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Friday, January 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Sheila Farr
Artist Zhi Lin puts museumgoers nose to nose with a part of civilization most of us prefer not to dwell on: the death penalty.
In a group of 12-by-7-foot paintings titled "Five Capital Executions in China," Lin makes us party to shocking, almost off-hand executions played out among crowds of people who show little emotion as they cluster to watch or simply pass by on their daily routines. The paintings which show decapitation, starvation, flaying, drawing and quartering, and shooting aren't modeled on actual events. But Lin's fictional scenes do depict real methods of execution, past and present, which for him represent a long history of human cruelty not confined to any one nation. Because of the large scale of the paintings and Lin's clever compositional tricks, we end up feeling like passive onlookers to the carnage.
China, of course, is historically notorious for its poor human-rights record and for administering the death penalty for crimes we might consider minor. So, as an American, it's tempting to distance oneself and think "not here."
But, as a catalog of the exhibition points out, the death penalty has been abolished in 106 nations, and 80 percent of the world's recorded executions take place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. That point is not lost on Lin, who has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and has been a professor at the University of Washington since 2001.
In 1987, as a graduate student, he was chosen for a British scholarship that brought him to Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London. That's where he was in 1989 when the violence at Tiananmen Square broke out. Lin watched it on television and what he saw changed his thinking about the purpose of art.
"The massacre made me believe that there is a role in society for art, and art can be used to prevent those kinds of events from happening in the future," Lin says. Even after that revelation, though, it took time to find the right voice for his work. For a while, he continued to paint in an abstract style, but found that nobody understood what he was trying to get across. He struggled to find a visual language in which the form and subject were in agreement.
"The subject is the public and public policy, so the language had to be readable by the public," he explained.
Each of the five "Execution" paintings depicts a crowd of up to 150 figures painted in a social-realist style that veers into a disparate mix of elements we associate with post modernism. Lin alludes to Western art motifs, such as the Crucifixion and Last Supper, while including contemporary details like a boy wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears or a little girl clutching a Pepsi.
The exhibit also includes a group of small, intricate studies in graphite or watercolor that demonstrate Lin's meticulous technique.
For those willing to consider the work closely, there are layers of meaning to discover. The paintings each have references to Baroque or early Renaissance art, yet some allusions will remain obscure to Western viewers. For example, the title of the series, "Five Capital Executions," echoes for Chinese audiences with the traditional "Five punishments" (including branding, cutting off limbs, castration, drawing and quartering, and decapitation) that have existed in some form since the second century B.C. Lin acknowledges the cultural stumbling blocks, but hopes the work will speak clearly enough about the human psyche for anyone to understand.
"I feel strongly about capital punishment," he says. "It's government sanction of killing, a vicious cycle that doesn't end."
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org
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