Lin Yan


 Stage 6 Visual Arts Case Study

Lin Yan  林延  Ink and Paper: An Archaeology of Traces

                                         “The force drawing me to art is like gravity.” (Lin Yan)                                 

Left: Lin Yan, Sky 2, 2016, Ink and Xuan Paper, 330 x 1600 x 520 cm, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection, Sydney,

There is no border between the work and the space outside the frame. There is no line between frail and strong, active and calm, void and solid. All these properties are embraced in the work. The quality and characteristic of the materials contribute to the creation process over which my touch is minimal.’ (Lin Yan)
Course Content – NSW Preliminary and HSC Courses

Practice – the artist and the critic
The Structural Frame: interpreting signs and codes, understanding materiality
The Cultural Frame: Artworks in the social, historical and political context of contemporary China and the USA The Subjective Frame: how is artists’ practice embodied in their physical work in the studio?
Conceptual Framework: Artist/Artwork/World relationships Outcomes: P7, P8, P9, H7, H8, H9, H10

Course Content – IB Comparative Study

Assessed Criteria for the Comparative Study include:
o   Analysis of formal qualities
o   Interpretation of function and purpose
o   Evaluation of cultural significance
o   Making comparisons and connections
o   Presentation and subject specific language
o   (for HL only) making connections to own art practice

For PRELIMINARY, HSC and IB students, this Case Study is focused on:

o    Reading and analysing extracts of art critical writing to model descriptive writing and critical analysis and interpretation

o    Understanding ‘visual codes’ and iconography applying the structural frame to understand how artists create meanings in their works through their choices of materials and their visual language

o    Understanding how contemporary artists work in ways informed by history as well as the present- day issues in society, and how art historians explain works in their context

o    Examining how contemporary artists use new – and old – technologies

o    Comparative writing learning how to compare works (by the same or different artists) to make well-supported inferences and deductions

For Teachers – Some Information About Teaching / Learning:

This Case Study focuses on the practices of the artist and the critic. In the first instance, students encounter the artworks themselves, in the gallery and/or in reproduction and/or online. A sequence of learning activities begins with a discussion of selected works, followed by reading the examples of art writing provided (models of critical practice), and responding to focus questions. Whole class and small group tasks are suggested, with links to other artists, and to other useful resources. An extended response question, with marking guidelines, requires students to develop an argument that demonstrates their understanding of the artist’s practice in his social and historical context.

The Case Study may be approached in a range of different ways, depending on the particular interests of teachers and students. Strategies may include:

o   Independent research or collaborative investigations

o    ‘Socratic Dialogues’ that unpack a range of meanings in specific works

o    Debates or dialogues exploring how Lin Yan uses Chinese ink and paper to explore the contemporary world

o     The creation of student blogs or websites for the publication of critical art writing

A: Individually, students read each of the three texts and answer the focus questions before attempting the extended response.

B: To extend this case study, working independently or in small groups, students may choose to investigate:

o    The relationships between works by Lin Yan and traditions of ink and paper in China –  how have these ancient materials been used in the past and the present

o    Works by contemporary artists who work with these materials form a useful comparison: consider Bingyi’s monumental ink installations, Qiu Anxiong’s ink animation New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky, Liang Quan’s use of torn xuan paper strips stained with ink and tea that create minimalist abstract works, or Mia Wen-Hsuan Liu’s complex paper constructions such as Guggen’ Dizzy. Find these examples HERE

o    How does Lin Yan’s material and conceptual practice connect with other installation artists and their works such as Gu Wenda’s United Nations series, Liu Wei’s constructions of building materials or cities made of dog chews, Song Dong’s Waste Not or works by Anne Hamilton, Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro, or Do Ho Suh? Students could compare Sky 2 with the work of one or more of these artists in a class discussion.

Lin Yan, Sky 2 installed at White Rabbit Gallery in 'The Dark Matters' 2017
Students – Start Here!

·      First watch this video showing Lin Yan’s works installed in an art gallery in Taiwan

·      watch this interview with Lin Yan at White Rabbit Gallery in 2017: 

·      Look at photographs of her work and see if you can work out HOW she makes them – what are her physical actions with her materials?
·      What do you think are the major themes and ideas that preoccupy the artist?

You will be applying different ‘lenses’ of interpretation as you continue to explore Lin Yan’s practice, as well as placing the artist in the context of her world as a diasporic artist who left China to study and now lives in New York.

Now that you are familiar with what Lin Yan does, the next step is to work through the questions that follow each reading, before attempting the extended response question that concludes this case study.

Use the terminology from the list below as you describe and interpret Lin Yan’s work and analyse her practice.

Essential Terminology for this Case Study

1. Diasporic / Diaspora
2. Installation
3. Site-specific
4. 'Shan Shui' (mountain/water i.e. landscape ink painting)
5. 'Shui Mo' (inkwash painting)
6. Literati
7. Monochromatic
8. Relief Sculpture
9. Abstraction
10. Embossing


Lin Yan, born to a distinguished family of artists, grew up in Beijing and left China in 1985 before China’s modernization. She followed her grandfather and mother’s footsteps by studying art in Paris, before moving to the United States in 1986, where she obtained her master’s degree in Fine Art. Her first solo show, Tai Chi in Painting at her graduate school in Pennsylvania, infused Chinese philosophy into her various 'constructed paintings'.
Taoist thought remains in Lin Yan’s life and art. She seeks the simplest possible use of elements in her work. Though her forms are often quite minimal and quiet in nature, they are nevertheless filled with complexity and nuance. The foundation of Lin Yan’s large sculptural paper collage is a variety of hand-made paper, traditionally used for Chinese painting and calligraphy. The crumpled layers of soft handmade paper and ink create the paradoxical effect of a strong, post-industrial feeling. Inspired by old Beijing architecture from her memory and industrial elements in her Brooklyn home, Lin Yan blurs boundaries, embraces conflict, and brings histories both past and present together. Aware of the struggle between humans and nature in the world, she balances this restlessness with the tranquility of her materials.
Lin Yan’s works have been widely shown in galleries and museums, included in recent exhibitions at Museum of Chinese American in America in New York, the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, Dresden State Art Collections in Germany, Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum in China; reviewed and featured in the New York Times, Art News, Art in America, Art Asia Pacific, Architecture and Art, Elle China, Women of China, World Journal and CCTV, among others.
Text Source:

In 1994, Lin returned to Beijing, and to her dismay, found the once familiar city virtually ruined by urban modernization. The urge to respond to the changes swelled inside her. She began to cast, with paper, the partial details and fragments of old buildings in Beijing, such as roof tiles and rivets, so as to crystallize her feelings for traditional culture in her works.

Meanwhile, she entered what would be called "the black period" of her career, when she explored the gradations and strength of the colour black. In 2005, she creatively transformed xuan paper into her major material, expanding the aesthetic domains of contemporary art. The seemingly fragile material nonetheless enables her to express "what the artist perceives to be true and authentic." As she explained, "I use paper and ink for their ability to record intricate effects of wear and tear on the cultural and material fabric of our contemporary world, and, at the same time, to restore culture and peace within conflicts.
Despite the feeling towards things lost, struggling, or being destroyed, there is also beauty, strength, hope, and persistence in these sculpted paper paintings." Her choice of material also reflects her personal philosophy: "Even though paper may endure a thousand year, it can return to the nature ultimately. Not a hint of trace left. This is how I want my life to end as well."
(Text adapted from Eslite Gallery )
Lin Yan, Hutong #3, 2016, Ink, Xuan paper, iron wire, 34 x 30 x 29 cm. Image Eslite Gallery, Taipei

Readings and Questions

Reading #1 – Extract from a review of Lin Yan’s 2014 exhibition in Brussels by Maria Elena Minuto

The refined exhibition…brings together a series of installations and artworks made by the artist on  a  support  of  excellence: the traditional and refined xuan paper hailing from the  Chinese  Tang dynasty  (618 –917  AD). Known for  being resistant and malleable, this handmade paper, made  by  grinding  mulberry  leaves  and elm tree  barks, was  and still is today the most privileged paper among experienced Chinese calligraphy masters. However, in Lin Ya n’s work, it gets a different meaning, value and a different perception and corporeity, as it strides toward full integration in the contemporary world. The artist, indeed, through an accurate  and refined  game  of  layers, cuts, accumulations, folding and moulds, substantially and conceptually transfigures this precious and ancient paper, which from a simple  support turns into matter and from a natural substance becomes form.

Delicate sculptures cover the walls and organically redefine the  architecture of      her hometown ( Little Empire , 2014; My Rose , 2014), paper, wax and ink -made installations invade the space ( Blank Pages , 2014; Between Inhale and Exhale , 2014; Passing By ,  2014), but  also collages  and paintings  where  bolts,  screws  and nails are                                                                                                                              juxtaposed to the natural lightness and elegance of the xuan paper- emerge in sharp contrast ( Notes #2 , 2013; Notes #1 , 2014; Both Sides of the Story , 2014). These elements, as well as the brick moulds and the floors in the works    Old Town (2014) and Lotus Brick from No.  68  (2012), are meaningful and evocative references to the artist’s past, to  her studio in Brooklyn and in Beijing,  her hometown. The slow process of accumulation, sedimentation and laying of the materials used by Lin Yan to make some of her artworks, lets emerge, indeed, images replete with remembrances that invite to memory, to silence and to reflection.

The deep relationship that links and cadences the complete artworks collection is not only represented by their precious medium (which the artist commen ced to use in 2005), it also lies in the fact that each of them was specifically conceived for this place looking over the Ixelles Ponds, just as unquestionably poetic as her works. Lin Yan, in fact, before these works,  spent  a   long   period   in residence  in  the Officina, listening to it, shaping it and interpreting it . With their transparencies,   forms   and   complexities,   these   artworks    silently   reshape   the   surfaces   and   the   volumes   of this maison [the term used by the writer for the art gallery ] devoted to art….

Focus Questions

1.     What do you notice about the writer’s use of adjectives in her descriptions of Lin Yan’s work, and how effective is this technique?

2.     How are the artist’s physical actions described?

3.     Imagine Lin Yan at work in her Brooklyn studio – what is she doing? Describe what you would see as you look around you.

4.     The writer interprets Lin Yan’s conceptual intentions, and discusses the symbolism of her forms and techniques – how does she explain this in the second paragraph?

5.     From reading this article, what aspects of her world do you think inspire Lin Yan? Give reasons for your opinion.
6.     Describe ‘Sky 2’ in two sentences, selecting the most appropriate adjectives and descriptive phrases.

Lin Yan, Sky 2, 2016, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Reading #2 – Lin Yan: "At the Frontier of Different Universes" by Michèle Vicat


Manichean: derives from Mani, a Mesopotamian apostle from the 3rd century CE who created a religion based on dualism. To Manicheans life is a struggle between good and evil, light and dark, love and hate. It refers to dual opposing forces.

Dichotomy: a contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

Intransigent: unwilling to change one’s views, unyielding, stubborn, unbending

As with many artists who live between two cultures, the process of assimilation (or, at least, the understanding) of the new environment involves an internal reexamination of one’s home and its traditions. But when Lin Yan went back to Beijing for the first time in 1994, she could barely relate her memories to the reality that confronted her. Entire chunks of the old neighborhoods were gone. The soul and the pace of Beijing had been altered. “The old city was almost gone,” Lin Yan says. “It was a mess of new high-rise buildings. Through the dusty air, you could see everywhere that the old landmarks were being demolished and replaced with poorly designed new buildings. The philosophy was that only new things were good. It’s really sad to watch. Old Beijing was well designed as a whole. Although it was in a very bad condition after all those turbulent years, you could still see that the combination of landmarks was like a poem. The rhythm of the city was like endless story telling. Now you can only find few soulless, commercialized, isolated, repainted traditional landmarks.”

Her first black series Qi is a reflection on deterioration. Qi #2 -To My Hometown is at first very disturbing, nearly violent. The work depicts the shock experienced by the artist. It is a primal scream, expressing contradictory but inevitable forces. We are a world apart from the stereotypes of what was old Beijing. But the work is not a reference to the physical aspect Of the city. It is a quest. How do you go back to your roots? What fragments would you put in the suitcase called memory? For Lin Yan’s generation of artists, there was a Manichaean division of the world between the communist society they Came from and the capitalism they encountered on their arrival in the United States. But that dichotomy was already disintegrating when she returned home. Beijing was suddenly under the yoke of an intransigent capitalism. The destruction of traditional environments expressed how the Celestial Empire had finally reached heaven! Lin Yan found the worst of a capitalist society. It was unexpected to someone trying to re-connect with her own society and its values.

Her palette of black and white helps her to go to the essence of abstraction. “There is nothing much to talk about” says Lin Yan in an interview given to art curator Liu Libin in 2006. A definition like a scalpel: there is no compromise. To discover the true nature of the world, one must find oneself. Lin Yan believes that, as an artist, she can take old patterns and old techniques to create something new. Black and white are the fundamental colors of classical Chinese art. White is the natural color of paper. Black is the color of ink, the vehicle that allows the transmission of ideas. Combined, paper and ink are the memory, the DNA of Chinese culture. Grey/Black is also the color of Beijing. The original houses in the “hutongs” (small alleys) were built with grayish bricks and tiles. Black was considered the “king” of colors in ancient China. It is associated with water, one of the five elements that compose nature. Black equally plays with white in the unity of Yin and Yang in the search for harmony.

To reach infinite variations in her black palette, Lin Yan mixes different black oil colors with mat or gloss media to create subtle feelings. She also uses acrylic, tempera or wax. “Black is not a unique color. It has a complete palette. From Chinese paintings, I learned how far I could go with only black. For ten years, I used different blacks on different media. Since 2005, I have used only ink. I used different Chinese paper as media too.” Quite naturally, Lin Yan came to use handmade xuan paper and mulberry paper (xuan zhi and pi zhi). Each kind includes a wide variety of paper made from the bark of a type of elm tree or mulberry tree. Created during the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD), it was used largely by painters and calligraphers. Lin Yan’s choice for these papers was natural in the sense that they are common paper, and consequently intrinsic to Chinese culture. With these two extremes, black and white, she had an enormous palette of variations to play with. She could then compose much more with the effects rather than the representational forms of objects.
LineYan, Hutong 5, Xuan paper, ink, 51 x 41 cm。 Image Eslite Gallery Taipei

Focus Questions

1.     How does the writer account for the change in Lin Yan’s work after her 1994 return to Beijing?
2.     Why did Lin Yan choose a palette of black and white?
3.     What combinations of materials does Lin Yan use, and what are her reasons for these selections?
4.     What possible interpretations of her ‘Qi’ series does the writer suggest?

LIN Yan, Brooklyn Note 2016, 2016, Ink, Xuan paper, gauze, 33 x 27 x 5 cm

Reading #3 – The Paradox of Xuan, by Robert C. Morgan in Asian Art News Vol 22 No 5 2012 


Tao / Taoism: also known as Daoism, is a Chinese religious or philosophical tradition which emphasises living in harmony with the TAO (literally, ‘the Way’). The Tao is a fundamental idea in most schools of Chinese philosophy; in Taoism, however, it denotes the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists.

Paradox: a situation or statement that seems impossible, absurd or difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics

In the art of Lin Yan, involving one layer of thin paper against another, one piece over another (or “step by step” as quoted by Lin from a speech by President Barack Obama in 2009) unlayering is where the truth of the process is shown, the archaeology of traces that Lin carefully and fastidiously reassembles. Even so, there is a paradox in all of this. There can be no unlayering without first layering, and nothing can be revealed that was not enshrouded. In either case, the body is implicated, as is the mind, the thoughts of the artist as she engages in the process of creating density from transparency. Enshrouded reflects a state of levity and suspension where the xuan paper spectres created by Lin Yan reveal their uncanny, dark, inscrutable, seemingly contradictory process. Together her works whether cast, draped and stained with the density of black ink — suggest a regal manifestation of the paradox embodied in the ancient Tao — so close in their reckoning to the wandering scribe from the Zhou Dynasty c. 1046 – 221 BCE), who taught ‘the Way’ in southern China that being and non-being were inextricable, bound to the same phenomenon, the same force, where the milky way confronts a single blade of grass…. This Taoist paradox is latent within her work. To saturate paper with ink, to bind and sheave the cut- paper together, to assort and fasten the paper in such a way that the free edges flutter gently according to the current of air rising up from the floor — all of this done without effort as if to suggest a simple happening, an impulse, a sensation.

To read the entire article from which this passage is extracted, click:

Focus Questions

1.     Why does the writer see Lin Yan’s work as a ‘paradox’? Do you agree?
2.     In the unabridged article, he describes Lin’s process as a form of bodily and mental wholeness – ‘mind and body are one, inseparable from one another.’ What do you think he means by this in relation to the artist’s physical actions with her materials?
3.     The writer uses the term ‘unlayering’ to describe her actions and ideas, further
describing her works as an ‘archaeology of traces’. Can you expand and explain what he means?
4.     With reference to ‘Sky 2’, write one paragraph describing the artist’s actions and processes that you deduce from observing the work, and the possible meanings or associations that the work evokes for you.

The next step is to apply your understanding of Lin Yan’s practice to an extended discussion of how artists use materials to communicate their intended meanings. You will be able to use the descriptive passages that you have written in response to the focus questions in your essay.
Lin Yan, Sky 2, Installation View, White Rabbit Gallery Sydney 2017

Comparative Art Criticism – an Essay

Answer the extended response question you will find below the image of the work, with reference to ‘Sky 2’ by Lin Yan compared with a work or works by one or more of the following suggested artists (or another relevant artist you have studied):

·       Xu Bing e.g. ‘The Book from the Sky’
·       Bingyi e.g. her monumental ink installation ‘Cascade’ in the lobby of Chicago’s Smart Museum,
·       Lin Tianmiao e.g. ‘Bound and Unbound’ or ‘The Proliferation of Thread Winding’
·       Anne Hamilton e.g ‘The Event of a Thread’ or ‘Air for Everyone’
·       Claire Healey and Sean Cordeiro e.g. ‘Deceased Estate’
·       Song Dong e.g. ‘Waste Not’
·       Zhu Jinshi e.g. ‘The Ship of Time’
·       Arlene Shechet e.g. ‘Once Removed’
·       Do Ho Suh e.g. the fabric replications of his New York apartment
·       Sachiko Abe e.g. her performance work for the 18th Biennale of Sydney
·       Chiharu Shiota e.g. ‘Conscious Sleep’ at the 20th Biennale of Sydney

Plan and write an extended response to this ‘Practice’ question:

All artistic skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination.’ (Adapted from ‘The Crafsman’, by Richard Sennet)

Explain how an artist’s physical, emotional and intellectual engagement with their materials influences the meanings conveyed in their works. Consider a range of examples in your response.

Marking Guidelines

Mark Range
o   A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident and sustained throughout
o   A sophisticated analysis and interpretation of the visual codes, materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists, demonstrating extensive knowledge and thorough understanding of the works within their contemporary context.
o   Appropriate art terminology is employed fluently and persuasively

9 - 10
o   A sound knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident and well-sustained
o   A good analysis and interpretation of the visual codes, materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists, demonstrating sound knowledge and understanding of the works within their contemporary contexts
o   Appropriate art terminology is employed competently

7 - 8
o   Some knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists is evident
o   A satisfactory analysis and interpretation of some visual codes, materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists, demonstrating some knowledge and understanding of the works in a more descriptive manner
o   Some appropriate art terminology is employed more naively

5 - 6
o   A limited knowledge and understanding of the practice of the selected artists may be expressed in less coherent ways
o   A simple analysis and interpretation of some visual codes, materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists, demonstrating a developing knowledge and understanding of the works, is applied in a descriptive or more limited manner
o   A very simple attempt to apply appropriate art language may be evident

3 - 4
o   A foundational understanding of artmaking practice
o   An elementary understanding of the visual codes, materials, techniques and forms used the selected artists
o   Little or no understanding of the contemporary artworld
o   Little or no attempt to apply appropriate art language
E 1 - 2

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