Spice resembles a shop that specializes in the sale of obscure packages of herbs. The installation reflects on the histories and peculiarities relating to fictions of authenticity in racial representation specific to the area surrounding the gallery space in the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Reaching back to theatrical tourism of staged opium dens in Chinatown in the 19th and early 20th century, Spice looks at how histories of colonialism correlate with prevailing assumptions of purity and intoxication. The exhibition questions how difference is created, consumed, and capitalized upon, inviting viewers to think through the structural inequalities embedded in such beliefs.
Lin juxtaposes nonlinear and seemingly disconnected narratives, such as the synthetic cannabinoids—so-called K2 or Spice—, the Opium Wars, and 19th-century Asian contract laborers brought to the U.S., and the Caribbean known as “coolies.” In an effort to denaturalize language and materials and foster porosity between bodies, temporalities, and concepts, the artist stages and narrates various processes of contamination.
The sparse installation in Spice is centered around a pegboard display of hanging colored pouches that contain plants and convey both fictionalized and factual information about histories of drugs, migration, and disease. The packages mirror those of synthetic cannabinoids, which were legally available in stores until their use became criminalized in the mid-2000s, when President Obama passed the Synthetic Drug Prevention Act. Lin draws inspiration from the original packaging of K2 and Spice, which used cartoonish and flashy graphics to solicit juvenile consumers. However, in lieu of an ingredients list, on the back of Lin’s pouches is a fragmented science fiction text, written by the artist, about a viral epidemic resembling addiction, narrated from the point of view of the virus. Both the imagery and the story’s content point to the Orientalized histories of certain substances and diseases, as well as these histories’ manifestations in the present. Similar to the language surrounding the opium trade of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the opioid crisis of today, these synthetic drugs—many of them given names like “Ninja” and “Bombay Blue”—are often construed as an Asiatic threat to vulnerable, predominantly white Americans.
Cast in a dim reddish light, the back gallery space is transformed into a storage room, where, amongst stacks of boxes and cleaning supplies, is a table supporting a glass distillation system. In a flask, a murky brown liquid comprising tobacco, sugar, poppies, and hemp quietly boils into a clear distillate that drips slowly into a plastic bucket below. The mixture’s materials invoke latent colonial histories while the scientific hardware used triggers associations with “cheap basement labs . . . in China or Russia.” This act of endless distillation recirculates memories, forgotten histories, and fictive representations.