Spike Island, Bristol, 5 February – 8 May
Twice a day, a trebuchet bombards the gallery. Solemnly set up by an invigilator donning a bacteria-patterned hooded cloak, the oversized weighted catapult is loaded with a small sphere consisting of lard, wax and a black pigment made with animal bones. On release, the lard-bone ball is slung in a lazy arc over a barrier bisecting the room, with a chained metal gate in the shape of large, staring eyes and topped with barbed wire. The ball thuds into the opposite wall and splats to the ground, leaving a dark, diarrhetic mess. This spectacular action at the start of Candice Lin’s ‘Pigs and Poison’ is just the most overt battlefield at play in the exhibition, which stages a fractured web of conflicting histories, ideologies and lifeforms. The unlikely causalities of these conflicts litter the show: in the painting Pig Carcass in the Arizona Desert, 2020, the titular pig lying in a damp clearing is swollen, rotten and grey, but is also dressed in shoes, jeans and a T-shirt. Dotted through the hallway are three Flesh Lumps, 2020, misshapen, pink and veiny blobs that at points sprout ears or half-formed limbs, lined with scabrous wounds. They might seem dead, but here, Lin seems to suggest, is where other lives begin.
Many of the works here draw on stories, both rumoured and factual, of the bubonic plague: the trebuchet installation, A History of Future Contagion, 2020, draws on a 14th-century siege in what is now Crimea, in which diseased horse corpses were lobbed into barricaded city walls as an early form of biological warfare – survivors who eventually fled to Europe were supposedly linked to the spread of the Black Death. Several smudgy paintings depict instances on the west coast of the US from the early 20th century, when Chinese immigrants were blamed for outbreaks of the plague; in Bureau of Rats, 2020, a group of men huddle in the snow, sorting through piles of dead rodents. Visitors can don a weighty leather plague doctor mask and one of the bacteria-robes to experience the VR work Vermin Visionary, 2020, where we can look around an alternative version of the show: amongst a digital replica of the barbed barrier and installations of neon rods and barrels, the trebuchet hurls massive, pulsing wads of flesh directly at us, where they quiver for a moment before being absorbed into the floor.
Running underneath these issues of migration, both human and bacterial, is another, more semantic struggle. The plaster board that lines the barbed wire barrier installation, A Robot Spoke What My Father Wrote, 2019, is also spattered with the animal bone pigment, and carved with large, shaky letters, spelling ‘Meaningless Squiggles’ in English on one side, and the same in Mandarin on the other. The attack of the Contagion catapult starts to take on a different emphasis; not so much as an attack on meaninglessness, but an attack on seeing unintelligibility – of other languages, other peoples, other entities – as meaningless. It also suggests an attempt to assert the right to speak, to say anything, without it being continually conflated with issues of nationality, race or fenced-off identity.
In contrast to this assertion of ambivalence is a moment in the Vermin Visionary world, where out of the corner of your eye a shadow outline appears on the digital gallery’s wall of a caricatured Chinese figure. When you turn to face it directly, it quickly fades. Here, the weight of Lin’s archival research is laid bare, literalising the relationship of wanting such injustices to appear peripherally but not directly. It feels, though, like an overstatement of a metaphor, when the spectres are already there haunting every aspect of the show; the anger at such wrongs is felt in the catapult’s continual violence, in the barbed wire, and in the animal bone that covers half the exhibition.
In another section of ‘Pigs and Poison’, a series of ink drawings depicts surreal and macabre scenes, drawn while apparently under the influence of tinctures made from plants involved in the history of Chinese indentured labour. A bucolic forest scene of a woman holding a fawn in Papaver somniferum [Opium poppy], 2020, is blotched over with a four-armed skeletal centaur figure who holds aloft two vials of dark liquid. Lin’s work is stronger and more suggestive of other potentials when it gives way to dream logics, letting go of direct archival quotation and treating history itself as a kind of drug to trip out on. It’s at these points that Lin suggests this ingestion as another way of understanding and transforming history and its materials – of poppy to opium, bone to ink, virus to rotting flesh. ‘Pigs and Poison’ feels, at times, like three different exhibitions pulling in different directions, but this tension also intimates how the excesses of our stories burst from the buboes, leak from the wounds. An unlikely synthesis or coda might be found in the litter of Flesh Lumps which, despite appearances or backstory, all emit a contented purring sound. These are history’s offspring, teeming with blood and bacteria; they seem happy.
Oringally published in Art Monthly, No. 454, March 2022