Curatorial Thinking and Writing, offered by ICCI, is designed to develop students’ critical writing skills in the professional context of art curation and animate contemporary art discourse through the medium of writing. The course is taught by Professor Travis Jeppesen. This is the second interview in a series of artist interviews conducted by ICCI MFA students of Class 2021.
In Conversation with Lin Han: A "Black Dog" Called Depression
If the fairy tale world is real, it should be the way Lin Han painted it.
It might appear to contain ordinary themes and familiar content, yet it is painted in a unique way. This is Lin Han’s own language, which contains various emotions and thoughts.
Digital Painting, 2020
Lin Han, who graduated from Communication University of China in advertising and is now studying illustration at School of Art, University of Edinburgh. Changing majors was a challenge for her but the seeds of art were planted early and have never ceased to take root in all aspects of her life. Today, she is in a more professional atmosphere, she strives to enrich her artistic world, pouring colors on it and exploring more possibilities.
"Black Dog" is a new work currently being created by Lin Han, a picture book related to depression, which tells the story of a “patient” and a “doctor” who talk about its existence. From “My Shell”, which also explores self-emotions to the recent “Black Dog”, what changes has Lin Han made? In this interview, we talked about her new work and her recent creative practice via telephone.
Black Dog, painting, 2022
About Artistic Expression
Cherry: I just looked at your work carefully and I’m so happy that you are really able to study art now as I had hoped. But I can’t guess why you chose this topic. Is it related to your current life experience?
Lin Han: Yes. The pre-conception of this project originated from another keyword. I originally wanted to say that I was tired, that I felt tired of many things, of intimacy, of my beloved career, of myself. In the meantime, looking back after some time, I felt that state of easy loss of interest in all kinds of things, a long period of low pessimism, maybe a slight depression ......
Cherry: I would be a little curious as to how you came to be in this mental situation.
Lin Han: There was a time when I felt guilty that I wasn’t as purposeful and committed as I used to be. And that guilt and self-doubt was one of the driving forces that made me slide even lower at that time. It’s hard for me to fully explain why I developed such a psychological condition, it has many reasons, perhaps I can move to a philosophical point of view to describe it.
In the book “The Burnout Society”, Han Byung-Chul says that the current society is a merit society, which is full of affirmative “cans” in its discourse and has a de-regulated character compared to the negative “should” in the regulation society, and people need to act spontaneously to fulfill themselves. People who are exhausted in this unrestrained pursuit of increased effectiveness are prone to burnout. At the same time, because society is highly fragmented and individualized, with the ego occupying the entire horizon, this burnout is isolated and detached. So this kind of society abounds with misanthropes and depressed people.
What I experienced in high school can be compared to the “discipline era” of life, when the hardships were imposed from outside and were explicit. The pain I am experiencing now is that the spontaneous achievement of myself never seems to reach the end, and the more I try to actively resist the fatigue as I did then, the more I feel guilty and deprived. Why am I no longer able to? It led to self-condemnation and self-attack. It feels like I am on the verge of being worn out by myself.
Cherry: Then I might have to ask another somewhat poignant question. Some people call depression an internet flow signal for their works, some even call it an artist’s disease. How do you understand and see this?
Lin Han: Regarding the view of internet flow, first, I feel it from my own experience, not for the sake of attracting eyeballs to do something. Second, the gathering of internet flow is not all hype, partly because it also shows the public nature of this topic. In recent years, public attention to mental health issues such as depression has increased, which is a good thing. Although the theme of my work does not aim to popularize knowledge about depression, it is my honor as an artist if it can play a positive role in promoting awareness of depression. Because if depression remains like a secret that no one reveals, it prevents this community from asserting its rights.
What I want to express most when I created this work is that everyone may experience depression in different situations. I hope people do not use their own standards to measure the suffering of others. I portrayed different characters in the work – poor people, rich people, female scholars, housewives, children, and I actually think it can go on and on. I also use a somewhat ironic approach to portray a character who is extremely impolite and lacks empathy to point out the suffering of others, in order to highlight the discomfort of this “judgment”. This kind of judgment is not only between oneself and others, but even in oneself to oneself. For example, the college entrance examination you mentioned just now, I think it was difficult for myself five years ago to understand my current psychological pain.
Cherry: I can totally agree with your answer about the internet flow and the artist’s disease. Going back to your character in the picture book, it seems that the “no-show guy” is always refuting people’s words for various reasons, but in the conversation between him and the child, he finally says that he agrees with the child’s opinion. Does it mean something?
Lin Han: Yes. This episode is about the fact that adults often speculate and disdain children’s emotions, thinking that children can be bothered by anything, but it is not true. Referring to the booklet’s medical history design will be understood more clearly, when the patient goes to the doctor, describing his body pain, but the doctor will give the feedback that, I look at the test results, you should not have so much pain, or you seem to have more pain. Depression is like psychological pain. So who defines and measures our pain? Here we want to express the subjectivity of psychological feelings.
Cherry: That’s what you mean by “no common language”, right? We always put ourselves in that doctor’s shoes when we look at others, but in reality we can only experience our own pain. So let’s talk about “My Shell”, which you created in 2020. It is also a work inspired by your own emotional state, and the emotions in the two series are what you are more confused and want to get rid of during the creation process. Can you describe the similarities and differences between these two processes of internalizing personal emotions into artistic presentation?
Lin Han: I think the main difference is that in “My Shell”, the main character of the story is myself, while “Black Dog” is a series of group portraits, which is equivalent to introducing more public perspectives, such as women, class, and children. The similarity is that I think whether it is “Escape from Freedom” or “Depression”, I am discussing the relationship between the self and the other, which is probably one of the strings in my mind that is easily tugged: how do we see and understand ourselves and others.
About Artistic Form
Cherry: Let’s talk about the painting and design of this project. Visually how did you choose your creative materials and communication medium? What aspects did you consider when making it?
Lin Han: The material used is actually marker, but the texture on the back is used. I like its shadow and dappled effect, and the manu is scanned into the computer for processing. My characters are even set in a different time and space, and this kind of abstract and simple picture can be compatible with different characters. The square format, with one page of illustration and one page of text, is printed as a small zine, which is also suitable for Instagram posting. And I used the element of the black dog when doing it, it is a conventionally figurative image of depression. The main aspect I considered was how this black dog appears in the environment and how it interacts with the main characters, and I wanted to include storytelling here.
Cherry: The texture of the “Black Dog” is more like the frontage of the marker material, why did you use such a different way to represent the “Black Dog”?
Lin Han: The text of the story is “patient” and “doctor” talking about its existence, it is the focal point of the picture, and I wanted to make it clearer in its dynamics. In the perception of the “patient”, perhaps the other things are blurred, and only the “Black Dog” represents the most clear and concrete depression. I don’t know if I succeeded in conveying this point.
Cherry: The brushwork in “My Shell” feels cautious and discreet, while “Black Dog” is bold and unrestrained. Why is there such a shift?
Lin Han: Actually, I wanted to paint in a different way, and it is my personal experimentation as a novice illustrator who is still exploring the new style. When the initial idea for a piece of artwork comes up, there are actually many different ways to present it, and some of them may be better than others. Another factor is that “My Shell” is drawn electronically, so when you look at the screen, you will unconsciously zoom in on the pixels to pick out the details. But “Black Dog” is hand-drawn, especially under the premise of my limited skills, there are more uncontrollable and unmodifiable situations, so it is relatively less “controlling” and seems to be more tolerant of some “unexpected beauty”.
About Artistic Life
Cherry: I’m reminded of what the artist Zhao Donglai once said: “Since people’s minds cannot find peace in the ever-changing external phenomena, they can only find solace in the form of art.” I am curious, through creating “Black Dog”, have you been able to effectively release your emotions? Is your state of mind more peaceful or more active?
Lin Han: I think the solace of creation is mainly that, whether it is good or bad, I do have a sense of reality and stability. My current feeling about the relationship between creation and emotional release is that creation is not quite a vehicle for emotional release, and it doesn’t seem like it should be. In the process of creation, one has to repeatedly examine the object, organize it, and re-understand it. But emotions often pass quickly, and they may appear as a creative opportunity at the beginning, but when they become a work, it is not simply a matter of releasing them, but of refining them into something more stable. To use an analogy, creating a work may be more like making a specimen of it. In terms of state of mind, the process of refinement has become more complicated, although I am not at peace yet.