For more than a decade Michael Lin has been using vivid floral motifs mainly derived from traditional Taiwanese fabrics to cover a variety of surfaces, ranging from conventional canvases to large-scale walls. The resulting works are energetic, beautiful, and even poetic, and they often contrast starkly with their environments. Lin’s reintroduction of ornamental elements into the world of contemporary art from which they are often excluded has been a fresh and provocative strategy. By shifting public attention to something that for a long time has been considered backward, and even regressive, he prods us to revaluate the commonplace as an equally creative and therefore significant expression of imagination and beauty. The risk is that his work will be overlooked by the art community. However, those who might dismiss Lin’s projects as populistic—just pretty paintings of flowers—would miss Lin’s essential concern, which is not so much about painting as it is about public space and the role of the contemporary artist in the public sphere. In 2002 he acknowledged that his work had “moved away from the idea of painting as an object” and that he was “more interested in creating a painting as a space to occupy.”1
Individual artists can find themselves caught between social ideals and freedom, between the obligation to participate in the established system and the pressure of ethical imperatives regarding intellectual and political independence. Artists must make their work public in order to exist and to contribute to the common interest. But which public one is addressing and how to reinvent real public spheres are the most crucial questions for artists today. As Guy Debord and others have long argued, ours is now a society of spectacle.
Exhibitions such as The Spectacle of the Everyday, the 10th Biennale de Lyon in which I included Lin’s work, are perhaps the ultimate form of this society of spectacle—of art as entertainment.2 Thus, contemporary artists and curators, who are implicated by their inclusion in the spectacle and involved even in its promotion, must ask some serious questions about it. When the world is in crisis, does this kind of spectacle matter? Is art still vital and capable of challenging its own definition? Is change possible in situations in which conventions about what is worthy of our attention (and where and how) are relatively fixed? By mining le quotidien—the commonplace, that which we take for granted in our everyday lives—and seeing its worth, artists like Lin challenge entrenched views. Despite Negro and Hardt’s assertion that in the “global empire” there is no “outside”3 from which to confront and criticize, Lin finds the spaces necessary for subversive negotiation. To disrupt the spectacular in the sanctioned public space, he uses traditional and familiar designs and production in unfamiliar ways to occupy unexpected places within the institution. He turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, the quotidian into a new spectacle, one that is not fixed, but rather open to alternative models of living and interaction.
Taking popular but largely ignored vernacular patterns and making them visible in the contemporary art context as Lin does is a clear gesture of resistance, a challenge to the domination of Pop Art’s manner of selecting and fabricating images, and to its cynical complicity (despite its ironic dimension) with the logic of consumerism. Lin is also making an insistent inquiry into personal and communal cultural identity in a turbulent geopolitical landscape where the “space of everyday life is potentially the most open and perhaps . . . the most effectual space for implementing justice-based change through a broad scope of intersecting ideas.”4 His insistence on painting most of his work of the past decade by hand, regardless of the project’s scale, is consistent with this spirit of resistance and optimism.
Lin’s research and the conception of his works are based on a relentless longing for and questioning of both personal and collective identity. Michael (Ming Hong) was born in 1964 in Tokyo to a Taiwanese family with a long tradition of fighting for Taiwan’s dignity during the country’s Japanese occupation. Raised in Taiwan until the age of nine, he then moved to California, obtained an MFA, and eventually returned to Taiwan. For the last ten years, Lin has been producing and exhibiting his work all around the world. Now, after leading a nomad’s life, crisscrossing the globe, he lives and works primarily in Shanghai and makes regular visits to Brussels, Paris, and Taiwan.
Lin’s homecoming to Taiwan in the early nineties was a turning point in his career, because it was then that he rediscovered the floral patterns of traditional Taiwanese fabrics. The patterns and the original processes of fabric design and production that he draws upon and is inspired by have survived harsh historical changes and evolved over time. Lin says, “I often spent time in the countryside with my grandfather when I was young. I still remember such textiles being used for bedding as [part of] women’s dowr[ies]; to me they also mark an age when Taiwan was transferring from handcrafted modes of production to industrial production, from rural to urban.”5 The formation and distribution of these patterns, which were influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous ethnic Chinese and Japanese communities, reflect the nation’s evolving cultural identity, the development that resulted from the island’s political instability. For the last century it has been engaged in uneasy negotiations with its colonial past, and it is now grappling with the postcolonial and globalized conditions of contemporary life. The evolution of folk fabric patterns under these conditions manifests the trajectory of this historic process and its influence on the popular imagination and social consciousness. In a way, the patterns are visual witnesses to Taiwanese society’s self-imagining and self-identification, far realer and more faithful than the official symbolism of national flags, official emblems, etc. Despite the increasing marginalization of the old ways by modern production methods and consumer needs, these handmade products are still a part of most people’s everyday lives. And it is here, in the realm of the quotidian, that “the most amazingly inventive things occur, unfold, and develop.”6
Lin has emphasized the public dimension of his work from the very beginning, as one can see in his early projects such as Interior (1996) at IT Park and Complementary (1998) at the Dimension Foundation. While he continues his recuperation and interpretation of traditional patterns of Taiwanese fabrics in his work, Lin has gradually extended his approach with new projects that are as conceptually and structurally site-specific as his previous work. Almost all of these projects are installations that not only occupy their designated sites in forms closely related to the venues’ characteristics, but are also functional: they make his artworks into platforms and infrastructures designed to facilitate various social exchanges and activities for the visiting public. Through his numerous interventions in museums, galleries, buildings, and urban environments, Lin turns public spaces into ones that are activated by the tension between his personal signature designs (floral patterns, for example) and their open-ended application (in coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, garden terraces, the lobbies of public buildings, etc.). These projects encourage the public to contribute to the function and meaning of his work, and to renegotiate and reorganize their relationships with one another within them. Hence, Lin’s work becomes genuinely architectural and social: its very nature makes it public art. Yet the way he opens and articulates spaces for public interaction—which is reinforced by their aesthetic power—makes his installations simultaneously spectacular and fragile. He sets the scene for the transformation of the usual function and form of a particular space, but the actual changes are driven by the public’s participation, which therefore makes them unpredictable.
Lin’s commitment to the public’s engagement with his art is particularly significant because of how privatization and gentrification are drastically reducing the number of urban spaces available to the public. While it is true that contemporary cities are increasingly design-oriented, their spectacularity is often the result of a liberal-capitalist realization of the urban order rather than environmental improvements aimed at facilitating public enjoyment and freedom. In such a contradictory context, Lin’s work, without rejecting the spectacular language, has successfully proposed prototypical works addressing social life and public interaction and thus opened a debate about the nature of public art within contemporary art production.
Although he is far from being a social-political activist, Lin has been negotiating the conflict between artistic integrity and the power of the established system by implementing some highly inventive and intelligently deconstructive strategies. In the art institutions that tend to close their doors to the real world, his boundary-expanding interventions serve to interrupt the existing protocols governing the functions of particular spaces and upset the hierarchy of the institution: he placed a daybed in the exhibition hall of the Kiasma Museum to allow people to rest, contemplate, and even sleep in the gallery; he created a coffee shop in the Palais de Tokyo; and he installed skateboard ramps in P.S.1 and the Shanghai Gallery of Art (Three on the Bund). These projects not only provided visitors with easy, comfortable, convivial, and beautifully designed and decorated spaces that facilitated their meetings and interactions, but also allowed—and even encouraged—the public to carry out actions that are often considered irrelevant or even inappropriate in the sacred space of the art institution, a space that is generally supposed to be autonomous and cut off from real life.
Lin has often redesigned art galleries as places to host events and collaborations with other artists. At the Gwangju Biennale in 2002, Lin and Yung Ho Chang designed an open office for installation in the center of the exhibition where the curators could work in direct contract with the public. Some of his other “platforms” have been used as spaces to display video and film programs, including his projects for Asianvibe at the EACC in Castellón, Spain, in 2002 and the 2nd Guangzhou Triennial in 2000. To further break down the boundaries between real life and the institution, Lin has also produced multiples of his design objects, such as T-shirts and notebooks, to be distributed in museum and gallery shops. With their signature patterns, these objects are displayed as installations that cover the entire shop and then distributed all around. They are intended to contaminate the everyday lives of the public like microbes or viruses. While exhibitions always come to an end, the potential of Lin’s work to contaminate is endless. For the last few years, Lin’s own life has been engaged in a kind of relocalization because, in spite of his increasingly global career, he has decided to settle with his family in Shanghai, China’s new boomtown. There he finds himself in a simultaneously familiar and estranged society. On the one hand, his Taiwanese background and experiences of global migration have allowed him to adapt easily to the Chinese language and Shanghai’s way of life, which is perhaps the most postcolonial and globalized in mainland China. On the other hand, the city’s complicated recent history—marked by a shift from colonization to the communist revolution, from the Cultural Revolution to the globalization of the modern world, and from spectacular urban expansion to the drastic transformations of everyday life and old communities—inspires and intrigues him. He understands that to relocate successfully and to refocus his artistic imagination and livelihood in order to remain relevant and creative, he must develop a relationship with his immediate environment and the people around him. His latest work, What a Difference a Day Made (inspired by the eponymous song by Maria Grever), which he produced for his solo exhibition at the Shanghai Gallery of Art (Three on the Bund) between September and October 2008, is a powerful demonstration of how Lin, the globalized nomad and artist, is trying to reengage with his local reality.
In a radical departure from his previous work, this project presents a multimedia installation that does not include any paintings. After visiting a hardware store on an ordinary street in front of his house for two years, he purchased all the goods in the store—common utensils ranging from small tools to kitchen wares—and brought them all to the gallery, where he then reconstructed the entire shop with all its contents at the entrance. Inside, he set up a huge warehouse with wooden crates in which he had recategorized the store inventory according to the characteristics of form, size, material, and color rather than function and then reinstalled all the objects in a minimalistic structure that recalls the work of Donald Judd. At the installation’s opening, a sound artist improvised music while acrobats performed with the objects. Lin’s photographs and video recordings of his negotiations with the shop owner, of the inventory, and of the performances were also displayed as part of the final work.
As the gallery’s director, Shanghai-based art critic David Ho Yeung Chan, has pointed out, this work is “a hybrid setting that investigates notions of time, speed, recollection, and nostalgia. Lin’s provocation is to use a cultural space as a frame to push our associations of the forms and functions of a mundane object to their extreme, and how we attach different meaning to art, objecthood, preservation, and the politics of the everyday becomes the focus here.”7
No one knows how long the tiny hardware shop along with the neighborhoods it serves will survive in the new global economic center that Shanghai has become. As emphasized by Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, among others, the popular, mundane world of everyday life is indeed the real laboratory for true invention and innovation; it is also the most intense battlefield of the struggle against the oppression of the hegemonic power of the capital and its political system. However, this resistance, no matter how courageous and even heroic, is indeed extremely fragile. The shop and the neighborhood, along with the rich and profound history of the city and its people, might disappear overnight.
Contemporary art is now confronted with an immense contradiction: while it is unprecedentedly globalized, popular, and integrated into the mainstream, its commodification makes it a part of the entertainment industry and the society of spectacle. This leads to a loss of the criticality and engagement with real life that go beyond consumerism.
Stepping into the flux of such dramatic daily change, Lin’s project has been produced at the most relevant moment. By reconstructing the shop in the gallery and then turning the show into a performance festival to celebrate this soon-to-be-gone world of ordinary people, Lin shows real enthusiasm for and faith in his community. With this work he continues his engagement with the everyday, and thus his challenging of the society of spectacle. Lin grasps the mundane, commonplace, and unimaginative aspects of everyday life und uses them to disrupt the overriding spectacle. Entering into the public exhibitions of his work, we find ourselves paradoxically in spaces that make room for the marginalized within the official, and in which the personal and the particular are sometimes in an uneasy relation – ship with the powerful and the global, like the almost-disappeared shop Lin had found hidden among the skyscrapers and then deconstructed, displaced, and reorganized within the museum. His careful scrutiny of the inventory and reprocessing of the objects became an extraordinary work of art, one which turned the fate of the small shop into a powerful testament to what is happening in his city, in society, and, ultimately, in the world. As Lefebvre and de Certeau point out, it is in the praxis of the everyday that the reinvention of everyday life lies.8
Real visions and expressions of inventiveness must be acknowledged and supported, and, as Arjun Appadurai has stated, grassroots initiatives have to be encouraged,9 not destroyed. In his art, Lin wants us to see that what we thought was marginal is actually central to who we are. It is our world, and this could be our fate and we should urgently debate it. His work, like that of a growing number of contemporary artists, is forcing cultural and other public institutions to open their doors and pay attention to a laboratory of practices about a largely unfamiliar world.
1 “LM100 presents Michael Lin” (2008), at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcwGyznqsKY (last accessed November 10, 2009).
2 The present author discussed these ideas when he was interviewed by Coline Milliard for ArtReview, http://www.artreview.com/forum/topic/show?id=1474022%3ATopic%3A861955 (last accessed November 10, 2009).
3 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, 2000).
4 Hou Hanru, curatorial statement for The Spectacle of the Everyday, 10th Biennale de Lyon, 2009, p. 1.
5 Michael Lin interviewed by Amy Cheng, in The Gravity of the Immaterial, exh. cat. Taipei, Cultural Affairs Bureau of Taipei (Taipei, 2001), p. 107; the artist amended his statement in an e-mail to Rhana Davenport of May 29, 2002.
6 Hanru 2009 (see note 4), p. 1.
7 David Ho Yeung Chan, “The Difference Is You . . . ,” exhibition brochure for Michael Lin: What a Difference a Day Made, Shanghai Gallery of Art (Three on the Bund), September 6–October 20, 2008.
8 Hanru 2009 (see note 4), p. 3.