Tian Lin

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Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

Tian Lin, a Han settler and former monk, is one of the most influential Xinjiang-based photographers. His work centers around his Buddhist practice, Xinjiang identity and Uyghur migrants in the city of Ürümchi. He’s quite unusual in the Xinjiang scene because of the way he combines his aesthetic practice with an interethnic politics. Over the past 14 years he has been documenting the lives of Uyghur migrants in the city. Due to his deeply-situated practice in the Uyghur community he has built strong ties with Uyghur families and has assisted many as they adjusted to harsh policing and control following the violence of July 5, 2009.

In Tian Lin’s images we see the way Uyghur bodies interacted with homes that they had cobbled together by hand. We see people sorting through rubble; children playing with feral cats and salvaged toys. The images show us people who are connected to the landscape around them; they show us how people eke out a living by recycling scrap metal and survive off the grid. They show us the intimacies and triumphs of precarious life. But most often we see a lack of affect. We see the faces of young men who stare directly into the camera with blank expressions – refusing to let us read their emotions.

Tian Lin’s Uyghur migrant images are images of detachment from the norms of contemporary Chinese social life; they are images of staying alive by holding onto life in a community. They are images of staying committed to life on the margins of a city. His images collapse public spaces of ad-hoc paths and private spaces of homes that have been assembled out of earth and found objects into a lifeworld. They help us think about this community of wanderers as a complex whole made up of particular stories and occupations. They make us think of the stories of kids whose lives are lived on the streets. We imagine stories of strong women chopping vegetables on the floor while stoking a fire with scrap wood, just so, while listening to tinny music on Uyghur call-in radio show. Tian Lin’s images help us think about the feelings of the place; the ways that caring for each other helps people survive.

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Tian Lin is attempting to make visible what has been excluded from normal through his practice of witnessing as a wandering Buddhist. He is attempting to pull himself into a particular Uyghur orbit and along the way document his experience and activate fellow Han artists to see their own commonalities with Uyghur migrants. He is trying to see what life is made of and how it could be re-imagined.