Featured in
Issue 205

From Ward to Wall

At Hive, Beijing, Yu Linhan’s abstract representations of medical equipment are unsettling and beautiful

BY Nooshfar Afnan in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 31 MAY 19

Many of us would consider medical devices and instruments unconventional subjects for a painting. For Yu Linhan, however, they are as worthy of artistic observation and study as any still life or landscape. 

Yu’s preoccupation with medicine stems from two extensive hospital stays in his youth, which left a deep impression. For his second solo show at Hive Center for Contemporary Art, medical implements that have touched the artist’s body, such as a pulmonary function mouthpiece or a disposable bacterial filter, are depicted with detached objectivity. In a reversal of roles, the observed becomes the observer.

Yu Linhan, Inevitability, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 2.3 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Hive Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing

Images of medical objects, such as nose clamps, and test results are enlarged beyond recognition in a series of graphical works, In Vivo (2017), which comprises 50 risograph prints in a limited colour palette. Risograph printing is a mechanical process known for its somewhat unpredictable results, a quality the artist likes to see in his works. Abstracted shapes and forms found in this series provide the visual vocabulary underpinning the entire show. Yu recently graduated from a Meisterschüler degree at the Hochschule für Künste in Bremen, yet he ascribes his working method to his earlier training at China’s Central Academy of Art, where students are encouraged to start from an object and move towards greater degrees of abstraction. One risograph print depicts a disposable bacteria filter that has been blown up to resemble a spinning top. Next to it, the same image has been manipulated and abstracted to such a degree that it appears in the shape of a cross. Distanced from its original function, the medical instrument is merely an apparition – a reference to the show’s title, ‘Illusion of Doubles’. For Yu, this abstraction is symbolic of the estrangement people feel from the workings of contemporary medicine and, more specifically, from the medical implements that at times enter our bodies: foreign objects intruding into our most intimate selves. 

Two series of wallpaper works are pasted onto opposite sides of a freestanding wall in the centre of the gallery, extending beyond the edges of each surface to the adjacent side in an L-formation. Both also titled In Vivo (2019), one series comprises a set of 35 unique screen prints executed on cream coloured paper, while a second consists of four long vertical pieces printed on white wallpaper. Familiar shapes and forms such as crosses and circles are encountered, this time in deep shades of purple. Yu’s choice of colour is inspired by the purple iodine disinfectants commonly found in China, which the artist recalls being applied to his scraped knees as a child. Whether the work is installed by himself or with assistants, gaps and overlaps often appear in the wallpaper pieces; such ‘accidents’ are part and parcel of the work.

Yu Linhan, Gentian Violet 2, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 2.1 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Hive Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing

Yu’s process involves both chance and control. In the third major series in the show, a number of large-format paintings combine painting and screen printing, the latter being harder to regulate. Yu reprises his abstract visual vocabulary in striking colour: strong purple shapes are contrasted with yellow streaks in works such as Gentian Violet 3 (2019). Again, the presence of an unintended element is celebrated here rather than avoided: a crease in the canvas is a reminder that it was hand-carried on public transport and had to be folded. (In art, as in life, nothing is ever perfect.)

Main image: Yu Linhan, Gentian Violet 3, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 2.1 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Hive Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing 

Nooshfar Afnan is an art writer and critic based in Beijing, China.