Atelier Michael Lin

It’s all over now, Baby Blue

Annette Tietenberg

Michael Lin is at home everywhere and nowhere. In the last few years, a nomadic existence—now the red flag of world experience in the contemporary art scene—has become the only conceivable life for him. Born in Tokyo, he grew up in Taipei, was educated in Los Angeles, and now shuttles back and forth between Paris, Taipei, Shanghai, and all the other places where his art materializes temporarily. However, in contrast to the techno-nomads sitting at their desks, content with the degree of mobility granted them by cell phones and the Internet, Lin physically and mentally traverses territorial, linguistic, and cultural regions of the most diverse kinds. It is not the drive to be off, nor the being underway that writers have described as a journey to the self, nor adventurousness, nor the lure of the imaginary that impels him. Rather, it is frequenting the unfamiliar, or a shifting from one “furnished room to another,”1 that has become second nature to him. Is he a nomad, then, who pitches his tents, as Deleuze writes, in the shadow of the despot in opposition to imperialism and administration?2 Or is he an aimless wanderer who, to paraphrase Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, tries to convert the nomadic existence into a cultural practice by carrying its subversive potential to every part of the world, a world that contains no “where” that lies outside globalization?3 Or is he a herald of that nomadic thinking which, according to Sylvère Lotringer, rests on a synthesis of intuition, unpredictability, and multiplicity?4

In his earlier work Lin seemed to be a wanderer between worlds whose intent was to temporarily transform art spaces into paradisiacal gardens. He transformed the Taipei Fine Art Museum, P.S.1. in New York, and the Kunsthalle Wien project space—all neutral, largely undecorated environments—by covering them with stylized lotus flowers, cherry blossoms, and peonies in order to test our perceptions and make us reflect on art. Like the Cosmati, stonemasons who traveled from place to place in medieval Latium, Tuscany, and Umbria to furnish the floors, choir stalls, and piers of churches with mosaics, Michael Lin has committed himself to spreading patterns. And also like the Cosmati, he reaches back to found objects.

While the former sawed antique columns into fine slices in order to put together clearly structured yet bewildering patterns from the fragments of the old Roman empire, Lin salvages unfinished things from the quarries of history by drawing on the materials of his childhood. The patterns he employs, which were traditionally used in Taiwan to adorn things like pillowcases, bedspreads, and door curtains, have both meaning and function.

“The textiles from which I appropriate my patterns are used in Taiwan as duvet covers that are given as part of the dowry to the groom from the bride’s family . . . . They are mostly used as the cover of the wedding-night bed.”5 These textiles, therefore, are presents which are passed on from one generation to the next so that life’s flow is not interrupted. With their regularly recurring motifs of blossoms and tendrils—fruitful, opulent, and self-reproducing, just like nature—these patterns are said to have magical powers that unfold as they are used in the home. They are meant to reinforce the principles of abundance they embody, especially within the sanction of marriage. “Happiness, a long life, and many sons” is the name of one of the blue-patterned Chinese fabrics described in a book about such materials published in the nineteen-fifties.6 The décor is not mere aesthetic flippancy. It also signals wishes and values, is embedded in customs, testifies to constellations of power and sexuality, and portrays an economic principle derived from nature and captured in words like excess, expenditure, and waste.

Lin takes this economic principle, admired for centuries in rarified private circles, and displays its effects on the public stage in the designated spaces of art. Those who act like this need a social grouping similar to a family, even in the business of art. And that is why Lin—like the Cosmati, but also in a manner similar to the practice of Sol LeWitt, who separated concept from realization—works not on his own, but with the support of a range of teams.

What can be experienced in the exhibition space, at least, is the result of a collective act which revives in the present what someone else had invented in the past. Since Lin did not “invent” the collection of patterns he uses, but, like many twentieth-century artists, has found and selected them as ready-mades, he is passing on something that does not belong to him. Does this not constitute a paradox? Is it possible to make a gift out of something one does not own? The answer is yes, one can and one should. This is the state of generosity that Derrida longed for. Derrida illustrated his perspective on gifts by citing a letter sent by Madame de Maintenon, mistress of Louis XIV, to Madame Brinon that imparts the following: “The King takes all my time; I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to which I would like to give [it] all.”7

If we are to believe her, then Madame de Maintenon transfers everything to the king—all her time, the whole amount. And yet she is determined to reserve a remainder, which logically should no longer exist, to set up and furnish a foundation called Saint-Cyr, an educational establishment for the daughters of impoverished aristocrats. In doing this, she is giving something she does not actually have to give, and she is glad to give it, on her initiative and of her own volition. In this way, Madame de Maintenon defies the dominant economy and logic, which dictate that exchange is all that counts, a mutual giving and taking. She, however, promises a residual gift, “a remainder that is nothing but that there is since she gives it.”8

Giving something that is not one’s own, and letting others share something that should not even exist according to the prevailing logic: this is precisely what Lin seems to manage to achieve time and time again when he sets out to realize an exhibition. It is the artist’s prerogative not to distinguish between free time and work, between private and public. And so when Lin decides to give something, he gives all his time. He is on site for weeks; he immerses himself in foreign spaces and cultures; he concentrates his attention on the curators and collaborators involved in the installation in question; he selects motifs; he determines the conditions of scale and light. And he gives, like Madame de Maintenon, more than everything; he lets others share their knowledge and powers of imagination and participate in the process of reproducing the patterns of his childhood.

Lin’s divergence from the economy of distribution and the idea of exchange as being limited to the circulation of goods, products, and wares is not without precedents in art. However, the method of dissipating and expending that Georges Bataille once advocated so eloquently seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years as the prices for contemporary art have soared to dizzying heights. Instead, we see what Bataille describes in a chapter entitled “The Insufficiency of the Principle of Classical Utility” as the sad triumph of a different attitude, one which signals that “conscious humanity has remained a minor; humanity recognizes the right to acquire, to conserve, and to consume rationally, but it excludes in principle non-productive expenditure.”9

At the very least, Bataille the writer and Lin the artist seem to agree that “human activity is not entirely reducible to processes of production and conservation.”10 However, their thoughts and actions based on this insight are very different. Bataille advocates that we destabilize established authority by abandoning ourselves to the fascination of loss and by celebrating what we commonly avoid in the interests of utility and purpose. In addition, Bataille aligns himself with Marcel Mauss in seeking his salvation in “the archaic form of exchange . . . identified by Mauss under the name potlatch, borrowed from the Northwestern American Indians, who provided such a remarkable example of it.”11 Bataille regards this version of exchange, which excludes any haggling, as an alternative to the mercantile model of the accumulation of wealth in the Western version. Yet the potlatch is not free from mutually determined giving and taking, because “in general,” according to Bataille, “it is constituted by a considerable gift of riches, offered openly and with the goal of humiliating, defying, and obligating a rival. The exchange value of the gift results from the fact that the donee, in order to efface the humiliation and respond to the challenge, must satisfy the obligation (incurred by him at the time of acceptance) to respond later with a more valuable gift, in other words, to return with interest.”12

The gift Derrida speaks of comes far closer to what Lin might have in mind. Derrida presents a different model of economies, one without the notion of expenditure as something that must come back in a transformed mode as income, whether in the form of money, acknowledgement, or social prestige. As he understands it, a gift relates to economies yet has the potential of being “that which interrupts economy.”13 By not countenancing exchange, the gift breaks the cycle of circulation, thereby suspending economic reckoning. The act of giving leaves no room for speculation about reciprocation; in the best case, the idea of reciprocation does not even arise. Any payment, any manifestation of gratitude, or even the symbolic clearing of a debt would annul this act: “It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.”14

The gift, according to Derrida, is something utterly impossible. Yet it is conceivable; it could figure in the restricted “gap between the impossible and the unthinkable.”15 Lin sees just such a narrow gap in the exhibition space. So an artist like Lin, committed to work which is inherently critical of the institution in which it is shown, is keeping faith with his artistic practice by exhibiting there, because he is giving something that cannot be reciprocated since it defies the very notion of that institution. Lin feels a kinship with Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, and Franz West, and there is no doubt that his seas of flowers on walls, ceilings, or floors do transform a room’s dimensions. What materializes out of the decorative patterns, the assertive colors, and the functional elements (such as a skating rink, for instance) painfully disturbs the model character of the gallery space as a “free-floating white cell.” It interrupts the “spectacular striptease” of art, the way art has increasingly bared itself within the white cell “until its ultimate formalistic state was reached or a few quotations were left over for the outside world.”16

With Untitled Cigarette Break (1999), Lin had already demonstrated how much patterns and their immanent principle of expenditure run contrary to an “ultimate formalistic state” as an expression of a twentieth-century Protestant work ethic, one that left its mark on both the inner space of the human soul and the interiors in which people worked and lived. The use of patterns as an instinctual, feminine, and inferior stratagem devalued the modern, because it threatened to undermine cultural evolution and the industrial revolution’s productivity and achievements.17 The return of patterns and their attachment to, of all things, that incunabulum of the modern, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand’s LC2 armchair, was a judicious artistic move. As they come leaping across, the flower motifs (at a distance reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s “Flowers”) seem to have detached from the picture on the wall and shed their colors over the leather-and-steel armchair. In this way art reclaims interior furnishings, a field which had initially been its own but which since the beginning of the twentieth century has seemed to be exclusively the province of design. Pattern, which promises eternal recurrence, enters into an embrace with the classical modern, which has long stood for the striving ever onwards of progress. So much for “less is more”; here the surviving motto is “more is more.” The title itself, Untitled Cigarette Break, can also be read as subtle commentary. On one hand, it suggests that despite all disciplinary measures, addictions cannot be eradicated; they have their place in the symbolic order of the ascetic life. The lure of smoking, the sheer pleasure of it, is stronger than the fear of illness and death. On the other hand, the title signals that the modern, although it claims to be a second classical antiquity, has, when seen from an elevated position, attained some validity—at least for the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. There is something more that generally gets excluded from the exhibition space but with patterns manages to find a temporary niche there: usage. Lin not only offers patterns he has acquired, but also creates his own constructions out of them, ones which are there to be used. For instance, his sunbathing lawns of patterns and flowers invite us to abandon the distanced perspective of an observer and, in a relaxed moment, to see ourselves as part of a space, a social constellation, and an inherited cultural code. In this way the directed attention and focused senses that art usually demands give way to a sort of “dreaminess,” which Roland Barthes maintains we know best from the cinema.18 By leading his exhibition visitors into this sort of “pre-hypnotic” state, Lin is acting beyond the usually accepted limits of art that is critical of institutions. Not only does he reintroduce the body to the freezing rooms of functionality, but he also brings into question the predominance of the intellect. The floral pattern obviates the usual task of either decoding symbols or—in the sense of the iconic turn—reflecting critically on the relationship between language and image. What is allowed, indeed desired, on the part of the viewer is receptivity. As Adorno describes the tendency of genres to converge as art frays at the edges, we could describe the effect of Lin’s work as the fraying edges of the “I.” If Lin is concerned with transforming the exhibition space into a space of passage that permits the viewer to experience the extension of the “I” in a moment of hybridization, then why does he draw upon and employ standard patterns? Why does he not seek salvation, as so many others have, in the moving images of film and video projection, given how closely akin to dreams these media are? Why does he value the process of painting so highly that he transforms five-meter-high and nine-meter-long walls into monumental screens when wallpaper and fabric are so easily available? Why does he persist in doing it all by hand when reproductive machinery would be capable of achieving more efficient results? And why does he insist on transposing the structure of immutability, which is immanent in patterns, into actions? If we understand patterns as creations that owe their existence to anonymous production, that are not the invention of an individual but the result of a conglomeration of historical, economic, and technological factors, routine practices, and collective aesthetic preferences, then Lin appears more conveyer than artist-subject.

He takes and gives simultaneously. And his specific contribution consists in producing situations that make it possible for us to recognize what is given as being precisely that and to accept it. Lin can only succeed in this through an act of conscious acquisition, whereby patterns are internalized through the meditative technique of repeating what is given and simultaneously externalized by applying them to walls or floors in exhibition spaces. This way of working reveals that Lin is an alternative to the figure of the egocentric artist who, though repeatedly criticized since the sixties, has continuously dominated art until today. Lin, however, foregoes the gesture of the avant-garde artist, that of conquering new territory. And he no longer promises to rescue the autonomy of the subject from a world of alienated labor and to enable the subject to lead a life according to his or her own lights. Instead, he focuses on the multiplicity of what is given by deliberately choosing a stereotypical representation of nature. Divested of their roots, these climbing tendrils bearing leaves and blossoms, copies of traditional Chinese images, have woven themselves into everyday Taiwanese life as decoration, not as anything of particular cultural interest. It is only in the exhibition space that they become part of a narrative of origins, inclinations, and expenditure to which people give their undivided attention. According to Derrida’s logic, it is certainly Lin’s place, as the nomad that he is, to give what he does not have: tradition, local connections, and offers of a permanent place to live. Lin has all of this flow into a space in which it can be experienced and which, as is appropriate for an exhibition, disappears again after a while. Until then, however, the presence Lin creates offers his gifts in an ideal manner.

1 Gilles Deleuze, “Nomadic Thought,” in idem, Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953–1974), ed. David Lapoujade, trans. Michael Taormina (New York and Los Angeles, 2004), p. 259. This work can be consulted online at (last accessed November 6, 2009).

2 Ibid.

3 See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Frankfurt am Main, 2003).

4 Sylvère Lotringer, “Nomadische Notizen,” in idem, Platz machen (Berlin, 1991).

5 “The Body as a Site of Culture: Michael Lin in Conversation with Gerald Matt,” in Michael Lin: Kunsthalle Wien project space, 20.4–29.5.2005, ed. Sabine Folie, exh. cat. Vienna, Kunsthalle Wien project space (Vienna, 2005), p. 57.

6 Chinesische Blaumusterstoffe: Zusammengestellt von Tschai Fi, Hsü Tschen-peng, Tscheng Schang-jen und Wu Schu-scheng [Chinese Blue-Patterned Fabrics: Collected by Tshai Fi, Hsue Chen-Peng, Cheng Shang-jen, and Wu Shu-sheng] (Beijing, 1956).

7 Quoted from Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, 1992), p. 1.

8 Ibid., p. 3.

9 Georges Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” in idem, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, ed. and trans. Allan Soekl (Minneapolis, 1985), p. 117.

10 Ibid., p. 118.

11 Ibid., p. 121.

12 Ibid.

13 Derrida 1992 (see note 7), p. 7.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p. 10.

16 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000), p. 89.

17 See Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime,” in idem, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought Translation Series), ed. Adolf Opel, trans. Michael Mitchell (Riverside [CA], 1998).

18 Roland Barthes, “On Leaving the Movie Theater,” in idem, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley, 1986), p. 349.