Atelier Michael Lin

Language of Flowers

Vivian Rehberg

A rose-colored carpet strewn with tendrils of red, yellow, violet, green, and white foliage unfurls beneath you, crawls up the walls, slithers through passage ways, butts against baseboards, arches, windows, and doors. This is excessive painting, painting that does not know its limits until it reaches them, is contained by them, and stops. This is painting that so vividly and insistently asserts its capacity to extend beyond its frame, and its habitual frames of reference, that it threatens to turn into something else.

Instead, Michael Lin’s site-conditioned work hovers between surface and structure, ornament and architecture, motif and ground. In House (1998), Tamar Site (2000) andVilla Merkel 17.11.2001-22.1.2002 (2001), the lively patterns that Lin appropriates from Taiwanese textile designs are lavishly applied to made-to-measure wood panels placed on the wall or floor, at once disguising and laying bare the physical dimensions and properties of the space. On the wall, Lin’s work just winks at the history of gutsy, large-scale all-over painting before receding into the realm of the decorative backdrop. By theatrically, but ever so briefly, beckoning for attention, it toys with painting’s status as an object of contemplation. On the floor, Lin’s work floats seamlessly on its support; things are placed on it, one walks across it to get to somewhere else or to look at something else. Activated by these other presences, the floor paintings become the ground for myriad figures: a patch of contrasting cushions designed by the artist, clusters of people drinking and smoking, crushed cigarette butts and tossed candy wrappers, deflated exhibition visitors wondering what to see next, children running in circles.

Critics have related Lin’s use of readily available, vernacular motifs to long-standing efforts to collapse the boundaries between painting and popular culture, and between painting and the decorative arts. That the identification of “art” with the “non-artistic” (read as a confrontation between “high” and “low” culture) remains a legitimate field of investigation for contemporary production testifies that such boundaries—as social and cultural as they are aesthetic—have not crumbled with the advent of a post-modern, post-colonial, “global” society. However, a more radical questioning of categories is enacted in the loose play with horizontality and verticality that is structurally built into Lin’s work. For as his painting descends from the wall to the ground and stands back up again, it disrupts and destabilizes the position of the beholder accustomed to approaching sculpture, video-monitors, performances, projections, canvases, and installations from a more or less upright, more or less centered, and a more or less sovereign position. If verticality is “the axis the body shares with culture,”1 then Lin’s flowery fields seduce the beholder into rotating her corporeal axis out of line with it.

Such interplay between horizontality and verticality is evident in Lin’s public commission for the Palais de Tokyo: site de création contemporaine, a work intimately connected to the architecture and the interior of the building. From the upper galleries looking down, the painting is framed by the staircases that lead directly into it. From the lower gallery, where it serves as a temporary floor for the bar, his juicy pink and lavender floral plane dialogues with Navin Rawanchaikul’s eye-catching cartoon mural hanging above. Seen from above, the body bent parallel to the floor, Lin’s painting can be absorbed in one visual sweep: it does not ask to be read, it does not require literacy. Down “in” the painting, sensorial distraction is highlighted—we stand and talk, we take a seat, we look out the windows, we look up the stairs—to the extent that the painting, qua painting, almost dematerializes.

What deceptively appears as benign “soft-pop”, or easy-listening music for the eyes, in fact, turns out to be a site of considerable transgression. Transgression is initiated the moment the visitor places her foot onto a work by Lin (and who doesn’t still feel a moment’s hesitation before reaching out to touch, or before stepping onto a displayed object?). It is reinforced as she tentatively sits down, and then stretches her body across the painted surface. Now horizontal, the body may be at rest and vision may be thwarted, but it is at rest and it is thwarted in the space of painting and in the space of culture. Lin delineates these two spaces as hybrids: composed of heterogeneous elements translated from both Eastern and Western visual languages and traditions. Sarat Maharaj has discussed the “creative force” of hybridity in relation to translation, arguing that in a hybrid, “since each language seems to have its own system and manner of meaning, the construction of meaning in one does not square with that of another.”2 Lin’s achievement is that no matter how hard the body tries to sink fully into the hybrid space of culture, or cross the threshold out of that space, it never squares with it, it remains off-kilter; that is, just out of line.

Given that the position of the subject and meaning do not coincide here, questions remain as to how Lin’s painting mediates the social interactions possible within the space it generates. It has been suggested that works like Platform, or Kiasma Day Bed, as well as others shown in the context of biennials or large group shows, provide visitors with a meeting place, a place for “living,” and a temporal hiatus from the supposedly exhausting purview of cultural consumption and aesthetic transcendence that may be taking place in the other parts of the exhibition.3 Does the situation of culture today call for the creation of such alternative spaces within the framework of an exhibition? Judging solely from current artistic and curatorial practice, the answer would seem to be yes. Let’s not forget, however, that in 1908 Henri Matisse also dreamt of “an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental sedative, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.”4 In Matisse’s case, art was to provide respite from the carnival of bourgeois society. According to a similar logic, Lin’s painted floors, beds, and platforms are meant provide respite from Art.

And they are meant to do so through their staging of conviviality.5 For Lin, art is not something like Matisse’s good armchair, it literally is an armchair. With Untitled Cigarette Break (1999), he leaves the realm of metaphor and, with cheery irony, covers two sleek beige Corbusier chairs with floral slip-covers (one can just imagine le Corbu turning over in his grave). By positioning their backs to the identically patterned paintings hung on the walls, Lin makes the chairs available without imposing the condition of looking on the visitor. He invites the spectator to break with the rhythm established as she moves throughout the exhibition, and to communicate with whoever might be in the neighboring chair. The seated visitors then become part of the installation, altering its form with speech and gesture, interfacing with their surroundings.

From the laborious construction of the floor and wall pieces with his assistants to the intermittent, festive gatherings that take place on and around them, the self-conscious mise en scène of social exchange is one of the key driving forces behind Michael Lin’s painting. Here, the material form of social exchange is indexed as an extension of bodies in space, of corporeal movement, of the potential for pleasurable physical interaction. At the same time, the ambivalent, hybrid nature of that space, which is an aesthetic one, as well as its circumscription in a given time, leaves room for the failure of those interactions, and for their eventual release into a dimension other than the specific space/time of the exhibition.

Though his work is frequently geared toward collectives, Lin’s understanding of the aesthetic does not carry with it hopes of reconciliation or communion. Instead, it manipulates form and plays with pictorial conventions in such a way as to trace out and safeguard a place for the individual—differentiated by her or his corporeal, cultural, and linguistic specificity —within the collective. The permeable limits of the body are held in tension against the permeable limits of the artwork. Neither can be translated into the other.

Palais de Tokyo site de creation contemporaine
Paris, France

1 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), p. 102-103.

2 Sarat Maharaj, “‘Perfidious Fidelity’ The Untranslatability of the Other,” in Jean Fisher, ed. Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts. (London: Kala Press, 1994), p. 29.

3 See Hou Hanru, “What about sleeping in a show? Michael Lin’s Artistic Intervention,” in Maria Hirvi, ed. ARS 01, exh. cat., (Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, 2001) and Manray Hsu, “Painting as place—On Michael Lin,” in Urgent Painting exh. cat., (ARC/Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris and Paris Musées, 2002).

4 Henri Matisse, “Ecrits et propos sur l’art,” (Paris, 1972), 50.

5 See Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationnelle (Paris, 1998) for a critical analysis of the “interactive, convivial, and relational” stakes of recent developments in contemporary art.