About LIN Hung-Hsin's Artworks


“A Man with Cracks” in Cybernetic Machine – A Reading on Lin Hung-Hsin’s Theatricality

Written by CHEN Kuang-Yi
Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the National Taiwan University of Arts

“Man” is a reoccurring theme in almost all of Lin Hung-Hsin’s artworks. From The Flâneur Series in 2011 to A Man with Cracks Series in 2016, he has created a distinct figure: skinhead, face as white as an actor with pantomime makeup or a noh mask, black skin, palms – especially the tips – as red as blood. The man in his painting is such a bizarre person, either staying alone or seen in a group, sitting or standing, wandering or walking around, busying himself in exercise with limbs dancing around or quietly indulged in his thoughts. The plural “they” are found in various scenarios, such as television studio, painting studio, urban jungle, printed circular board, or even in front of the perfectly-executed flat planes of colors. However, no matter where they are, each singular “man” is always isolated and disconnected from each other. To confuse us further, their often closed eyes somehow throttle any possible eye contact between each other, or even between the man and the viewers. In some exceptions, eyes are open but they are projecting captivating gaze in a disturbing way. When viewers look into these mysterious figures, the question is raised: what do they signify? Are they symbolizing everyone of us in real life? How should we define them?

Unlike other paintings, Lin’s painting technique reveals an absence of warmth: the figure’s face, with a subtle sense of aloofness, and hands are depicted in photographic realism, but the rest of the image is bristling with perfect straight lines, which constitute sharp borders and highly compressed (even made abstract) spaces. Strokes are almost invisible, while a mechanic process is adopted to paint or print the planes of colors. The figure in black and white accentuates the splendid background, with the help of eye-catching digital colors and artificial light. In its precise and clean crystallization, there is no room for any unexpected mistake caused by the painter’s emotions or the human command of the brush. Radiating a strong attraction, such a quality of his painting allows me to move beyond the general idea of painting and to discuss it from the perspective of “theatricality,” a term widely used in theatre studies.

The concept of “theatricality” first appeared following the discussion of “modernité,” but it was not until the late 1960s that it finally became an established theory thanks to the contribution of Michael Fried (1939- ) and many other art critics. Michael Fried, in his masterpiece Art and Objecthood (1967), argues that the “specific object” in Minimal Art suspends the Modernist pursuit of media attributes and self-reference. He further points out that the suspension is a result of “a sensibility already theatrical, already (to say the worst) corrupted or perverted by theatre,” but theatricality, in spite of its threat in modern painting, has aroused the interest of artists from different disciplines, especially in plastic arts, who are eager to explore the interdisciplinary interaction among different art forms as well as the viewers’ positions to the artworks.1 Similar discussions were followed by a multitude of non-traditional art forms emerging in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, including chance, happening, performance, site-specific production and installation, which were gradually developed into performances or theatrical works taking place in art museums. The exhibition The World as a Stage (2007-2008) at Tate, London is one of the examples. However, before we go into the discussion of such a development, we should never ignore the fact that the connection between theatre and painting had already been established before the birth of Modern Art. It is more than appropriate to begin our discussion with painting when we try to define the theatricality in plastic arts.

In classical painting, the space is always considered a stage for a story (historia) to be seen in certain manner. Spectators’ gaze is usually directed by its perspective, and thus creates “a distinct, virtual space belonging to the other, from which fiction can emerge.”2 Like theatre, we can conclude that classical painting is a creation for the gaze. It will fail to define itself if without the presence of spectators. Nevertheless, inspired by Denis Diderot’s (1713-1784) report on the salons, Michael Fried argues that the paintings after the Mid-Eighteenth Century emphasize their “anti-theatricality,” while the spectators’ gaze and presence matter the least. Take Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s (1725-1805) works for instance; figures in the paintings are fully absorbed in the sentiments evoked by certain event as if they had no spectator in front of the paintings. The contradiction goes on when Édouard Manet (1832-1883) abandons such an anti-theatricality and instead highlights the spectators’ gaze which has once been ruled out to bring back the idea of theatricality, the presence of spectatorship. The practice of Minimal Art, which he criticizes the most, seems follow the same path. In a word, the question about theatricality depends on whether painting, the viewed, has its independent existence from the relation to its spectators, the viewers.

As a matter of fact, theatricality features two totally opposite aspects from the perspective of contemporary art: on the one hand, it emphasizes the existence of a frame (cadre) to separate the work, the mettre en scène of certain time-and-space, and the spectators, whose observation comes from the outside of the stage; on the other hand, it contradictorily neutralizes the frame, erasing the boundary between the work/performers and the spectators and including the latter as a part of the former by theatricalizing the work to a certain degree. However, even the two aspects are conflicting, they are also harmonized as a unity like the old teaching “life is theatre, and theatre is life” says, for that the most fundamental and identifiable nature of theatre is nothing but the dichotomy between illusion and reality. We have learned from the theatre history that the term “theatrical” is both considered positive and negative. It is negative because of its opposition to our real life as an intangible illusion, while, ironically, it is also the representation of the reality. It is almost quite impossible to distinguish the theatrical space from the space of reality: “this space was created by the conscious act of the performer… (in some cases), the spectator's gaze created a spatial cleft from which illusion emerged…from among events, behaviors, physical bodies, objects and space without regard for the fictional or real nature of the vehicle's origin.” 3

Although the aforementioned self-indulgent Eighteenth-Century painting – which Michael Fried considers a gesture to reject spectatorship, the event for one to be absorbed in, according to Diderot, evokes sentiments sufficient to unify the whole painting for that the sentiments not merely belong to the figures in the paintings but also viewers. Rather than drawing a line between the painting and viewers, it attempts to connect the two through the said sentiments. Such a dialectical argument on the gaze between the viewer and the viewed reveals the nature of theatricality in the genre of visual arts. To begin with, it adopts the existing argument on visual arts such as mimesis and présentation. Meanwhile, it also challenges the idea of presentation and the dichotomic boundaries it creates, such as the one between the space in an artwork and the space in reality, the viewed and the viewer, the place where the event takes place and the place where the spectators are, etc. Ultimately, what makes it interesting is to figure out whether the event takes place at the side of the viewers or the side of the viewed, whether an artwork should be considered where ends the illusion and begins the reality or the other way around.

When we look into Lin Hung-Hsin’s painting, the characterization (including gestures, expressions, and positions), props, lighting, colors, and setting all together come to allure the spectators’ gaze and to frame a space where illusion is allowed to emerge. However, the figures with their eyes closed create a self-indulgence which rejects spectators’ eye contact as how Michael Fried defines the “anti-theatricality.” Between theatricality and anti-theatricality, spectators’ gaze undoubtedly produces a subtle reverse sense of cleft. Another question to be asked is about Lin’s intention in such a scene which lures but also rejects the gaze. What is the event which the figures immerse themselves in? Where is the boundary between illusion and reality in his painting?

When moving beyond the discussion on form, one of the most fundamental definition of theatricality was established by Roland Barthes (1915-1980) in 1981:

What is theatre? A kind of cybernetic machine (a kind of machine that sends message, to communicate). When it is not working, this machine is hidden behind a curtain. But as soon as it is revealed, it begins emitting a certain number of messages. These messages have this peculiarity, that they are simultaneous and yet of different rhythm; at a certain point in the performance, you receive at the same time six or seven items of information (proceeding from the set, the costumes, the lighting, the placing of the actors, their gestures, their speech), but some of these remain (the set, for example) while others change (speech, gestures); what we have is real informational polyphony, which is what theatricality is: a density of signs. 4

Based on Barthes’ definition, Bernard Dort (1929-1994) further argues that theatricality is not merely “a density of signs” but “the displacement/movement of the signs, the impossible conjunction, their confrontation under the gaze of the spectators of the emancipated representation.” 5

Therefore, when we try to approach the figures and scenes Lin creates as well as the significance of his painting, we have to realize that it is a cybernetic machine sending a great amount of intercompeting messages to each corresponding recipient. We should also note that A Man with Cracks Series features a figure in all of the works – which are twenty paintings in sizes ranging from no. 18 to no. 200, and one sculpture –, changing the immediacy of modern painting with its deafeningly noisy polyphony, while the emphasis on durée, repetition, returning, and infinity provides an installation-like experience of time-and-space. After all, the so-called theatricality in contemporary art more depends on the unexpected encounter between the emancipated representation and the emancipated viewers which take place within a particular time-and-space. The purpose of the encounter is to instigate viewers’ experience, both the artistic and social ones, to scaffold the theory on which Guy Debord (1931-1994) defines his Société du spectacle, and to footnote Jean Baudrillard’s (1929-2007) simulacre. The man with cracks closes his eyes like a daydreamer. The face chiseled with a realistic touch creates a virtual sense of three-dimensionality, which is nevertheless neutralized by the flatness of its body and the background of the image. Throughout the whole series, their delicate faces are calling our attention, but they are again and again destroyed by the weird and distorted shapes enveloping the heads as if they were copies of Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992) effaced portraits. Their faces look familiar, like the boy next door, but reminding us of characters from science-fictions, comic books, animations, or movies who empty out the reality and provides viewers with fiction only. However, we ironically feel the familiarity of it, since today’s world is marked by a sense of fiction as realistic as reality.

For a deeper analysis of such a “man with cracks,” it is perfectly right to understand it as a border obscured. Following the studies of cybernetics, Lin’s man with cracks is a reminiscence of “cyborg,” a term coined by two scientists in 1960 from cybernetics and organism. Its original definition is a mechanized organism when human body develops new function beyond the physical limitation with the help of machines. However, Donna J. Haraway (1944- ) intends to enrich the term with a more profound cultural significance by claiming that “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.” When the border between man and machine or between the artificial and the nature is made confusing and blurry, it will soon give birth to a mixed subject rather than a unified one. While Haraway celebrates a possible new identity politics and new Utopia created by such a mixed subject, Lin on the other hand believes that the disappearing border between man and machine should take the blame for man losing their subjectivity. More than once, he has criticized that electronic surveillance, high-tech programs or products such as smartphones or pads, and the information flow in the cyberworld which carries thousands of messages between senders and recipients all together replace the natural physical perceptions and communications once experienced by human beings. They not merely confuse our judgment, interpretation, and observation on reality, but destroy the established social system and interpersonal relations. Consequently, humans suffer from an excessive dependence on machines until they fail to spot the boundary. In fact, the cyberman, a combination of human and machine, has already become a reoccurring theme in science fiction movies. In reality, the medical and technological development reaches a stage that they attempt to implant a mechanical device into a human body to create a living cyberman. Meanwhile, the invention of artificial intelligence stimulates constant panic about the threat of machine dominating human beings when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence and the latter can no longer harness the former. Lin’s “Man with Cracks” is a response to the apocalyptic atmosphere, featuring a sense of loss for the fear of an unknown future when the unified human subjectivity is ultimately destroyed and natural quality is disappearing. It probably explains the presence of the eye-catching pink skull, connecting Lin’s image with the tradition of Vanitas established by artists such as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Damien Hirst (1965- ) as well as helplessness of humanity under the exponential growth of technology.

To make it more interesting, Lin does not disperse the mystery of the virtual world but returns to the reality operated by painters’ command of brushes. Here is his description of the making of A Man with Cracks Series:

When it comes to figurative painting, I neither go for the mechanical reproduction of photos, presentation of real objects, nor simplify the image directly received on my retinas. Instead, by adopting reproduced films and randomly selected digital files, I reconstruct and recompose the materials into a collage which is given a new significance and narrative. In this particular work, I depend much on visual effects, inserting them in painting to vary and collapse the boundary between image and painting. The shades of colors are either removed or altered, while the background is intentionally deconstructed or simplified to fantasize the noise of the city. Figures are cloned or modified, with their faces erased or distorted in accordance with the twisted, reinterpreted emotions. The unrealistic, purposely changed depths coexist in the image, misleading viewers’ retinas to create a believable presence of falseness through its realistic visualization.

In other words, during the artmaking process, the painter intends to surrender his senses of perceptions to machine, allowing it to paint as much as possible and thus creating a fictional scene to serve viewers’ perception. The theatricality in fact is established with the help of the machine. From the artist’s perspective, such an artmaking process and the mechanical vocabulary adopted by the work perfectly represent the symbiotic state to unify humans and machines. Meanwhile, he personally performs/reenacts the reality criticized by the artist himself. It is also the point in his works where ends the visuality and begins the reality as well as the other way around. Therefore, viewers are dragged into a Debordian spectacle experiences. With or without their presence, viewers have to confront the artist’s tools to criticize and the criticized object. Like the mutually reflected mirror images, they are allowed to come up with polarized reactions and judgments.

To conclude, Lin makes his painting a place to perform theatricality. However, unlike the trendy performance art commonly seen in museums that features viewers’ participation as performers through the displacement/movement of their bodies to shatter the fourth wall and to efface the boundary between art and life, he chooses a different path by framing the scene in the painting. His personal statement (as revealed in his artmaking) and the mirror-like composition technique which juxtaposes the criticizing tools and the criticized objects not only question the gaze in classical painting among the gaze’s interaction, hesitation, and rejection, but wander between theatricality and anti-theatricality as it again inherits the ancient discussion on imitation and representation. Viewers project personal and critical gaze onto the truthful painterly representation of society. The deployment of the spectacle thus separates art from life, although the two are actually identical. Such a manner somehow corresponds with contemporary theatre practice. If theatre after the 1950s was so desperate to kick actors off stage and turn audience actors, the theatre of today repositions audience right in front of the stage not for the sake of counter-revolution but to bring the aesthetic or politic gesture to the spotlight.

  1. Michael Fried, “Art et Objectité” (1967) in Contre la théâtralité. Du minimalisme à la photographie contemporaine, Paris, Gallimard, coll. NRF Essais, 2007, p. 136.
  2. Josette Féral, “La Théâtralité. Recherche sur la spécificité du langage théâtral”, Poétique, Septembre 1988, p. 348.
  3. Josette Féral, ibid., p. 349-350.
  4. Roland Barthes, “Littérature et signification”, Essais critiques, Seuil/Points, 1981 (1963), p. 258.
  5. Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs and Woman: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991.