The global trade in commodities now registers as an abstraction so beyond the knowledge of the ordinary person that Candice Lin’s installation ‘System for a Stain’ is, perversely, almost reassuring. Looking like the meth lab of a warped, shoestring budget orientalist fantasy, abandoned to its function by some withered aesthete like Joris-Karl Huysmans’ antiheroic des Esseintes, it is homespun, rough-hewn, visceral, faintly nightmarish, surprisingly noxious – the fetor fades quickly enough but leaves a powerful first impression. However it also produces a substance of appreciable consistency, flow and volume; something with a potentially meaningful exchange value. You could parse the tumbling digits of stock markets for an aeon without finding the means to measure a drop of it –whatever ‘it’ is.
On plywood plinths, an assortment of strange small vessels – some decorative porcelain, others plain household jars – funnel a dark red/brown fluid into a shallow wooden basin from which it is siphoned through plastic tubing into an adjacent room, forming irregular puddles on a marble effect laminate floor. The whatever it is turns out to be mostly tea and the red dye of the cochineal insect – commodities evocative of the colonial era – and the second room is also the site of a sound installation titled ‘A Memory Blushing With Innocence’; a monologue recalling childhood memories as the daughter of a plantation owner.
One of my first thoughts was of Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture ‘Honigpumpe am Arbeitsplatz (Honey Pump in the Workplace)’ of 1977, though it’s possibly more useful in contrast than accordance with Lin’s piece. In Beuys’ installation, some two tonnes of honey were circulated through the rooms of the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel. Honey is a near paradigmatic stuff of expropriation made by creatures who live to work, but the honeypump was incomplete without attendees – hence the social. Lin’s apparatus is a relatively asocial sculpture.
I also thought of British secretary of state for international trade Liam Fox tweeting to set minds at ease over the prospects for the heavily foreign investment dependent UK economy post-Brexit. ‘France needs high quality, innovative British jams and marmalades’ he chirped to deafening howls of derision. The stock set by Europe’s slavering yen for sickly sweet goo that Britain alone can provide was nothing short of delusional but perhaps it voiced some archaic yearning to trade in delectable things – preserves, wines, fabrics, narcotics, living bodies.
The aesthete and the sadist are often one and the same and always kindred. For her part the artist begs no pardon for her part in sadistic aestheticism. Her complicity is voiced in the sound piece and the small sculptures with silkworm colonies and cochineal insects that accompany the larger installation. Those are among several other works that feel less central than ‘System for a Stain’ contributing to the impression that the exhibition is a little cramped – to address every piece in full would require a book-length article. In fact one of the pieces is a book written by the artist in a custom made language. Throughout, the desiring subject/body asserts itself over the suffering one whose only real trace is a rank stained pool on the floor.