By Nadia Kurd
Dowsing is known as the process of finding water using divination rods. This old technique of sourcing water can be found in various cultures across the globe. For modern-day dowsers, in addition to sourcing water, “they frequently can report its volume, depth, flow direction and potability.”
For Taiwan-born, Montréal-based multidisciplinary artist Yen-Chao Lin, this practice has been a significant inspiration to art. Many of Lin’s works begin organically and can be sparked by the items she collects, hears or senses. The combination of spirituality, folklore, and DIY practices—as found in dowsing— has foregrounded much of Lin’s film, installation, and textile-based works. Moreover, as a child, she was exposed to a variety of religious philosophies, as her mother would take her to places such as Buddhist temples, Sunday mass, and Mormon gatherings.
Lin’s long-term research into dowsing which included conducting interviews and attending monthly meetings with the Ottawa Dowser’s, led to the creation of her installation Eroding Garden (2019). As a result, Lin created a three-part installation that combines 2000 glass enamelled Canadian pennies, a porcelain bowl with an erected chopstick, and several suspended, casted hands holding dowsing sticks, both in real and imaginary ways. As Lin writes, the work also incorporates her own family history. This history is symbolically reflected, as Lin notes;
The porcelain bowl with the chopstick is drawn from my family oral history, where my grandmother made a chopstick stand in water and communicated with the spirit of a deceased relative who was causing illness to my mother. In many East Asian cultures, chopsticks should not be left vertically stuck into a bowl of rice because it resembles the ritual of incense-burning that symbolizes feeding the dead.
While the work evokes a more intuitive approach to connecting with land and water, dowsing also has an insidious, political history as well. As Lin points out, “dowsing is also used by the petroleum industry to locate oil wells, mining companies for ore, as well as the US army in Korea and Vietnam, to find tunnels and food caches.”
In another installation Perchance (2018), 23 booklets, silk tapestries, and several divination sticks are arranged in a way that creates a space where “self-administered divination is offered.” For this project, Lin “visited fortune tellers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, observed different collective and individual divination practices, studied the ancient tradition of I Ching and explored the materiality of silk.” The work melds the sensibilities of traditional East Asian aesthetics and religious practices to forge a contemporary ‘system for divination.’ Here, visitors are permitted to interact with the I-Ching bundle (placed in the centre of the silk banners) and interpret their own numerically based fortune from reading the 23 booklets on the wall. This process ultimately melds chance and instruction and asks visitors to reflect on “socially determined networks of information distribution.”
Her most recent project, The Spirit Keepers of Makut’ay (2019) also follows a highly intuitive process. This short, experimental film was shot on the rural coast of Taiwan in collaboration with the local Amis Indigenous community. Largely abstract in nature, the film poetically “unravels mixed-faith expressions from Daoist ritual possession to a Presbyterian funeral” to reveal the past Amis healers. For Lin, this work brings together the past and present to show how “nature, colonization and population migration” comes together in Taiwan’s unique spiritual landscape. The Spirit Keepers of Makut’ay will have its Canadian premiere the Vancouver International Film Festival this October.
Since migrating to Canada at the age of thirteen to pursue an education, Lin recalls that she had, “this overwhelming strong pulsation darting out from my heart, telling me I must leave in order to pursue what I want out of this life. I wanted to leave since I was 11, it took two years to convince my parents and it was not easy.” This determination led her to pursue an arts education. After earning a Cégep (Studio Arts) diploma and a BFA (Film Production) from Concordia University (Montréal) in 2008, Lin has gone on to participate in numerous residencies, exhibitions, and performances in Canada and abroad.
With an understanding of how she may be perceived as an immigrant woman of colour, a large part of Lin’s work has also involved working with arts organizations to develop equity policies and practices. In 2019, she was the Equity Officer for La Centrale Gallerie Powerhouse, a feminist artist-run centre in Montréal. This experience made her realize “how important and challenging it is to make space for equity-seeking folks within institutions, and how education, leadership development, and solidarity can contribute to change.”
Combined with an intuitive sensibility, Lin’s practice, on the whole, is rooted in examining equity and justice. “I believe in self-empowerment, the accessibility of arts, and the possibility of change through art,” reflects Lin, “I’m a critical person and I will always question the dominant structure of power, either through my work as an artist or as a cultural worker.”
To see more of Yen-Chao Lin’s art and upcoming projects, visit her website: yenchaolin.com
Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). She tweets @nadia_kurd and her work can be found on nadiakurd.com.
 Canadian Dowsers Association. https://canadiandowsers.org/introduction-to-dowsing/ (accessed September 10, 2019).
 Yen-Chao Lin, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, September 6, 2019.
 Yen-Chao Lin, Artist Website: yenchaolin.com, (accessed September 7, 2019).
 Ibid. Note: I Ching can be described as “philosophical taxonomy of the universe, a guide to an ethical life, a manual for rulers, and an oracle of one’s personal future.” For more information, see: http://www.chinafile.com/library/nyrb-china-archive/what-i-ching
 Interview by author.