Walking into the studio of Helen Lin ‘18 in the visual arts department is like falling back into childhood. The first thing you notice is the kaleidoscope of images pasted on the wall by Lin's desk, her self-proclaimed mood board. Many of the images consist of magic girl anime, Japanese-style purikura photos, stuffed teddy bears, butterflies, video-games, lips, and an old couple drenched in red light.
On a white metal shelf lie a stuffed chicken, a lower crown, a cotton branch, fluffy ribbons, and dangling beaded necklaces. A golden maneki-neko (the lucky waving-arm cat in Asian restaurants) waves her arm silently.
Lin is hunched over her sewing machine, black hair tied up as she pours over her creation. When asked what she’s working on, she swivels around and holds out a mysterious mass of green fabric bunched together like tiny cones.
“I don’t know yet! Maybe…” she plopped it on her head, alight with whimsy, “a hat!”
Lin, a senior majoring in visual arts, has launched Pink Label, a year-long project to illustrate, produce, and distribute a weekly zine every Thursday on the 100 floor of Frist Campus Center. A zine can take many forms, but is traditionally a smaller, self-published version of a magazine. Lin’s Pink Label and her documentation of the different on and off-line interactions that her zine inspires among viewers will ultimately form her senior thesis. The name Pink Label is functional and derived from her color-coding system. (Her partnership with UMatter, which has included a about midterms stress, is orange; her work with the fashion magazine “Stripe” is purple; and her zine itself is pink, hence, Pink Label.)
Each issue, typically 12 pages long, plumbs the depths of everyday objects to reveal their fraught emotional meanings. The first page of each issue declares in all-caps: “Unexpectedly relatable or simply emotionally distraught, Pink Label by HelenLinArt taps into the essence of who you are and supports it with content that you didn’t know you needed.”
The claim may seem ambitious for a zine the size of your hand, but the power of Lin’s art lies in the ways she taps into the imaginative and affective power of objects (clothes, pets, diaries, mix tapes) to evoke the minute tragedies, obsessions, joys, and ambiguities of life.
Lin has a long and sentimental relationship with objects. Initially entering college as a computer science major due to family pressure, Lin realized she wanted to dedicate her life to creating material art after discovering a PVC pipe in a Home Depot her sophomore year. She was enamored by its form — smallish and shaped like an elbow — and decided to buy it.
“I was taking it everywhere I went. I was like, ‘Wow! What could this be? It could be so many things,’” she said. “I was so excited that I didn’t want to spend any more time in COS office hours. So I just dropped the class the day after I bought it. Yeah, this was going to be my life.” She still keeps the PVC pipe in her studio, a concrete reminder and promise to herself of her commitment to visual arts.
Much of her art is nostalgic and evocative of childhood. Her fourth zine, entitled “Which Baby Animal Are You?” provides a listicle of cartoon-like animals with distinct personality traits for the reader to identify with.
While each issue is replaced on a weekly basis, the details tend to stick in your mind like a bur. In her first zine on pet tragedies, she writes, “When cacti depart, they deflate.” The illustrations are exquisitely detailed and pulsate with zany energy; lines drip, shapes melt.
Chris Zhang ’18, a passer-by who has picked up Lin's zines, said that he particularly liked her second issue featuring the diary entries of a Korean-American daughter’s experience returning to Seoul with her mother after years away and realizing that her mother was not at home there.
“It was resonant, not in the literal sense,” said Zhang. “But there were definitely some times when I thought my mom knew all about something, but actually we were both lost.”
Lin conceived the zine project this past summer after touring Tokyo, Taipei, and Seoul through a University grant. The travel allowed her to witness firsthand the East Asian culture and art so formative to her imaginative appetite as a child. She returned to the basement of her apartment this summer and immediately began crafting what would eventually become Pink Label.
“I started drawing [the zines] when I came back to New York. I cleared out the basement. My grandma was always watching TV in the background, and I was sitting beside her drawing,” Lin said, reflecting that the summer felt like regressing back into childhood. “My grandma was there watching those Chinese mainland dramas just like old times, and I was doodling, just like old times.”
Lin’s art project is deeply rooted in her background as the daughter of working-class Chinese immigrants who lacked access to formal art growing up. The zine was conceived as a commitment to make art that is accessible for everyone.
“I don’t want to always make art for people who are used to consuming art,” she said. “When I make these [zines], it is for people, so it wouldn’t reach its final state unless it is in front of people.”
Lin's commitment to accessibility and interest in pop art is indebted to her childhood of scarcity.
“I didn’t have money to go to very fancy painting lessons or anything like that, so I was just drawing in front of my TV,” Lin said.
Her parents worked long days at textile factories when they first immigrated to New York. When her dad’s factory in Brooklyn shut down, he had to commute from Brooklyn to Long Island. Her dad has alternated between various low-wage jobs, from a machine operator to a street vendor to a lab technician, his current position.
“They were really busy trying to stay afloat and keep food on the table, so that’s why I was raised by TV,” Lin said, citing her cultural influences at that time as Nintendo, Animal Crossing, anime, and more.
Lacking access to expensive supplies, Lin began creating gallery books out of the everyday paraphernalia around her. Her first gallery books were rudimentary composition notebooks on which she pasted images torn from newspapers or printed from the web.
“It’s a lot about taking what is already mass-produced and lying around and trying to create something out of it,” she said. For example, many of Lin's images depict animals, natural landscapes and foreign cities. For a precocious girl living in a low-income ethnic enclave, art was a way to travel and assemble a richly imaginative reality at the margins of everyday life.
Partly due to her background, Lin is particularly attuned to the economic machinations undergirding artistic production.
“People don’t realize that everything is for sale. It is a business,” she said. “Succeeding in the fine arts world is all about who you know, and how well you can talk about your work to get it in front of people.”
She mockingly remarked on the “romanticized ideal of the artist locking himself away in the studio, just trying to find the purest form of thought.” Lin does not like the word “purity” — she spits it out hastily, ridding herself of the taste.
The stereotype of the “pure artist” not only misrepresents the actual reality of how art is made (artists are constantly influencing and being influenced by others), but obscures the systems of privilege that enable artistic success.
“[This artist] wouldn’t be able to make it on his own without the support of art agents, museums, and dealerships,” she said. To procure support, artists are always hustlers, selling their wares, which Lin gestures to by making her artwork objects that passersby may view and take themselves.
Lin, whose affection for objects borders on fetish, is particularly interested in the act of transaction. “What does it mean to identify so greatly and establish emotional connections with products that you buy in this business or shop context?” she said. By offering her zines to passersby for a suggested 50 cent donation, she is engaging in the selling of a product, but one that runs on the honor code of the consumer. In doing so, she hopes to move away from mere economic transaction to something different, something more related to freedom and curiosity. In articulating this, Lin stumbled around, grasping at words to articulate her vision of an “authentic transaction.” She offered the term “social exchange” tentatively.
The responses to Lin’s public art project have run the gamut. She’s received many compliments and questions from curious and impressed people.
“At first when I first started making work, it was all for myself, about expressing myself,” she said. “But then as you grow out of it, you realize how powerful it can be to make work for other people.”
The public nature of her personal project has engendered its own disappointments and anxieties. Most anxiety-inducing in the process for Lin is the prospect that her public art, so carefully conceived, won’t matter due to lack of understanding or care from the public. She wonders whether the ideas motivating the project are clearly communicated in her art.
“The doubts are still there,” she explained. “It’s just a matter of becoming more comfortable with them. You learn to deal with the parts that can never be fully known at the given moment.”
Many people have walked obliviously by her zine installation or briefly paused, curious, before hurrying away. Her lucky cat was stolen from her zine installation in Frist Campus Center the same weekend she placed it there. She hasn’t yet decided how to remedy the situation — buy another cat only to have it stolen again, or track it down? She is leaning toward tracking it down. Documenting the hunt for her cat, if pursued, would provide additional material for her thesis, given Lin’s concern for the process.
Yet the aspects of Lin's project that make it troublesome and unpredictable are the flip-sides to what makes it remarkable. While a viewer may not grasp the meaning of her art upon first encounter, they can still take it home with them.
“There’s a certain care that goes into each piece, and I do want someone to be able to own that care,” Lin said. “But it’s up to the person who picks it up to consider it precious or not; that’s not something that I can control.”