrote mostly in France, as well as on descriptions of Jeanne Baret’s ship cabin [Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe], and it tied together their very different lives with the history of porcelain. The Portikus installation at Frankfurt brought in the history of silkworms, as their disease was studied by Louis Pasteur using his scientific porcelain filter, and silkworms were related to another naturalist, Maria Sibylla Merian, who was born in Frankfurt. The Pasteur porcelain filter was marketed to a domestic audience at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and this was the first US use of porcelain as a drinking-water filtration system used to fight the outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Lately I haven’t had the kind of time needed to spend researching a location for a few months so the installations I’ve made are less site-specific and more material-specific.

ST: Can you talk about working with “contaminated objects” and what that means?

CL: I am interested in processes and materials that call into question boundaries—whether those are boundaries of the body and other bodies or the environment, or boundaries of nationhood, or boundaries of species and kinship. I’m intrigued by how our notion of contamination often has to do with a moment when such a boundary is untenable and its porosity is made visible.

My collaborative work with P. Staff is an example of this. We create a herbal-infused tincture that lowers testosterone—this is vaporized with hacked fog machines and the installation is filled with this “hormonal fog.” This piece has given concern to some people (mostly cis-men—for the trans-men I feel more sympathy, and there is actually some Clairvoyant Testosterone tincture with anti-anxiety herbs kept on hand hidden in the installation), but really the piece is about provoking people into realizing the constructedness of gender and that the hormonal composition of their body is already in flux and affected by the environment—what one eats and drinks and breathes, including tap water and tear gas.

Other works of mine that utilize bacteria or fungi also speak to this idea of “contaminated objects.” Where one might see this as a negatively contaminated, moldy or germ-ridden object, I cultivate the growth of these living communities in my work as a hopeful way to think about our entanglements with other species.


Candice Lin is an artist whose practice utilizes installation, drawing, video, and living materials

and processes, such as mold, mushrooms, bacteria, fermentation, and stains. Her recent solo exhibitions have been presented at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2021); Times Museum, Guangzhou, China (2021); Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand (2020); ICA at NYU Shanghai (2020); the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Art Center, Alberta, Canada (2019); and the exhibition cycle A Hard White Body at B.tonsalon, Paris; Portikus, Frankfurt; and the Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago (2017–2018). Lin has been included in numerous group exhibitions including the 2021 Prospect New Orleans Biennial; 2021 Gwangju Biennale; 2018 Taipei Biennial; 2018 Athens Biennale; and Made in L.A, 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. She is the recipient of several residencies, grants and fellowships, including the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant (2019), The Artists Project Award (2018), Louis Comfort Tiffany Award (2017), the Davidoff Art Residency (2018), and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2009). She is currently Assistant Professor of Art at UCLA.


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