Atelier Michael Lin

Forever and a day : on Michael Lin’s contemporaneity

Kit Hammonds

New Paradise, an idyllic tropical beach edged by palm trees is a scene of tranquillity and beauty. Of course we are immediately aware that it is not real, or natural, but the packaging of a brand of Taiwanese cigarettes. It tells us so in bold characters. But despite this it still pulls on romantic desires. A double nostalgia pervades, for the place and the product itself, both seeming out of time.

Lin’s New Paradise is one of a series that reproduce the packaging from carefully selected everyday commodities currently on the shelves of stores in China, all of which convey romantic landscapes as part of their brand. As with the other works in this exhibition, they continue an engagement with affective popular design that runs as a leitmotif throughout Michael Lin’s practice. But beneath the decorative surfaces that hark back to popular arts and traditions, Lin’s works perform in ways that touch on more complex interplays between the present and the past. In this sense his work is deeply concerned with contemporaneity, that is “a reexamination of the basic ideas of modernism in light of the very contemporary cognizance that every detail of presentation and production is already contaminated by specific histories.”1

Lin is more cognizant than most of how this is pervasive, where the currents of the past and present intermesh by creating works where the imagination of different social spheres and their respective traditions interact, influence one another and coexist. Both within and outside the gallery, by employing the patterns of Taiwanese fabrics, he has staged the patterns of life that lie at the edges of, yet integral to the public sphere – cafes, libraries, even wedding ceremonies.

This exhibition reflects back on three substantial projects realised during his time living in Shanghai that continue this enquiry yet with a particular focus on the circulation of objects and values that bring to light how the “essential quality of contemporaneousness: its immediacy, its presentness” and the “direct experience of multiplicitous complexity over the singular simplicity of distanced reflection.”2

A Day

One day in 2008, Michael Lin bought out the entire contents of an everyday goods store in Shanghai – every plastic bucket, every wok, every broom and every bowl, plate and pot, relocating it to the Shanghai Gallery of Art as the installation What A Difference A Day Made.

In this act Lin performs a series of cultural transactions between the value of overlooked and the obsolete circulating through specific forms of display.

Reconstructed in the vitrine windows of the gallery, the shop’s interior is abject clutter at odds with what we might call a display. Like any self-assembled and contingent pile of stuff, the shop is a physical manifestation of the precarity of the business itself. Transplanted to the gallery, it becomes a diorama, or a curiosity cabinet, forms of display redolent of redundant histories in museums that, nevertheless, holds its own out-of-time charms.

Many of these goods are simulacra of traditional ceramics rendered in plastic sitting alongside the more unashamed plastic goods in gaudy colours. In its second phase, Lin acts almost as curator, selecting and displaying exemplars from this stock and re-presenting them in transport crates cum cabinets. These hybrid units place the objects between shipment, storage and exhibition. Lin places them in transit, simultaneously evoking the circulation of cheap home-wares worldwide, the transportation of personal effects under global migration, and the cultural up-cycling over time of the everyday wares into museum artefacts.

What A Difference A Day Made’s final stage takes these objects and makes them dance. Here the goods are literally in circulation around one another, looping through the air as a circus performer juggles them. Performed live or perpetually looped on four video screens, it brings the low-brow arts of circus or street performance into the gallery as a reminder of how arts once coexisted in the public square alongside the marketplace and political forum.

Lin is not just collecting and transplanting the goods, however, but also art history. Walking into a high-street store and buying a piece of hardware is already a century-long tradition that intermeshes the gears of day-to-day life with those of “high” culture. In 1914 Marcel Duchamp walked into the Bazar de Centre Ville department store in Paris and purchased the first of his true readymades – a bottle dryer. The following year in New York, he repeated the gesture, selecting and displaying a snow shovel instead. Duchamp brought an “anti-aesthetic” into the cultural domain by selecting his readymades through a « visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste. »3

The Duchampian tradition is packaged tightly in Lin’s works, translation and translocation, transportation and transmogrification, in an economic as well as aesthetic sense, with a wry sense of humour running through it. Up-scaled into the entire store, however, it accrues further meaning that reflect the socio-economic disparities in contemporary globalised cities such as Shanghai.


Lin’s most recent project, Shanghai Forever, follows a similar track, a nod to Duchamp’s readymades in the bicycle wheel, the transplanting of commercial products into the gallery and their resulting re-evaluation.

A full range of Forever brand bicycles from Shanghai stands in the gallery. The bicylces are for sale as they would be in the stores that the display mirrors. Surrounded by paintings derived from the company designs over the years, the walls seem to be infrathin here. What takes place inside and outside the gallery seem to be “two forms cast in the same mould differ[ing] from each other by an infrathin separative amount.”4 Lin not only transplants the object, but the entire context in which they exist. As such it is far from the “aesthetic indifference” of Duchamp’s readymades, instead it trades, precisely, on the romantic imagination that these bicycles evoke.

Forever bicycles were founded in 1940 in Shanghai. As the name suggests, the idea was that they would last at least a lifetime, and quickly became one of the “Famous Four” bicycle manufacturers in Maoist China. Today, it thrives on this “brand narrative” that finds “It is a soft-spot in everyone’s mind. When you see a postman’s bike, you are not just looking at a bike, but a period of Chinese history. It’s part of an identity, part of people’s wish for a better life.”5

Terms like “retro” coupled with “identity” are well within the lexicon of value in our contemporary period that thrives on nostalgia. While the modernist ideologies from which the bicycles originate sought to build a better life in the future, our own time looks backwards with affection. Here we follow Giorgio Agamben, that “to be contemporary means in this sense to return to a present where we have never been.”6 And this sublimated nostalgia is played out in the second chapter of this work, a single Phoenix bicycle, both in name and its resurrection. Lin’s loving act of restoration is an original vintage bike returned to its former glory, if, in fact, made up of salvaged parts in order to make it whole again. In building this assemblage of a sort, Lin enacts “anamnesia” – not recollection but a conscious act of “resisting forgetting” involving quotation, imitation, borrowing and assimilation drawn from “the current situation of generalized circulation of culture, that is, contemporaneity as the coexistence and interspersing of a multiplicity of traditions in the same here and now.”7 Lin’s work, therefore has something of an anthropological eye, but one that engages with a globalised world of today, rather than those of traditional ethnographic subjects. Inevitably, those are most presently displayed in the common space of transaction, the marketplace. And so Lin draws into focus how today’s traditions and their totems are not just those of folk imagery and customs. They are equally redolent of modern ones, art included, which carry their own romanticism.


These strands are equally present in the final staging post of this exhibition. A picture gallery of sublime landscape paintings in different genres continue the series from which New Paradise is drawn. Each is taken from carefully selected packaging from supermarket staples – milk, rice, mineral water, tea – that leans heavily on the image of nature and art alike to deny its industrial reality. Among them is a single cow standing in front of a mountain range that is distinctly reminiscent of Casper David Friedrich’s lone figures in the landscape, a pastiche of European Romanticism so displaced through cultural circulation that it comes to stand for an Asian milk industry.

At first these scenes seem at odds with the steel framed modern structure that acts as a viewing platform in the middle of the gallery. Its debranded, rotating sign at its pinnacle places it as a non-place of a roadside gasoline station, while its interlocking, eccentric rings have something of Tatlin’s unbuilt tower about them.

Point appears like two distinct modernist utopias – consumerist and socialist – endlessly colliding in the present.

In this room time is in a suspend present, art built of fragments of the past. The paintings and Point track through a cycle of key moments utopian modernism from Romanticism to Conceptualism via Constructivism, the readymade and pop-art. In their own times each of these phases of modernity seemed like radical breaks from tradition, but have now fallen into being traditions of their own. What “began with utopia” Svetlana Boym puts it “ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary.”8

Of all these forms of modernism, Romanticism stands out as at odds with the others. Its emphasis on sublime nature as a rebuttal of the industrialised world and its emphasis on the inner, emotional world of the individual place it at odds. However, in defining the core of contemporary art, Peter Osbourne makes a persuasive claim that its threads resurface most strongly in its antonym Conceptual art. He claims that, at their core, Romantics considered art works as fragments of an infinite totality, a project that could never be completed. Sol Lewitt’s 12th Sentence on Contemporary Art best illustrates how this finds itself replicated in his own time: “For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.” Here is the point at which modernity folds back on itself, Conceptual art the end-game that was begun by the Romantics.

As Raphael Samuels suggests any supposedly “timeless form of ‘tradition’ is progressively altered from generation to generation. It bears the impress of experience… [and] is shaped with the ruling passions of its time.”9 And that tradition in art is aptly framed here as the emancipatory spirit that runs through modernism, revised with each generation according to its own conditions. Those conditions today are a globalised world in which cultural circulation creates a sense of groundlessness caught between the perpetual displacement of the present by a connection to a lost past, be it real or imaginary.

Nostalgia itself is not just a longing for the past, but specifically a morbid longing for home. It is a syndrome that is specifically attuned to contemporaneity as “the temporality of globalization: a new kind of totalizing but immanently fractured constellation of temporal relations.”10

And so beneath Lin’s recurrent engagement with nostalgia and tradition can be seen as multivalent discourse with displacement that appears in searching for place while all things – peoples, objects, ideas, and art alike – are caught up in a constant flux of circulation.

As Terry Smith eloquently describes, the contemporary is a series of “radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them.”11 It would be easy to see nostalgia as merely a sentimental escape into the past, and indeed is frequently capitalised on for this potential. However, what makes Lin’s practice so contemporary is that it confronts these incongruities that emerge with a reflexive nostalgia that is “enamored of distance, not of the referent itself” and “aware of the gap between identity and resemblance; the home is in ruins or, on the contrary, has just been renovated and gentrified beyond recognition.”12 In this light, nostalgia and tradition become leitmotifs that run through his practice as means to stage a series of deft cultural transactions between the many currents of today. A new paradise, a utopia, might be a lost dream, but Lin’s work keeps it in circulation at least.

1 Diedrich Diederichsen, “Formulismus”, Artforum 29, 2005. p. 23

2 Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago Press, 2009. p.703

3 Marcel Duchamp, “Apropos of ‘Readymade’”, 1961

4 Marcel Duchamp quoted in Jay D Russell, “Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades: Walking on Infrathin Ice” in

5 Quote taken from an interview on

6 Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?”in “What is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays, Stanford Press, 2009. p.51

7 Marc Augê, An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds, Stanford Press, 1999. p.23

8 Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and its Discontents”, The Hedgehog Review, Summer 07. p.7

9 Raphael Samuels, Theatre of Memory, Verso, 1996. Pxxiii

10 Peter Osbourne, Anywhere or Not at All – Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso 2013. p.25

11 Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago Press, 2009. p.703

12 ibid. p.12-16