When artist Candice Lin looked for ways to respond to the pandemic, she began building. The resulting structure — part tent, part retreat and part history lesson — is now on show at the Walker Art Center.
The official title of the work is "Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping." Spread across the floor of a Walker gallery it resembles a desert nomad's tent dyed a deep indigo.
"I think I wanted to create a space of, like, intimacy and touch and rest. And we started calling it our feline temple like midway through planning the catalog in the show,” Lin said , sitting in the tent on the carpet, surrounded by a half dozen ceramic cats.
They were inspired in part by her own cat, Roger. Yet like many things in Lin's piece, there's more to these cats than meets the eye.
"This is based on Tang Dynasty cat, ceramic cat pillow, that also had this kind of weird human face, but it's very comfortable," she said.
Visitors are encouraged to see just how comfortable by taking a load off and lying down. Lin designed everything in this show to be touched. That decision came early in the pandemic, as people were being told to keep isolated from each other where possible.
"I was really optimistic because I was like, ‘oh, it'll be so nice to create a place where, after this is all over, we can be touching things again, and like thinking about our bodies and like being in space together with these tactile materials.’ "
So you can touch the tent and the demon statues that serve as tent poles. You can lie on the carpet and watch the animated videos she created. You can also join in a qigong class, based on a video tape her parents use at home. Lin's version is led by a jovial, garishly colored cat demon.
“I feel like it wouldn't make sense for it to exist and not have it be like a space you can enter and like, touch and interact with,” Lin said. “And I have this weird trust in the audience. I'm like, they're gonna not want to, like, purposefully mess anything up. You know? I hope that's true.”
Visitors are encouraged to sit with a friend and explore what Lin calls tactile theaters. They are sculpted surfaces, with curves, and crannies, and even an ear in one of them. They are set up like chess tables, with chairs.
"The idea is that people sit across from each other and kind of are, like, feeling the sensuous contours of the different shapes and forms that are embedded in them as they look at each other and, like, touch this surrogate body."
For all that, Lin does not describe the exhibit as a safe space.
A lot lies beneath the tactile surfaces of "Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping," and everything has layers of meaning if a visitor wants to explore, Lin said.
"A lot of the work I was making before this had to do with thinking about histories of hygiene and disease and the racialization of those. And that was work I was making before COVID actually just happened to become timely in a different way.”
There are images of historic figures on the tent walls and the carpet. Lin said even the background color has meaning.
"There's like a history with indigo being connected with slavery and indentured Asian labor. But it's also like a beautiful dye color and material. But it's, it's fraught," she said.
There's little explanation of the layers in the show except in the form of the remarkable artist’s journal, which Lin kept during the pandemic. It chronicles her research, as well as what she was experiencing personally. It's filled with her drawings and also quotes copied from things she read.
This is a show where people can go as deep as they want, said Walker curator Victoria Sung.
"Visitors can spend as little little or as much time as they want in this space, and they can actually go through every single page in the book,” Sung said. “If you look at the sculptures, every time you look at it, there's something different that you'll see."
The handmade journal is about a foot square and very dense. Lin opened it near the end and turned the pages.
"This is like me getting my vaccine, which was so exciting,” she said. “And then, no, that's not so exciting. That was sad. This is kind of a document of the memorial after the Gold Spa shootings."
It's an image she drew of a crowd gathered to mark the killing of eight people at three Asian spa businesses in Atlanta in March. It deflates her momentarily. The pandemic has been hard and Candice Lin is aware of the irony that her show opens in the shadow of the delta variant, but she's optimistic we'll get through this, too.