“The massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989 led me to believe that there is a role in society for art, and that art is not only for beauty and personal preference, but is necessary for social change,” says the Chinese-born painter Zhi Lin. That singular brutal event soon became the mantra for the young artist’s life work. “From that moment on, I have devoted my work to this idea, especially in the project Five Capital Executions in China.”
The cycle of paintings demonstrates capital execution in five ways—Flaying, Decapitation, Firing Squad, Starvation, and Drawing and Quartering. While the subject is gruesome to say the least, Lin’s social realist depictions with paint and screenprints are excruciatingly detailed, further emphasizing the seriousness with which he views his content, the vile theater of human violence. While such brutal and honest depictions have been a rarity in the commodified metalanguage of contemporary art, lead mainly by the curatorial tastes of Americans and Western Europeans, Lin’s work finds much in common with current interests in globalist culture.
For Lin, who was born in China in 1959 and lived there through the decade-long Cultural Revolution, it was never a question of accommodating his style to international tastes. “When I was in high school, I recognized that my education was robbed by the Cultural Revolution and by Mao,” he says. Yet rather than turn to the West for perspectives on painting, Lin looked long and hard at China’s tradition in painting, specifically the Buddhist frescoes in Dunhuang which date from the 4th to the 14th century and, like the Executions series, demonstrate epic narratives. Then “in 1981, I went to Dunhuang, on the Silk Road and spent three months studying and copying the frescoes in the caves in the middle of the desert,” he says.
While respectful of contemporary art practices, Lin also feels that the current situation in contemporary art lends itself well to a sociopolitical critique. “It is not surprising to me that the new artworks from China that are exhibited in America and Europe have little or nothing to do with the subject that I am passionate about. This is part of the problem with ‘cultural globalization’; the more correct term should be ‘cultural colonialism.’ “
Trained as a printmaker through the China National Academy of Fine Arts, Lin received a master’s degree in printmaking from the Slade School of Art in London, where he began experimenting with abstraction. “I felt that painting, as a medium, gave me the most challenges,” he says. “In London, I regularly visited many museums and galleries. In front of works by Van Eyck, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Cézanne, and de Kooning, I recognized the difference between two ways of making paintings: one is based on a deep understanding of human experience, the history of art, and visual language, whereas the other is centered around current trends and popularity.”
After moving to the United States in 1989, the same year as the Tiananmen uprising, Lin began to rethink his art, keeping a keen eye on his interest in the history of Western modernism coupled with China’s state-endorsed Social Realism. In Firing Squad, a child sits on the handlebars of a bicycle with a Mickey Mouse mask atop his head. The image is a jarring reminder of the current crossroads where capitalism meets Communism.
Nineteen eighty-nine was also an important year that solidified conceptualist tactics in demonstration of American multiculturalism. “I began to turn away from the mainstream of art and to search for inspiration from the artists of the past,” Lin says. “Painters cannot isolate themselves altogether from the great works of the past, even if the aesthetic theory of the moment has little to do with them. The work of the Old Masters, for me at least, began to acquire the lure of what was unfashionable, and even forbidden. There are many layers, styles, and metaphors in the Executions series: from referring to Chinese monumental styles both in the early Renaissance paintings and the Socialist Realism painting of the 20th century in China, from overlaying screenprinting, [a process] relating to postmodernism, to framing and presenting the painting, [in a manner] rooted in the Buddhist prayer paintings. It is simply because I want my work to penetrate time and culture, and give new meaning to our present and our past.” Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)