Candice Lin: System for a Stain, 2016, wood, glass jars, cochineal, copper still, hot plate, and mixed mediums; at Gasworks.

A DIY apparatus composed of pumps, glass jars, porcelain filters, plastic tubes, a copper still, and sundry other items was installed in the first room of Candice Lin’s solo show at Gasworks. An intense, unpleasant smell filled the air. The installation—suggesting a mechanical digestive system—combined sugar, cochineal, and tea, all colonial commodities traded in early modern Europe, into a red fluid that gurgled in a rectangular basin, from which it was siphoned off through a series of tubes to the second gallery and deposited on marble-effect laminate flooring. The piece, System for a Stain (all works 2016), visualized the flow of bodies and materials in commercial trade—a flow that is historically connected to violence and imperialism, as the bloodlike stain on the floor seemed to suggest. A strong interest in the history of slavery and the cultural implications of colonialism has informed Lin’s practice for years: in her 2012 solo exhibition at Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles, for example, she showed figurines reproducing Yoruba carvings of Queen Victoria among a series of dildo-esque sculptures under bell jars. 

The title of the Gasworks exhibition—“A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour”—was a reference to the violent production mode of one of the most precious goods in sixteenth-century colonial trades: cochineal dye, which was exported from Mexico and Central America. Cochineal insects are the source of the dye: in order to get the brilliant red color, their bodies are pulverized. 

Violence permeates two works that were shown in the first gallery, each of them a micro-environment housed in a glass tank. In Warner for Survivalists: White Gold, the tank is inhabited by a group of cockroaches. It also contains a sugar replica of a cobalt-colored Chinese porcelain vase and some candied orange (again, products related to colonialism). The cockroaches must eat the sweets they are provided or eat one another (cockroaches can have cannibalistic tendencies). When I was there, some of them barely moved, looking exhausted. The Worm Husband (Our Father) is a terrarium hosting a silkworm colony. The captive worms slither on a turquoise ceramic sculpture, which spells out a few lines from the Lord’s Prayer in a language invented by George Psalmanazar, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who claimed to be a native of Formosa (today’s Taiwan) and presented his fabricated language as Formosan. 

This eccentric figure inspired another work on view: an illustrated leather-bound book displayed on a shelf next to a pair of gloves. Written by Lin in Psalmanazar’s language and designed to resemble a medieval bestiary, the volume, titled Physiliogus, tells the history of some colonial trade goods—including cochineal, silver, porcelain, and sugar—in a vivid narrative style (an English translation of the text was available at the gallery’s front desk).

Finally, the sound piece A Memory Blushing with Innocence played in the second room, over the red puddle on the floor. The visitor hears a soft female voice delivering a monologue on loop. The speaker is the daughter of a fictional plantation owner, and recounts childhood memories. Talking about the servants who used to look after her, she says: “When I was born I was the most precious being in the world. A thousand disembodied hands would appear at night . . . smoothing the sheets around me, tucking in the blankets. . . . The hands were so gentle, or at least they tried to be, though their palms were so rough.” In this exhibition, Lin perceptively portrayed colonialism from various angles, showing the complicated networks through which it operates and conveying both its effects on slaves and its seductive qualities for those in power.