Atelier Michael Lin

On the place of painting in the work of Michael Lin

Vivian Rehberg

When asked to define his stance with respect to painting in 2005, Michael Lin’s deceptively simplistic response was: “I refer to myself as a painter because I use paint. I am a house painter and perhaps we can say that is my position in painting.”1 Lin’s self-positioning is simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and materially accurate. Over the past decade, during which painting has played a constant role in his work, Lin has at the same time eschewed the canonical place painting occupies, asserting instead that “some of the most important works of art are the ones that we live with and that affect our daily lives, such as architecture, furniture, and fashion, which can be said to even shape our bodies and our minds.”2

Throughout its history, painting has been burdened with incessant inquiries into its nature, its parameters, and its place. Artists have struggled to overcome painting’s artistic and historical stronghold by asserting that they are nonpainters and by calling their work nonpainting. Especially since the click of a camera shutter released painting’s hold on truth in representation, painting has died and been revived, both symbolically and as a market commodity, countless times. But in spite of its shifting status as fashionable or outmoded, dead or alive, painting has remained an inescapable benchmark for understanding key issues raised by contemporary art practice.

Lin’s engagement with painting has also shifted over time, and is less stable and more ambiguous than it initially appears. Still, much of his work acknowledges and then diverges from a set of traditions and discourses that have governed our understanding of painting in the West. His use of the medium urges us to reconsider how we interact with painting as embodied spectators.

Lin made his first large-scale painting based on ornamental Taiwanese textile patterns from his own domestic environment and entitled it House (1998). Executed with emulsion paint (ordinary house paint), House marked a crucial departure from the monochrome paintings on steel he had been showing previously, remnants of his artistic training in southern California. This change was inextricably linked to Lin’s return to Taiwan in 1993 from the U.S., where he had immigrated with his family twenty years earlier. His decision to paint adaptations of these patterns was part of “a conscious struggle to search out and define a vocabulary based on its own cultural parameters.” As Lin puts it: “I posed very fundamental questions [about things] such as the relationship between my practice and [its] specific contexts . . . which later led to questions about my practice’s relationship to the audience.”3

In House, his transposition of the red, pink, and violet floral textile pattern onto the warehouse wall is site-specific, but it is more literally referential and less strictly ornamental than it would become in later works. His painting turned what had been just a wall into the representation of a home, with both the title and site of the work emphasizing this visual association.

Lin’s work very quickly took a subtle and decisive turn away from the concept of painting as an object of contemplation toward that of painting as a bounded, physical space, one we can settle into and inhabit. This detour allowed the spectator to evade the optical, frontal, face-to-face encounter that has long determined our physical relationship to paintings, and, eventually, to enter into a corporeal one involving touch, physical movement, and stasis, a moment of suspension that resembles a resting point. This shift in Lin’s work also signaled his recognition that an idea of the public, rather than that of an individual spectator, is intrinsic to painting, or rather, that painting has a public context that is structurally integral to it.

Lin’s early work expanded the vocabulary of painting in several different ways: by bringing attention to the public mediating role that painting can play, by overturning aesthetic hierarchies, and by its refusal of permanence. His insistent and repetitive use of decorative patterns refutes a lingering modernist hierarchy of values that favors individual creativity and expression, demotes decoration and design to a substandard category, and disparages ornamentation in architecture as either primitive or feminine.4 His choice to use the motifs of ready-made Taiwanese textiles brings prosaic material culture into the hallowed halls of high art and highlights issues of cultural as well as gender difference. And while his painting is irrevocably anchored to particular sites, the transient status of the majority of his commissions, including the one he has undertaken for the Vancouver Art Gallery, privileges the contextualization of specific times and places over artistic permanence and stability.

With a few exceptions, these three aspects of Lin’s method are built into his site-determined works. The interior and exterior spaces the artist selects may vary, but they are inevitably social ones—cafés and exhibition halls, lobbies, meeting rooms, stairwells, and passageways. His painted patterned surfaces flow out like swaths of fabric over a wide range of geographic and architectural sites: a gigantic rectangular floor in a government building in The Hague (Atrium Stadhuis Den Haag, 12.07–08.09.2002, 2002); a wall and rocking chairs in an art space in Kanazawa, Japan (People’s Gallery, 09.10.2004–21.03. 2005, 2004); lounging areas in group exhibitions and biennials all over the world (Untitled, 2002, and Kiasma Daybed, 2001); and a biomorphic bench encircling a majestic tree in Edinburgh, Scotland (Untitled, 2006).

The monumentality of the works and their exuberantly hued surfaces are not meant to be the focus of each site, but instead designed to fade into the background of experience. It is in this sense that Lin calls his works “unremarkable,”5 for they are meant to function as integrated stages whose uses and meanings are determined only by the visitors that pass through and dwell in them for a time. Thus the lifespan of each work/place, as emphasized by Lin’s novel titling system, is measured according to its dates of presentation, and its temporary nature is reinforced by his choice of materials. The common emulsion paint his teams of assistants fastidiously apply onto plywood panels by hand, for example, becomes nicked and weathered over time, and the panels are eventually destroyed.

The spatial dimensions and decorative spray of patterns used in Lin’s large-scale installations have received onsiderable attention, and they insistently vie for that attention. Because of this, more subtle aspects of their conceptualization can easily be overlooked. In Sickness and in Health (2004), a work he did in St. Louis, foregrounds a temporal complexity at the heart of Lin’s approach that goes beyond the unregulated, spontaneous interaction we usually associate with his work. The installation leads us to ask “When is the work?” instead of “Where is the work?”

For In Sickness and in Health, Lin created a space in which a young couple could marry by painting it with the traditional Taiwanese textile patterns used to decorate the fabrics and bedcovers that are frequently included in dowries. The museum advertised a random draw to find a St. Louis couple who wished to hold their wedding in Lin’s space. Once they were chosen, only two photographs, which were later displayed in the space, remained to bear witness to the private ceremony held the day before the exhibition’s opening. The photograph shows the bride and groom on a painted ruby carpet of vibrant posies with rows guests standing beside coral-colored plastic chairs. Above, a painted frieze of windows resembles gleaming, translucent stained glass. The following day, the then vacant makeshift wedding chapel was modified, but the memory of the private wedding ritual lingered on in the public space of the museum.

So does the work occur during the wedding or does it exist beyond that event? Does Lin’s work only occur during the exhibition’s opening hours? Does it need to be activated or reactivated? For the first time in his practice, Lin’s photographic record of the temporally bound performance that took place on the custom-made stage he had created seems less like straightforward documentation for his archives and more like an integral part of the project, a deliberately time-disrupting strategy. Something has been experienced in its past which we cannot access—except through another representation, the photograph on display—and which can be likened to strategies historically used by conceptual artists to capture the ungrounded, immaterial nature of their works.

That Lin is as concerned with time as he is with place is also evident in his more recent project for the Mixed Bathing World component of the 2009 Beppu Contemporary Art Festival. The artist Jun’ya Yamaide conceived Mixed Bathing World for the formerly flourishing spa city of Beppu (Kyushu, Japan), which is still renowned for its hot springs but is no longer a popular tourist destination. To revitalize the city, Yamaide invited eight international artists to choose sites in which to intervene. Lin chose the local ferry station and a dilapidated Japanese house.

His expansive wall painting for the ferry station, Beppu, 04.11–06.14.09 (2009; fig. 9), is composed of the logo of the Sunflower Ferry that lands in this port and a pattern of curved blue slopes outlined in white, which evoke schematic waves or receding hills. Like cloisonné, this background is overlain with gigantic pink flowers and smaller white and yellow blossoms whose clustered trumpets and petals twist lithely across the surface. The ferry station, formerly a massive transit area but now a stop for just one round-trip voyage per day, appealed to Lin’s penchant for liminal or transitional spaces that can act as hinges between other ones. He noted that several hundred people traverse the main hall twice a day: once for fifteen minutes around the ferry’s morning arrival, and then for another fifteen at the time of the evening departure. This scheduled, everyday use of an otherwise empty site determines the possible interaction of potential viewers with Lin’s work. Again, the painting as a painting is not the focal point; instead, it serves as a visual accompaniment, one that is easily overlooked as it becomes familiar to passersby.

Although he used the same painted pattern at both sites, Lin’s intervention in the ferry station contrasts with his treatment of the traditional Japanese house (Untitled, 2009; fig. 10). Instead of a modern, public thoroughfare designed for transient crowds, the secondfloor living space of the domestic dwelling where Lin painted sliding screen doors is small and intimate. However, the repetition of the blue slope and pink floral pattern, which is lavishly spread across the vast hall in the station but tightly cropped and framed in the house, links the two places. This simple repetition of the same motif prompts us to draw tenuous, experiential connections between private and public spaces and times, between daily activities such as work and play, between identities, and across the geography of the city. The ferry station and the domestic interior coexist and are codependent. Their mirror images of each other prevent their interpretation from being over-determined exclusively by the public or domestic nature of their respective sites. Rather, Lin’s painting sets up a tension between the two spaces which reveals that the public self and the private self, the individual and the collective, are not stable categories, but constantly shifting ones.

In his large-scale public works, Michael Lin seems to understand painting—that is, the tangible dried liquid paint on the flat material support—as a vector for experience, as a hinge between spaces, and as a mediating object. In some of Lin’s works on canvas, especially those he has made since his relocation to Shanghai in 2006, he engages more concretely with issues of cultural identity. In his hands, simple, useful objects rendered in paint become strong critical statements about personal identity and cultural difference. For example, his exhibition at the Eslite Gallery in Taipei entitled Island Life (2006) included painted reproductions of carpets he owns from Xinjiang and Tibet, regions in which the struggles with the Chinese government regarding issues of cultural identity and autonomy have led to violent conflict and oppression. Lin provocatively associates these carpets with a painting of the Tai Bao Zheng, the special permit the Taiwanese are required to carry to enter mainland China, thereby foregrounding the relationships of power and inequality that link these regions to China.

Until 2008 paintings on canvas still featured among Lin’s works, as seen in Untitled (2006–08; fig. 11), in which he has broken down patterns once used for murals into sets of seven smaller canvases to form Chinese puzzles. These tangrams can be playfully reconfigured, either by Lin himself or by the public, in endless combinations, a process that asserts the non-narrative and nonillustrative character of the patterns he chooses, their inherent instability of meaning.

In 2009 Lin returned to the Eslite Gallery with the exhibition I Am the Sun, which was comprised of plaid wall paintings and several series of works on canvas, including tangram paintings, printed paper book-covers, and a series of photographs. As another reference to filial and cultural identity, the title’s homonymic play on words—I am the sun / I am the son—hints that we might even see this collection as elements of a self-portrait in progress.

Lin was inspired by the Taiwanese cultural phenomenon of the sun cake, a sweet, filled pastry with which Lin had a personal connection during his youth and which has since attained the status of a national culinary symbol. Cakes bearing that name now proliferate, but with no relation to the original site of production. Lin based his series of quasi-abstract paintings in muted hues or near monochrome on the original Sun Bakery logo, now devoid of text and reduced to a single ribbon festoon over a blank center (e. g., Flag, 2009). Shimmering gold-painted canvases covered with geometric orange cross-hatching that recalls festive wrapping paper are in fact reproductions of Lin’s own design for Sun Cake packaging. These lush, seductive paintings are paired with a representational series of typical Taiwanese writing workbooks for children. Their front cover presents a parrot squawking out symbols for phonetic sounds to a boy, who looks out of the canvas, and a girl, who looks down at an open book. The back covers are stamped with a text that celebrates unity, a love of one’s country, and a respect for family. The exhibition, which included the distribution of sun cakes to visitors, speaks to forms of collective acculturation and exchange.

Lin’s works of the past decade transgress the lines between popular and high culture, between craft and art, and between the undervalued domestic realm and the powerful public one. He is an artist who uses paint to create spaces we interact with and which allow us to interact with each other. We enter, step on, look down on, look up at, eat or talk in, or even—as they become familiar—overlook them. The common themes of sociability, socialization, interaction, cultural symbols, and collective life are present throughout his practice.

Lin uses paint and plays with its conventions to unsettle our expectations and to make room for intersubjectivity within particular physical, aesthetic, and social spaces. In so doing, he has proven irrevocably that painting and public life are intricately, conceptually, and formally bound to one another.

1 “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. 63.

2 Ibid., p. 61.

3 Ibid.

4 Adolf Loos’s 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” is a key reference in these debates. For a recent edition, see Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture, and Thought Translation Series), ed. Adolf Opel, trans. Michael Mitchell (Riverside [CA], 1998).

5 “The Body as a Site of Culture” (see note 1), p. 61.