Profiles on Practice: Yen-Chao Lin

NK: Hello, my name is Nadia Kurd and I’m the host of Profiles on Practice, a podcast that examines the life and work of women artists of colour in Canada.

YCL: My name is Yen-Chao Lin and I am an interdisciplinary artist. I guess we can say that I have a certain focus. A certain part of my practice is focused on experimental film, but generally speaking, I do work with a very large range of different mediums and materials. And I guess my body of work or my focus and my body of research is really around divination arts, religion, different kinds of spiritual practices, oral history, traditional tales, and alchemy, occult sciences.

NK: You’ve taken a very interesting path to become an artist. Can you tell me how and why you wanted to become an artist and some of the choices that you made along the way?

YCL: I guess to talk about my background of my career as an artist, maybe we need to backtrack a little bit and just talk about my background in general. I was born in Taiwan, in Taipei city, and I lived there until the age of 13, then I moved to Canada to a suburb in Quebec. And I guess it’s sightly particular because I actually came here without my family, without my parents and I was staying with the host family until I got 18 and moved out. And I guess most people are slightly taken aback and kind of surprised, and don’t really understand logistically and emotionally. It took me a long time to be able to verbalize this particular process. I think when I was younger, growing up in Taiwan, I always felt very oppressed and very alienated, and then just like this strong intuition that I feel like if I stay, I wouldn’t be able to grow into what I want to become or to fulfill what I want to do.

And at that point it’s just an intuition, it’s a feeling, I couldn’t talk about it. I couldn’t verbalize it. I couldn’t rationalize it. And it’s only since recently I’m more able to talk about it, to communicate in a rational way. And so, it took me like a year or two to convince my parents, and finally, we found this host family and I moved here to Quebec.

I guess it’s just something in my personality. I guess there’s a certain sense of independence to pursue what I want to pursue, even if sometimes that what I want is not, it’s not that rationale or concrete or specific. And becoming an artist it’s not a decision that I’ve made overnight or it’s not something that I knew I wanted to do since I was young. Like art was interesting, I have a great interest in art and went to a specialized school and took specialized classes, stuff like that in Taiwan. But to pursue it as a career, I think it’s really, since 2015, 2016, I went to art school. I have a degree in Studio Arts and I have a Film Production degree. Well, it’s a BFA it’s with Concordia. It’s slightly particular because usually film production is with the Communications department, but at Concordia University in Montreal, it’s actually a BFA and it’s the degree I have.

I studied art, but yeah, to consider pursuing this career professionally, it’s really, since 2016 that I feel like maybe just as a woman, as a woman of colour who has been through a lot of financial struggles, there’s just like a certain lack of confidence to pursue it and to wear the title of an artist.

Sometimes some projects start from research, like conceptual research, and then I will have certain ideas and start researching it and then everything kind of comes together. And other projects actually started were more studio, like material-based research, and then other projects, they just come together in a very strange, organic way. I guess I will just give a few examples.

The first one is called Under the Seventh Sun. It’s a site-specific installation that I did with Atelier Céladon at this secret swimming pool in Montreal. It’s in the mountains, behind McGill University, and now they founded Royal Victoria Hospital. And so, the pool has been closed since 2013 or 14 I believe it was built in the seventies for the nurses of the Royal Victoria Hospital. And then it was open to the public in the early 2000s. It was open to the public for 10 years and then, very unfortunately, a man drowned in a pool. And since then, the city, and McGill, and the hospital just decided to close the pool to the public, but the pool is still there. It’s just become like one of those urban, abundant spaces.

So, we decided to do a site-specific installation. We had shown two films, or we screened two films, one was Barbara Hammer’s Sanctus and the other one was Todd Hayne’s Poison because of the entire concept behind the exhibition or the event was architecture and health, and it was like completely DIY. We just pulled a rope across the swimming pool, and we hanged a high sheet on it, we had a little projector with us, and it actually worked out really well. I did this site-specific installation with various found material or stuff that I have grown myself. I had a community garden back then with flowers and fruits and compost that I had produced myself. And also, some artifacts like masks, papier-mâché that I had made as some kind of a homage to the man who had drowned.

And also, the event took place in August 2016 and according to the Chinese lunar calendar, the months of July is when the gate of hell opens and usually, the lunar months of July is in the Chinese calendar is actually August. And on the 15th of the lunar calendar, it’s called the Hungry Ghost Festival. That’s when you’re supposed to be giving offerings to the ghosts and the wandering spirits so you will be exempt from harm. Growing up in Taiwan, there are always those superstitions that you’re not supposed to go swimming in the summer because the ghosts will pull you from the ankle and you will drown and all this stuff.

And coincidentally, the day we chose to do our event was actually the Hungry Ghost Festival. It was a full moon, and it was very beautiful. It was the moon rising behind the trees and mountains and it was also only a few days away from the anniversary of the incident. They just came together very organically that we didn’t choose that day consciously. It was just like the only day that everybody’s available and the weather is nice, so we did it. And at the end of the event, I burned some Joss paper as an offering. Joss paper is also called funeral money or ghost monies, and it’s something embedded in Chinese funeral culture that you would burn those special papers sometimes with silver and gold foil on it as a symbol to transmit material goods into the other world.

NK: Can you tell me a bit more about the influences behind the work, The Eroding Garden, and how all of the elements within this project came together? I’m particularly interested in the symbolic aspects behind this piece.

The concept behind it was focused on dowsing.  I have been very interested in dowsing for many, many years now but it’s only since 2019, I guess, that the project really started to take shape. Dowsing refers to this practice of being able to detect metal or mostly water. Most of the time, most commonly water, on the ground with like metal rods or like a forked stick branch or pendulum. It’s interesting cause when I talk about dowsing when I use the word dowsing, a lot of people don’t know what it is, but when I start explaining, “Oh, it’s like people walking around in the field with sticks to find water,” everybody’s just like, “Oh yeah, we know that my uncle does that, or whatever. I know someone who does that.” It’s actually a very ancient practice and it’s one of those things that it’s never approved by science, but people around the world from different cultures have a practice of that in various shapes. I think that’s very interesting, because it kind of refers back to my general interest in my larger body of practice, like this kind of omnipotent, omnipresent powers, invisible powers and vibrations around us that it’s not rational, It’s not visible, but it does affect us. And we do invent different ways to communicate or to harness or to use that energy.

Throughout my research, I found out that, the military also has a very intense interest of dowsing. There’s experiments by, well, the US Marine, the Navy, was actually actively screening people with dowsing abilities during the Vietnam war. And they were trying to detect those vehicles in tunnels because you couldn’t really always see from the satellites. And it was also used during the Korean war and I know that mining companies and the oil industry still use that to detect, you know, the mineral deposits or oil. And yeah, I just find it very interesting to like also just like all this power or whatever you can harness. It doesn’t necessarily have a dichotomy of good and bad. It’s just depending on how people use it.

NK: And can you describe how people go about dowsing? What types of materials do they use?

Throughout my research, I was traveling to Ottawa on a regular basis because in Ottawa they have this citizen group, it’s called Ottawa Dowsers Organization. They meet on a monthly basis and it’s just people like professionals or amateurs meeting up and dowsing. I did take a workshop with them and also just talked to real dowsers and everybody has a slightly different way to proceed, I guess, and everybody has a different tool of choice. And I think the most common thing people would use that I have seen is with metal rods, just like L-shaped coat hangers, you can make them yourself and then you just hold it with both hands.

And you kind of try to put your mind as neutral as possible.

And I guess you can have some kind of agreement with your tool. Like, say, “if the answer is yes, the rods will cross, they will close, and if the answer is no, the rods will open.” And then you just try to ask questions and it’s slightly difficult to explain, because from my personal experience, I will have to be really calm and focused, but not like rationally focused on what I want to know. And then it’s, for me, it’s like those very invisible micro-movements that you can’t really see, but I can feel it—then I know. It’s difficult to explain, it’s experiential, and I think it’s also intuitive, a lot of times you feel something, but you can’t prove it, but you feel it. During one of the workshops in Ottawa, an object was hidden, and we were supposed to just dowse around the room and try to find it. And I actually found it without knowing, and I can’t explain how I did it. It’s just this micro-movement that I feel that the rods were moving, and it was bringing me there.

Each dowser has their tool of choice, some people will work with a pendulum, and other people will be working with wooden sticks. And I’ve also spoken to dowsers saying that they don’t necessarily need a tool because the tool is just a vehicle, an antenna, but you can actually just feel it, the vibration in your hands or your body or whatever. In the case of dowsing, it’s also very complex because he has ties to the military, you know, to the oil industry, to the mining industry, and oil and mining, those are big topics in Canada too. And then there’s power, you know, this invisible power, but also real-life power, like economic power, or colonial power and all that.

I think in the case of dowsing my entry point was like, this intuition is connection, this vibration and you know, there’s omnipresence, but as I started looking into it, I was like, “Oh, it’s not that simple.” There are many layers that you can dissect, it’s kind of like dowsing, there’s different layers of reality you can tune into. The Eroding Garden ended up becoming a project where I try to use dowsing, or the metaphors around dowsing, as a tool to try to deconstruct all these layers of colonization. Like how you trace back like the land history, the water history, and how to peel off all these different layers of what we see and what we know today.

The Eroding Garden has three components. The first one is a series of enamelled Canadian pennies chained together, there’s about 2000 of them. And well enamelling is like this ancient process where you basically melt a very thin single layer of glass on copper, it’s usually on the copper plate. It was very popular in the seventies as like an arts and craft thing. And I guess in my practice, I will often work with found objects, objects that don’t seem to have value. When I started to research the concept of dowsing, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about working with Canadian copper pennies or whatever. I just had this strong intuition that I want to work with metal, and I want to work with clay. These are like the two earth materials, mediums that, that want to work with. And then things just like slowly started to come together. Once again, I can’t explain how it happened rationally. It was just like a very normal process, a very natural process.

During my trips to the meetings in Ottawa with the Dowsers Organization, I was also visiting the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. Well, there [are] actually two mints in Canada, one in Ottawa and one in Winnipeg, and the Winnipeg branch is the second branch that opened because it’s closer to the mines. The Ottawa Mint only produces collection coins. They don’t make circulation currencies. It’s the one in Winnipeg that’s making them. Yeah, it was a lot of interesting facts idea I didn’t know like Canada also produces currency for many other countries. And apparently, it has a very good reputation of making that because the metals that are mined are pure and of good quality. And then there’s like this whole history of money, monetary exchange, currency, you know, it’s a colonial system, but we all kind of have to kind of accept it and use it today.

And then copper, like the metaphysical, the metaphorical properties of copper, and also like how the Canadian pennies are the only currency that’s taken out of circulation and the reason for it was the cost to produce and the lack of being worthless. And the interesting fact is I can only use Canadian pennies that’s produced before 1997 because pennies produced before 1997 are made of 98% copper and after 1997, it’s a copper plate and it would just melt in the kiln when I enamelled it. It’s interesting how you save money to make money and you save money to not make that money anymore. There’s just many different layers to dissect.

And the second component of The Eroding Garden is a handmade porcelain bowl with 24-Karat gold-gilded chopstick, one single chopstick, erected inside a bowl in water, in a vertical position. And in many different East Asian cultures, it’s a taboo to put your chopsticks in a vertical position in food. That’s a sign of disrespect and that’s also, you would do that if you’re offering food to the deceased, to the dead, so you will never do that on a dinner table.

Well, the inspiration behind that component is from a story that circulates in my family. My mother became very ill when she was a child after an uncle passed away and they were not able to cure her. At the point of desperation, my grandmother took out a bowl, a small like rice bowl, eating bowl. She filled it with water, and she put one single chopstick in it, and she was trying to communicate with the spirit of my uncle. She was saying things like, “Oh, if the spirit is present, the chopstick will stand up.” And then apparently [the] chopstick did and then they were communicating and negotiating and finally my grandmother convinced the deceased uncle to let my mother live. My mother was apparently healed after this incident and there’s no way to verify if this really happened or not.

That’s also one of my interest in oral history, for me, it’s not important if it’s true or not, it just exists and exists for a reason. It feeds into our imagination or creativeness or whatever. It’s meant to create a connection. And so, yeah, that’s the second component with the chopstick and the bowl. It’s really just like a materialization, a material rendering of that history that circulates in my family. And I also just think it’s interesting, again, with dowsing with like sticks and water and communication with the deceased or the other side and how my family member was using that. Yeah. It still gives me the chills each time I tell that story.

The third component of The Eroding Garden was a series of hands cast in plaster. All the hands are holding a hand-forged steel stick that’s in different positions and some of them are not historical and others are imaginative. They’re just hands holding different dowsing sticks in different manners and different positions. That’s again my way to materialize these invisible forces.

One of the things I really enjoy doing is actually site-specific installations, working with a space and the space usually has a history.  I really enjoy working with spaces that’s not traditional art exhibition spaces like not the institution space. Yeah, to work with the history, the past of that space and really cater something very specific, using very specific materials to create something that’s not just parachuted into the space like a lot of more traditional exhibition shows. Yeah, I don’t know I guess, for me, a diasporic person, the sense of space might always be slightly different. I get very attached or particular about spaces. I’m the kind of person who walks into a room that I might change my seat three times before I finally settle and find the right space for me. And even in my personal home studio, like how I arrange the space it has a lot of impact for me and definitely the space inspires me or un-inspires me to create. And I think also a lot of times my works are experiential, like installation-based work, you know, you just have to be there physically to experience it.

A lot of times my research or the way I work are also very experiential. Like during my research is dowsing I would actually take dowsing workshops and learn how to dowse myself. And for research for other projects, I’ve been going to different temples and seeing different fortune tellers, palmistry readers. I guess personally, for me, in my personal life and in my work, it’s just important to build relationships. Like I build relationships with people, I build a relationship with objects, I build a relationship with communities. I’m a scavenger. I find a lot of stuff that people trash, or I collect a lot of things that seems to be worthless to other people, but that’s my way of building relationship with those objects and then with different people.

When I do residencies, I guess Banff is slightly different because it is an institution. I really enjoy doing rural residences where I go to rural places that’s not necessarily like a big city with like a known art institution and just be there for two, three months and build relationships with people, with the objects that I find, the plants, the trees, whatever, and not just, I guess like parachute and, you know, this cultural of extraction and you just go there, you get what you need, and you get out and you make your art and then you have an exhibition. This is a process I try to avoid.

NK: Have you gone back to Taiwan? And could you describe your relationship with the country?

I don’t go to Taiwan very often. My biological family lives there. We have a polite but distant relationship, I guess I can say that. They are from a very different generation. So, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese for 50 years, until I think ‘55. After the Chinese civil war, when China becomes communist, the nationalist army basically retreated Taiwan in ‘55. And the initial idea was that they will regroup and then fight back then conquer and take China back from the communists. Of course, that never happened. And so, when the national nationalists arrived in Taiwan, they had imposed martial law. I think it was actually, it was lifted in ‘87 or ‘85. I don’t remember, but it was about 30, 34 years of martial law. And my parents were of that generation, they were born in martial law. My grandparents from both sides were, I guess you can call them, war refugees or veterans. They came to Taiwan with the nationalist army.

They grew up in a very difficult and challenging situation.

I guess like the concept of, of being an artist of freelancing, not having a stable job, not having a pension, it’s just very foreign for them. And of course, the cost of studying art…I didn’t receive much support from them, like emotionally and financially. And I think it’s also like, because I have chosen to leave so young from very early on, there’s a big part of me, I don’t necessarily identify or connect to my family. I’m not that surprised that we’re not close as adults. So yeah, we have this polite but distant relationship, and I don’t really speak to them very often.

The last time I went to Taiwan was in 2018, 2019. It’s the first time I go there as an artist, I did a residency at Cepo Art Center. It’s in the village of Makotaay on the East Coast of Taiwan so it’s facing the Pacific Ocean, it’s in the traditional Amis territory. They are Indigenous people in Taiwan and it’s about like 3% of the population, kind of like Canada. And Amis is the most populated tribe and there’s coastal Amis, and mountain Amis, and where I was in the village, it was coastal Amis. Yeah, that was the first time I went there as an artist because in the past I would go just visiting my family, doing those family duties, and kind of put my practice aside.

I feel like for me, that trip was very important on a personal level because there a sense of assuming who I am and presenting myself as I am, but also maybe some sense of reconciliation in a strange way. Cause like growing up there, I know there are Indigenous people, but my family’s attitude towards Indigenous people was very condescending and negative and that also kind of influenced and tinted my view of the Indigenous people in Taiwan. I think it’s just also with what’s happening here, you know, with the Truth and Reconciliation and all that stuff. Like there’s a desire to acknowledge, to understand. So yeah, I chose to go to Makotaay and do this artist residency there. I was there for two months and I shot a super eight film, it’s called the Spirit Keepers of Makuta’ay. The way I make films is very experimental. I don’t have a script, I don’t have a linear narrative, I just shoot intuitively of what I think would make sense. And the concept of the film was to document different kinds of religions and spiritual practices in the area of Makotaay.

And as I started to film, I realized it was very interesting because all these different religious and spiritual practices are actually telling the hidden story of different layers of colonization. And that’s something I didn’t necessarily think about before. There was a Shinto tempo on the top of a hill. It was built during the Japanese colonial period. And now it’s Daoist tempo after ‘55. And the way the religions and the spiritual practices are practiced there it’s really separate. it’s different ethnic groups because there’s the Indigenous population and there’s the Taiwanese people who have been in Taiwan, they are of Chinese descent, but they have been in Taiwan for generations. And there’s also people like a literal translation from Chinese it’s “people from outside of the province.” People like my parents who were only there, as first or second generation after the civil war and those three groups they really practice very different religions.

So the Taiwanese folk religion, they have a lot of rituals and Daoist temples. And kind of like ritual possession and like different kinds of dances and offerings and other stuff. The Indigenous population was largely Presbyterian and Catholic and that also has like its own history, right? Like I think about maybe 60, 65% of the Indigenous population in Taiwan are Catholic or Christian. No matter what’s the scale of the village, there’s always a church and of course Makotaay had a church. I was also very interested in traditional sorcerers in the Amis’ Cikawasay, which the literal translation is a sorcerer, but the Makotaay no longer had a Cikawasay. I was talking to family members of the deceased Cikawasay. And people were saying, “Oh, we don’t need that anymore because there’s medicine. because times have changed.” And I was like, oh, that’s, that’s interesting. It’s just how it is now. I mean, it’s very easy for me to go there and feel like, “oh, it’s too bad. You didn’t preserve your culture and stuff like that.” But I feel like that’s very patronizing for me to decide what they should preserve and what’s good and bad, you know, it’s just how it is. And that’s what people want today so that’s what’s happening today.

This film, The Spirit Keepers of Makuta’ay kind of very loosely documents all these different kinds of practices. And I forged a close friendship with, Rara Dongi. She lives in Makota’ay, she’s a weaver, a seamstress, and she’s also very involved with the local community and she served as the driving voice of this film. I had interviewed her a few times where she tells me like the stories of her family, and her memories as a child growing up, and some of the children’s songs that she was singing, like it was kind of like half in Amis and half in Mandarin.

And then she was like, “Oh, this is what we started to have to learn Chinese.” And I didn’t ask her those questions, you know, I don’t ask her to be like, “Tell me about oppression. Tell me about…” I don’t ask those questions. It just comes out in conversation. And you’re like, Oh, okay so nothing is ever that simple and innocent even though it could be as a child’s song. What’s interesting about Makotaay is that they have a Waldorf Kindergarten and there are only two Waldorf Kindergartens in Taiwan. It’s like immersive learning and they would only speak Amis. And Rara is very involved in that project so I think that’s very interesting. She is very focused on restoring language like teaching and passing a language to younger generations.

NK: Is there anything else you’d like to add to this conversation?

YC: I come from a very grassroots DIY background and I am an HR consultant, but I didn’t study HR in school. Like a lot of my experiences come from various kind of grassroots organizations, learning on the spot, and all that realm of different society, more activist kind of works. So yeah, I come from a very DIY background and I have that approach, I bring that approach to my art, to my practice.

Also, because I really enjoy working with my hands to have a very tactile, very studio heavy, a heavily studio focused practice. And I mentioned earlier, I’m a scavenger. I collect things. I think there’s an art of collection itself. Once my astrologer, when she was reading my birth chart, she was saying, “Oh, there’s something I read that I don’t really fully understand, I read that you collect other people’s stuff.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I know what it means.” So, I thought it was interesting and I collect things, I fix them, and I reassemble them. And a lot of my work is made of materials that are very cheap or common. And I think like in the past, I always have a lot of restrictions around space, like wanting to work, making bigger scale installations, but I just don’t have a space for it. I’m just thinking instead of making one big thing maybe I can have like a million of little things and just like, you know, use those little things to create a scale I wanted, which is kind of what happened with the pennies. Yeah, but that requires a lot of like collecting of those little things, so I think like a lot of times my works, my creative process is very time-consuming because it’s about collecting, like building relationships with those things and gathering them. And also, just because I really enjoy working with my hands, a lot of times I will try to embed different kind of craft techniques into my work.

And I’m not like trying to master any craft technique, there are craftspeople, like professionals who really spend their whole lives to professionalize their art. I’m definitely not at that level, but technique is important for me. And I know a lot of times artists would just hire and outsource their production and I have done that, and I will definitely do that in the future, but there’s a lot of joy for me to do things myself.

NK: Thank you to our podcast collaborator, Femme Art Review, audio engineering by Riaz Mehmood, and music by Kevin MacLeod. The Profiles on Practice podcast was generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Originals initiative.

Episode transcribed by Adi Berardini. Femme Art Review, 2021.