OUR CRACKED LIPS were just beginning to moisten when our small Beijing delegation arrived in Thailand for the unveiling of Chinese artist Lin Yilin’s project Whose Land? The two-part series, exhibited in Bangkok and the Land, a well-known artist colony outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, was curated by Josef Ng and sponsored by Lin’s gallery, Tang Contemporary. At the Land, the answer to Lin’s titular question was obvious. “Rirkrit [Tiravanija] and I bought the land,” artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert said of the Land Foundation. “We thought it would be a retirement home.”
Beijing might call out to Chinese mainland artists with promises of opportunity and community, but Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, reeks of paradise. Tiravanija and Lertchaiprasert have long kept studios there, and filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul has recently made the move as well. Lertchaiprasert herded us around as we explored his studio and home, an airy concrete structure of grand proportions and humble materials. Tiravanija’s home, similarly integrated with the outdoors, was just next door. Our eyes followed a tree sprouting from the first level up to the ceiling, and we marveled at the specially built holes in the roof that allowed it to continue growing. In Beijing such a tree would have been uprooted without a second thought; in the face of real estate development, even humans in Beijing don’t seem to merit as much consideration as this tree did here.
Demolitions of Chinese artist villages throughout 2010 have left deep psychological scars, and the disappearance of Lin’s own Beigao Village studio was obviously inspiration for Whose Land? Lin’s first trip to Thailand’s elysian fields last spring, as artist protests were still ongoing, must have made the situation in Beijing seem even more dramatic.
Our delegation piled into a van and set off for the Land, which lies about forty minutes outside Chiang Mai in the village of Baan Muang Fu. A few of us, including curator Ou Ning, hopped in the bed of Lertchaiprasert’s pickup truck to ride local-style, snapping photos the entire way.
As we pulled onto a road flanked with rice paddies, I suddenly became nervous about the descending sun. “Can we come back tomorrow if there’s not enough time?” I asked, preparing myself for something closer in scale to Bernardo Paz’s Inhotim art park in Brazil. Tang’s Zheng Lin looked at me with a blend of suspicion and parental amusement: “You can come back if you like, but what are you going to do? This is it.” He waved in the direction of a paddy ringed with incongruous structures: Before us lay the humbly utopian Land Foundation.
No one lives here. “But we don’t close the door, and the locals come to hunt and fish,” said Lertchaiprasert. Pavilions built by Tobias Rehberger, Superflex, Philippe Parreno, and architect François Roche, among others, were in various states of disrepair; appropriately reggae-esque Thai music floated up in the distance, where Lin’s pristine concrete wall—“the first curated project at the Land,” Ng reminded me—cut into the landscape. Several boys loitered on top of it looking blissful and errant, dangling their legs off the side.
Walls are a signature form for Lin, who is well known for a 1995 performance in which he moved a cinderblock wall across a busy Guangzhou road, brick by brick. His latest concrete variation stands cool and stark against the vegetation of the Land and the mountains in the distance. A small window in Lin’s wall allowed for the installation of a traditional Chinese scale, consisting of a long pole weighted with a heavy ballast. “When I bought the scale they told me it was sturdy enough to measure a swine,” Lin shrugged. But instead of livestock, each of us was instructed to climb into the basket and then chalk our names and corresponding kilograms on the concrete. Dutifully, we each weighed ourselves; photographer Anette Aurell weighed her and Tiravanija’s two dogs.
The turnout was impressive: many students and professors from Chiang Mai University, local artists, even more dogs. But was Ng pleased with the locals’ reception? “Wait until you see the show in Bangkok,” he responded somewhat ominously.
We were encouraged to explore Thailand, as there was ample time (three days) to kill before the Bangkok opening. Lin suggested we visit the red light district, and soon I found myself seated below a stage of coyly waving transvestites. My companions sipped coffee with raised eyebrows; one might not think an evening in a sex club to be the likeliest leisure activity for a band of itinerant intellectuals, but in Thailand it’s apparently standard tourist fare..
At last, the opening. Within Tang Contemporary’s Bangkok basement space, Lin had erected a temporary wall imprinted with the words WHOSE LAND? WHOSE ART? Two related videos were screened—the first depicted the grim, familiar scenes of a protest orchestrated by the artist to dispute the demolition of approximately twenty artists’ studios in Beijing; the second showed a local man treading the ridge of an enormous mountain of dirt on a dusty Martian landscape. The pile was the cleared remains of the entire village (and studios) where the protest in the first video took place. Whose land, indeed.