“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Joni Mitchell’s popular song “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) marked the beginning of environmental awareness in the United States by invoking the parking lot as the ultimate dystopian metaphor. This expansive flood of tar, laid over fertile ground, decimating nature for the sake of a hard, textured pedestal on which to temporarily plant one’s fossil-fuel-guzzling hunk of metal, signals modern consumer society’s pinnacle of irresponsibility to the great outdoors. “You don’t know what you got till its gone,” Mitchell sings—but what exactly are we left with, after “they took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum”?2
The parking lot is a nonspace in the strictest Augéian sense—a graphic embossment upon the flat landscape that, upon entering, immediately conflates one’s identity both with his/her mode of transportation and the need to momentarily abandon it. It is the ultimate destination, the end game of any drive, the terminus of every road, highway, and backstreet. While the car embodies mobility and speed, the parking lot embodies its antithesis. In fact most cars spend 90 percent of their lives parked,3 leading to the phenomenon of what writer Marlaine Glicksman observes is the parking lot re-visioned as habitat: the trailer park—whether as poorer man’s abode or (upwardly) mobile vacation home, both emphasize transience over permanence. As the automobile’s leisure den, the parking lot becomes synonymous with excess: of land, sky, natural resources, labor, cars, and capital. It is a tract of ground inextricable from society’s “dictatorship of the automobile,”4 which, in tandem with strip malls, fast food, and drive-ins (and churches, restaurants, movie theaters, motels . . . ) have so concisely defined the aspirations of post–WWII America. The ubiquitous parking lot serves as a literal reminder of the space that the automobile has taken up in public consciousness and in the economy of the modern landscape.
Ed Ruscha was the first artist to introduce the parking lot to the art world’s attention, with his limited-edition books that employed photographic data as an extension of Duchamp’s Readymade tradition. Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (1963), the first of these, depicted exactly what the title purported—a document of 26 gas stations that peppered Route 66 from L.A. to the artist’s hometown, Oklahoma City. These everyday edifices and spaces conveyed, through Ruscha’s deadpan approach, nothing more than their factuality. The images were simply a presentation of the artist’s untempered observations, leaving the viewer to fill in the subject’s relevance—sociopolitical, artistic, or otherwise—a testimony to mankind’s impotence against the import of his über-practical, characterless creations.
For his fifth book, Thirty Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles, Ruscha intentionally chose Sunday morning, when the lots would be empty, to photograph these rectangular expanses in their naked form. From a helicopter above, they take on the look of modern-day Mayan earthworks—an extra-large example of the grid’s ubiquity and continued imprint upon civilization. Yet Ruscha was not interested in the historical significance of these lines. “Those patterns and their abstract design quality mean nothing to me. . . . I’ll tell you what is more interesting: the oil droppings on the ground.”5 For Ruscha, the matter of which spaces garnered the most use, or the parking lot as a site of sociological behavior, took precedence over its physical construct.
Ruscha’s deadpan typology of L.A.’s urban lots undeniably set the tone for contemporary art and architecture’s intrigue with the highway and the parking lot as a venue for artistic exploration. It is an infatuation that is arguably rooted in the spatial sensibilities of West Coast America. Learning from Las Vegas, by the iconic instigators of postmodern architecture Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, opens with the chapter “A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas,” in which the authors equate the modern supermarket parking lot with the gardens of Versailles and the Roman piazza:
To move through a piazza is to move between high, enclosing forms. To move through this landscape is to move over vast expansive texture: the megatexture of the commercial landscape. The parking lot is the parterre of the asphalt landscape.6
California-based artists John Baldessarri (The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January, 1963) and Chris Burden (Trans-fixed, 1974); the art collective Survival Research Laboratories’s many volatile performances in unsolicited Bay Area parking lots; and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, whose long-term research on the micro- and macro-manifestation of the parking lot resulted in their 2007 exhibition Pavement Paradise: American Parking Space, all testify to this West Coast fascination with the road and lot.
FAST-FORWARD TO BEIJING, 2013
China’s miraculous economic accomplishments, like those of the U.S., are also manifest in its roadways. In fact, China accounts for half of the billion-plus cars in the world today.7 Just as the country’s GDP has increased 40 times between 1980 and 2005, car ownership in the People’s Republic has followed suit, increasing 18-fold. The amount of registered cars in Beijing alone has quadrupled over the past 12 years, including a two million increase from 2008, for a total of 5.2 million cars in 2012.8 As the number of cars and drivers (7.48 million) skyrockets, with no end in sight, Beijing city planners scramble behind to provide adequate road and parking space.9
Artist Michael Lin, born in Tokyo, spent most of his childhood and young adult years in Los Angeles, before returning to his ancestral home of Taiwan and then moving to Paris. He now shuttles between studios in Shanghai and Brussels, and while his identity and work are defined by a sense of cultural nomadism, he is still very much a California boy at heart. The amount of time he has spent in Beijing has been quite limited, but having grown up in L.A., the city with the most road congestion in the U.S.,10 he is sensitive to traffic issues. In fact Beijing’s likeness to L.A. was one of the initial observations Lin made when first visiting the city. Even though Beijing’s overall concentric design is quite ordered, any visitor can experience an overwhelming sense of disorientation with its recent rapid expansion. The seemingly infinite waves of roadways that emanate in virtually all compass directions from the Forbidden City, in the center, outward past its seven—and still counting—ring roads, like a swirling black hole, leave little sense of direction to the unacquainted visitor.
For Lin, this disorientation seriously thwarted his ability to identify a “sense of place,” or what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls “topophilia”: the affective bond between people and setting. Beijing’s distinction is its congestion, anarchic sprawl, density, and directionlessness. “There is no there there” is how Gertrude Stein described Oakland, California, in 1937.11 This might also reflect Lin’s sentiment of Beijing, as would Lewis Mumford’s “formless masses of urban residues,” which described metropolitan expansion at the beginning of the twentieth century. Of these formless masses was the stifled roadway, collapsing into a state of atrophy with the clogging of cars, reminding us that automobile transport is ultimately monotechnic—technology only for its own sake, that not only oppresses other forms of transport but humanity, as well.12 And so it was on the spiraling ring roads that Michael Lin, stuck in traffic, contemplated Beijing.
Taking cues directly from his life, Lin’s oeuvre has to some extent always grappled with the notion of place. Building upon equal parts relational aesthetics, multiculturalism, and California’s Cool School, Lin’s art often takes the form of an open invitation. He carefully sets the parameters and conditions for the work but leaves it up to its participants—be they collaborators, fabricators, or visitors— to activate it. Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Monroe discusses his work in terms of “network paradigm,” or its multidisciplinary collaborative nature, which reflects the logic of online social media.13
The situations or environments that Lin produces always encompass forms of social interaction that are positioned in relation to their larger sociocultural contexts or place. In What a Difference a Day Made (2008), the artist purchased an entire store’s contents of cheap odds and ends, then repurposed them as museumified objects and props for an acrobatic performance that was held in one of Shanghai’s most opulent galleries. The work spoke of both artifact and the diversity of experiences in relation to Shanghai’s schizophrenic, urban-economic transformation. The sales transactions with the store owners commenced the artwork, which continued to be experienced through its collaboration with the acrobats and visitors to the gallery.
While Lin’s work is highly conceptual in nature, it often takes the form of painting: painting as appropriation, as installation, as labor, as ambience, as monument. . . . Therefore it is fitting then that Lin’s November 2013 Place Libre at Tang Contemporary in Beijing began with painting:
Thirteen lines are painted, two on the wall and 11 on the floor. A yellow line and a gray line are painted on the wall, respectively 80cm and 150cm in height. The 11 lines on the floor are white, each 10cm in width.14
The artist’s instructions for a simple graphic to be rendered in a closed space would seem more likely to produce a minimal pattern of aligned lines than the vivid floral paintings that Lin is known for. Though the grid of Place Libre was a departure from his most representative works, which recontextualized found folk patterns as painted environments, it is useful to review them. These earlier painted works borrowed freely from the vernacular of local visual cultures– foremost the traditional floral fabric patterns of Taiwan– and acted as signifiers of culture as well as the convolution of culture in today’s world. The impetus for Lin’s using the flower motif was a gesture to unite, by way of a common denominator, what had become a politically polarized society in Taiwan during the mid-1990s. Lin debuted the flower paintings in Interior (1996), an exhibition held at ITPark in Taipei; since then manifold museum galleries and facades, tennis courts, public shopping centers, and public parks have been graced by his monumental floral patterns. However, in each manifestation the emphasis is not on the “painting” but instead on the work’s contingency as process and its transformative effect upon determinate architectural spaces. As critic Vivian Rehberg notes, “Lin considers these fabricated places as integrated stages whose uses and meanings are determined only by the visitors that pass through and dwell in them for a time.”15 From researching and sourcing the patterns to employing groups of volunteers or paid workers to the resulting social engagement that ultimately fulfills these projects (skateboarding, children playing, weddings, eating/drinking, lounging, a tennis match . . . ), Lin’s work is aimed at the ecology of transformation, action, and inclusion. It is no coincidence that Place Libre is loosely translated as “liberated place”—a place that has been freed from its prescriptive function.
Both the design and context of Place Libre can be seen as a continuation of Lin’s solo exhibition Model Home at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai in 2012. In this work, a gridlike pattern is reconstructed from its component lines on the walls of the museum, fully forming as one moves from the lobby upward through the building’s four floors to the top. In Model Home, the pattern comes from a construction worker’s bedspread; in Place Libre, the design is derived directly from an actual parking lot in which the use of color is aimed at delineating space to keep cars from driving into the wall. Superficially, both works share this similar gridlike graphic, but whereas Model Home was an engagement with the dense architectural terrain of Shanghai (including its construction labor, improvisational spaces, and scholarship of urban issues), Place Libre engages the transport infrastructure and spatial economy of Beijing. Just as Ed Ruscha went intuitively from photographing buildings to parking lots, Lin, too, moves linearly across China’s constructed environment.
A large opening, 230cm high by 330cm wide, is made in the wall of the gallery to allow for the entrance of automobiles. With the exception of the 13 painted lines, the main gallery is left empty. Music is aired from a local radio station that is randomly changed according to the whims of the gallery staff. Visitors and neighbors are invited to use the main gallery space to park their automobiles during gallery hours.16
The Chinese capital only has enough parking spaces for every second vehicle, leaving 2.5-million cars with nowhere to park.17 Within the confines of Tang Contemporary, Lin’s 10 additional spaces were a miniscule gesture, not meant to remedy the parking crisis but perhaps to articulate this dilemma as an aesthetic form. Within minutes of opening the gallery door, drivers had lined up, anxious to get in. Many were unaware that the space their car was to occupy was an “artwork”; instead, having followed signs posted at the entrance of the compound, they were relieved at having found a spot, and a free one to boot. Perhaps the exhibition title, Place Libre, which shares the same acronym as “parking lot,” was to be translated as “free place.”
Like early postmodern artistic forays into simulacrum, especially in the “transformational and situational installation” work of Guillaume Bijl, in which the artist converted art venues into spaces of everyday life (a mattress store, trailer-home showroom, casino, hair salon . . . ), Lin seamlessly presented an indoor parking lot in one of 798 Art Zone’s major galleries. However, Place Libre was not a facile reproduction concerned with thwarting the white, fictional space of the gallery but instead a functional, practical, and— being free of charge—most welcomed parking lot. People would engage in the space both/either as an exhibition and/or as a place to park their automobile. There was confusion and not. People’s identities in the space (audience/car parker) were contingent upon their intentionality. Lin simply overturned his authority as artist in favor of “dynamic and unscripted participation.”18 His role simply was to delineate the parameters of engagement.
The 10 parking spaces are on a first-come, first-served basis. . . . With the limited capacity of 10 cars at one time, the daily rotation of cars during the gallery hours is left to necessity, willingness of the visitors to participate, and routine.19
In Complementary (1998), an earlier exhibition of Lin’s pattern paintings, the artist placed a daybed upholstered in the same design as his paintings at the center of the space so that visitors could sit and relax while viewing them. The parking garage shares a similar sense of social reciprocity. Complementary became an excuse for pulling people together, sitting them down to share thoughts, space, and time; Place Libre offered both audience and driver the quotidian modern spectacle/necessity of car parking. Critic Pauline Yao’s commentary on Complementary can also be said to apply equally to Place Libre—both works “demonstrate a major precept of today’s contemporary art: Art is not simply something to be looked at, it is to be experienced in real time.”20
Early on, Lin became aware of the exhibition not only as a spatial construct but as a temporal one, as well. Writer Bronwyn Mahoney notes that the titles of many of Lin’s exhibitions simply indicate their venue and installation dates: Taipei Fine Arts Museum: Sept. 9, 2000–Jan. 7, 2001; Atrium Stadhuis Den Haag 12 Juli t/m 8 September 2002; Palais de Tokyo, 21-01-2002/21-12-2002; and I.C.A. 2001.5.27–8.26. The dates function as parentheses, bracketing the event, and the acts within it.21
For Place Libre, the parking lot became an improvisational movement piece, performed by unsuspecting cars to the subtle tunes of a fuzzy FM station. It is a routine that is perfectly normal, happening across the world in countless variety everyday, yet, when framed, becomes sublime—a reminder of the Cageian maxim “Music is everywhere, you just have to have the ears to hear it.”22 Like time, music, incidentally, has also performed an important role in Lin’s work from the outset (Interior, 1996), serving as a way to create ambience, intimacy, and loosen the solemnity of the exhibition space, but in Place Libre the radio station acted as another demarcation of time and place.
Geographically, China spans five time zones, which were in full use during the Republican era. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, however, there has been only one single standard time: Beijing Time. “Beijing Time” is issued like a command that radiates from the capital across the 5,000-kilometer breadth of the country, reminding citizens that Beijing Time is their time, no matter where the sun is. Modern social order is premised on a shared concept of and obedience to a set of defined temporal systems. Time is therefore a powerful tool with which to layer, classify, and police the nature of social order. This is no more evident than in China’s capital city. For Lin, the radio announcement of “Beijing Time,” every hour on the hour, turned the project into a chronometer, further emphasizing and punctuating the transitory aspect of movement in the space. Not only were the working hours of the gallery and duration of the exhibition contrived as the work’s temporal limitations, but the radio acted as a way to drive home how Beijing’s overwhelming “sense of place” is invariably linked to its jurisdiction of time. Additionally, the dire state of traffic in the city has obligated most Beijing radio stations to report on road conditions. This regular update helped forge another nexus between the interior gallery space and the reality of Beijing outside.
What began simply as colored lines painted on the hard surface of a three dimensional space opened up as a multidimensional experience. As a way to capture this work in its entirety, not only as an installation but also as a durational affair, the artist carefully documented it through the photographs presented here. Lin gave simple instructions to the photography studio: “Take two photographs per day at whatever time your schedule permits from two predetermined angles. Record the time of your shoot.”
Employing the photography studio presented another variable in the equation of local economy and time. The photographers were licensed to come at their own convenience—an indeterminate moment within the confines of the gallery’s working hours—but were instructed to record that time with their delivered images. The resulting photographs documented the transitory and contingent nature of the work in all its terms: photographers’ schedules, occupancy rates, types of cars, and daylight shifts. This photographic documentation of Place Libre is where the link to Ed Ruscha’s Thirty-Four Parking Lots in Los Angeles is strongest. Like Ruscha, Lin is interested in parking as social behavior. In these photos we not only see which spots were the most popular, at what time of day, but the demographic of Beijing’s 798 Gallery District via the drivers’ car models. Like Ruscha’s, Lin’s information is presented as factual—not only as documentary but as anthropological evidence.
In 2006, Brooklyn-based artist Hermann Zschiegner retraced Ruscha’s 1967 Sunday-morning helicopter ride, this time online. The result is an homage to Ruscha in the form of Thirtyfour Parking Lots (on Google Earth). With the number of cars worldwide expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050,23 the parking lot in contemporary art is expected to make more and more appearances. For now, Lin has decisively presented his “megatexture of the commercial landscape”24 within the spatio-temporal amphitheater of twenty-first century Beijing. Unfortunately the city is once again 10 parking spaces short. . . .
Kenting, Taiwan 12.2013
1 Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” Ladies of the Canyon, Warner Bros./Wea, 1970.
2 Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” Song Lyrics, http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=208.
3 Zack Klapman. “Captain Obvious Says, ‘Cars Spend Most of Their Time Parked,’ ” June, 27, 2012, http://www.thesmokingtire.com/2012/wednesday-rage-captain-obvious-says-cars-spend-most-of-their-time-parked.
4 Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books [English Translation], 1994).
5 Sylvia Wolf, “A Decade Kissed by Angels,” Ed Ruscha and Photography, Sylvia Wolf and Ed Ruscha (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004), 111.
6 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1972).
7 Daniel Tencer, “Number of Cars Worldwide Surpasses 1 Billion; Can the World Handle This Many Wheels?,” August 23, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/08/23/car-population_n_934291.html.
8 “Beijing Parking? Chinese Puzzle,” Wheels24, 2012-06-08 09:27, http://www.wheels24.co.za/News/General_News/Beijing-parking-Chinese-puzzle-20120607.
9 Beijing Municipal Traffic Management Bureau, 北京市公安局公安交通管理局, bjjtgl.gov.cn.
10 “Stats Show Los Angeles Is Most Congested City in U.S. and Canada,” April 8, 2013, http://www.automotive-fleet.com/news/story/2013/04/stats-shows-los-angeles-is-most-congested-city-in-north-america.aspx?prestitial=1.
11 Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1937), 289.
12 Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1934).
13 Alexandra Munroe, “Take Away My Authority,” Model Home: A Proposition by Michael Lin, ed. Ella Liao (Shanghai: Rockbund Art Museum, 2012).
14 Michael Lin, artist’s statement, Place Libre (unpublished, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2013).
15 Vivian Rehberg, “On the Place of Painting in the Work of Michael Lin,” Michael Lin, ed. Ivy Cooper (Hatje Cantz and the Vancouver Art Gallery, 2010).
16 Michael Lin, artist’s statement, Place Libre.
17 “Beijing Parking? Chinese Puzzle,” 2012-06-08 09:27.
18 Vivian Rehberg, “On the Place of Painting in the Work of Michael Lin,” Michael Lin.
19 Michael Lin, artist’s statement, Place Libre.
20 Pauline J. Yao, “Michael Lin: The Difference of the Same,” April 2009, http://paulinejyao.blogspot.com.
21 Bronwyn Mahoney, « Pillows and Other Lounging Apparatus Will Be Provided—the Work of Michael Lin,” Art Asia Pacific, No. 41, Summer 2004, 48–53.
22 John Cage, “Anarchic Harmony,” http://www.sterneck.net/john-cage/anarchic-harmony.
23 OECD’s International Transport Forum Forecast, http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/06/bike-vs-car-on-a-hot-planet.
24 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas.