By Andrea Zarate
Monika Lin has made a name for herself on the Moganshan Shanghai art scene with contemporary work that explores the social problems in modern society. Despite government censorship of critical artistic expression, the 33-year-old Chinese-Latino American has lived and worked in China where many of her exhibits have created awareness of gender inequality.
“Shadow Count” is Lin’s most recent work and an illustration of her use of a three-dimensional format—visual art put together in an interior space. The installation piece was composed of two clear, flat, pond-shaped structures suspended by plastic rope, a technique that allowed the art to hover above the floor in the Oriental Venues gallery. “Floating” on the pond were 82 ceramic water lilies inserted into the plane with stems poking out underneath.
“I became interested in issues of physical abuse towards women specifically rapes and the manufacturing of data which becomes like added insult to this problem,” Lin said, adding that the lilies served as a motif that when hit by multiple light sources creates shadows representing the number of rapes that go unreported by the government.
In China, contemporary art has become popular and widely accepted ever since the opening of the country’s economy in 1978. Large statues, for example, can be seen outside some galleries, silently evoking messages from the new Chinese art culture.
Yet artists continue to face the same censorship issues that affect news reporting and the Internet. Oftentimes, according to one knowledgeable gallery owner, agents visit art shows to take pictures creating a sense of fear, which encourages self-censorship as well.
Another Lin work, “Shadow Count,” also deals with rape and was one of many that were heavily scrutinized by the government in December 2010. The piece appeared at “Shifting Definitions,” an exhibition focusing on women’s issues held at Oriental Venues Gallery that was coordinated by Rebecca Catching.
During the exhibition both gallery and artists faced pressures to tone down critical elements of the show, Catching said. Lin had to rewrite her original statement for her work and deliver an essay on the lack of women artists at an off-site location. “Lin’s 82 colorful innocent lilies represented only a shadow of a much bigger problem,” Catching said.
Lin incorporates her Chinese culture with Western classical training. She attributes the biggest influences of her early years as an artist to feminism discourse classes, the mythology of Joseph Campbell, and the Fluxus art movement, which incorporates music and dance. Throughout her artistic career she has gone from using painting techniques to crafting objects. She has also incorporated her own experiences into her work, specifically the theme of transition from girlhood to womanhood.
“As a young woman, particularly being of mixed race status, issues about gender and issues about culture were at the forefront of my existence,” Lin said. “When I was a younger artist I emoted more than anything else and certainly tempered [my work] with social political analysis. My work now is much more moderated by a lot of research.”
Lin called “Double Happiness,” a series of paintings made at the mid-point in her career, a breakthrough for her art. In it she is critical of pharmaceutical companies and their commercialization of prescription medication.
“This was right before I came to China,” Lin said. “I had to be able to communicate what my thoughts on the industry were and how that related to the insurance industry, big business, and special interest groups. Later on [in my career], I looked at things that were close to home that also had broader implications.”
Lin has continued to develop nontraditional methods in the way she makes art. In one case, she used violin reeds, firecrackers, and memory boxes made of old family keepsakes given to her by three generations of women in her life and then used resin, or beeswax, to piece those parts together.
“Once I started to make those breaks to nontraditional materials it also opened up my thinking process,” Lin said. “I used this as a way of simply finding topics that interested me and coming up with the best possible solution to convey that message.”
In 1999, she visited China’s Buddhist temples and historical sites with her father, which became the inspiration for a series called “Blue Lotus” that commented on the lack of female icons within religious sites and the religion itself.
“Her paintings address political, social, racial, and feminist concerns with the utmost subtlety and finesse,” noted Kathleen Wentrack, an art historian from City University of New York, in an entry in the catalog “Objects and Icons,” about the way Lin criticizes the male-dominated belief system of Buddhism in “Blue Lotus.”
The work Lin has created is essentially her way of being involved with a broader social conversation about serious matters that aren’t often discussed in Chinese society.
“The central government has stated that women are equal, [and] during the Cultural Revolution women were deemed to hold up half the sky,” Lin said. “If you say now that women are not equal, then you’re calling them liars. And two things happen with that—one you are going to be ostracized. Two, you are put into a position where you continually have to defend yourself.”