Atelier Michael Lin

A Lived House

Yuko Hasegawa

Michael Lin’s latest project, « Model Home, » could be described as a site-specific work that incorporates all the elements of his artwork to date. It is possible to point out two major elements in this work. The first is the question of decoration and abstraction, and of the creation of social space using decoration. The second is the verification of the assumption that critical practice and art-making that involve picking out elements from society and highlighting social structures and psychologies in a situationist-like manner have a bearing on society in the form of production, including collaboration. The object of this essay is to consider Lin from a broad perspective as an artist concerned with transforming space.

Chapter 1: Political statements embodied in patterns as collective memory

On his return to Taiwan, Lin, who was born in Tokyo, raised in Taiwan until the age of nine, and educated in the United States, identified as one of the cultural identities of his native country the traditional ethnic floral patterns used on bedding. These decorative patterns, which take the form of two-dimensional graphics, were rediscovered by way of modernism in Western culture, where hitherto the focus had been on naturalistic realism. The father of modern design, William Morris, recognized the value of decoration, believing that the richness of the quality of one’s life or lifestyle could be measured based on whether or not they incorporated strong decorative elements. Morris designed wallpaper in which decorativeness was emphasized, and by purchasing it the bourgeoisie of the time gained access to living space on a completely different level to that to which they were accustomed.

Painting conceded to photography the function of representing things as they really are, and instead took on the role of exploring the colors that envelop surfaces and the nature of forms. Patterns in the form decoration were occasionally referenced under the pretext of the autonomy of art, but they never became part of the mainstream of modern art.

When, under the pretext of abstract painting, Lin began to focus on the floral patterns commonly used in the homes and so on of ethnic minorities in Taiwan as examples of fading cultural memories, altering their scale and applying them to walls, floors, and other spaces, they became not patterns in the sense of appropriations but appropriations that encompassed their status as decoration.

According to Mayumi Tsuruoka, an expert in the history of patterns, « the ‘power of decoration’ that proliferates across the surfaces of things/existence lies in its ability to support the evolution of human life by speaking to us not of ‘perfection’ nor the ‘conclusion’ of a ‘process’ but of a manner of ‘suggestion.’ » The floral patterns that were used on bedding were engrained in people’s memory on account of this intimate relationship. Lin appealed to people’s sense of nostalgia in bringing about a renewed appreciation of the environment formed by these everyday items that surrounded people.

Unlike symbols or signs, patterns undermine fixed, one-to-one semantic correspondence, instead leaving meaning perpetually pending, as if their role were to allude to the mysteries of the world that cannot be represented by symbols or signs. Lin’s artwork tended to be dismissed in the context of Western contemporary art, partly because it was misunderstood as populist design appealing to the masses on account of its widespread appeal and the gorgeousness of its colors and floral patterns. Occasionally Lin would select patterns from everyday life at sites in Europe or the United States where he undertook projects, but it is the patterns he discovered in Taiwan that he has deployed repeatedly in public spaces. With this in mind, the intentions of Lin as someone who hails from Taiwan, a place in an extremely complex geopolitical position, in deploying these patterns as if leaving a trace of its cultural identity in various locations should be clear. Patterns leave meaning pending and have a visual and physical impact that cannot be represented by symbols or signs. In this respect they are suggestive of the origins of the « graphic » act. For humans, the original « graphic » act involved the individual being the first to make a mark (leave a trace) on a surface provided to them.

Because they need not fit inside a frame and can proliferate in any manner, unlike art that tends to overemphasize meaning and content, patterns spread across surfaces through a process of repeated self-segmentation. Due to this unrestricted spreading, it could be said that patterns tend to express not the beauty of the form of complete things, but the sense of vitality of things that are in the process of becoming. Patterns metamorphose depending on their location, and like living things coming together, floral patterns, arabesque patterns, geometric lattice patterns, and so on also change over time. The more one thinks about them, the more one realizes patterns are ubiquitous and capable of spreading vigorously anywhere, and those who experience them in the context of Lin’s artistic space, where they exist as traces of the fragrance of his native Taiwan and of its collective memories, unconsciously superimpose personal memories of their own culture over the reflections of the artist’s cultural memories.

The contrast between the almost invisible mural drawn in pencil over the white walls of the MOT gallery and the colorful canvas work that appears in the middle of one of the walls as an extension of this mural suggests that the pattern in the process of coming into existence on the wall would stand on its own as a separate, self-supporting artwork were it framed as a painting, and is thought-provoking in a variety of senses. The near-invisibility of the pattern is a metaphor for the visual memories that permeate unnoticeably our unconscious and suggests that the painting connected to the pattern on the wall, while a tableau, is connected to the collective memory of the pattern.

Lin taxes his ingenuity in terms of the use of space and scale to ensure that the interaction and sympathy between artwork and audience are used to good effect. The scale of the patterns varies considerably between small gallery spaces and large public spaces. Rather than simply enlarging the patterns to match the scale of the space, he gives careful consideration to how people can experience the forms and colors of the patterns as environments and, in the case of floral patterns, how they can form a symbolic relationship with them. The behavior of people within the work itself becomes a kind of installation imbued with temporality.

When it reaches the scale of his work for the City Hall Atrium in The Hague, his political message of celebrating social space becomes apparent. There, the intention was for the appearance of people to be a social sculpture, and by extension a social landscape.

In « Model Home, » a lattice pattern said to derive from one of the patterns often seen on the bedding commonly used by workers in Shanghai is used. Lin has covered the interior walls of the museum from the first floor to the fifth floor in this cheerful, simple pattern in which lines in multiple colors including pink, gray, and yellow intersect. Starting with just a single color on the first floor, Lin has added an additional color on each floor, with five colors appearing on the uppermost floor. The result is a symbolic manifestation of the nature of patterns as a process or something in the midst of becoming.

Each floor is devoted to a different program or exhibit, but visitors who climb from the bottom to the top, understand this meaning at some point in this process.

Chapter 2: A feminine situationist

The direction Lin has taken in creating social spaces in urban settings by means of environmental paintings featuring enlarged patterns has seen his work increasingly charged with social statements.

In this latest project he is collaborating with Atelier Bow-Wow, one of the many activist-like architecture firms appearing in the last ten years that have put forward proposals and proactively intervened in urban space through projects and other examples of architectural practice in the broad sense of the term.

In the work of these architects one can detect a continuation of the situationist-like approach of the 1970s, especially in their proposals for changes to conditions in our cities in an effort to restore the wholeness of everyday life. Through « dérive » and « détournement, » they seek to dislocate things from their original location and create new value. Dérive, or drifting, is a mode of experimental behavior that involves roaming through urban landscapes leaving everything to chance. Dérive enables people to gain a real appreciation of the city, and has been adopted by these and other young architects along with détournement, a method that enables them to effectively recycle things already present in the city.

In one of their publications, Behaviorology, Atelier Bow-Wow explain how behavior gives rise to architectural space.

As a part of this project they designed a temporary shed with painted walls designed to house workers. Each shed sleeps three people. A triple bunk bed is installed with each of the beds oriented differently and a window set in the wall above the head (pillow end) of each bed. The sheds are arranged in a pair, with the empty space between them serving as a social space with the addition of a small table and chairs. Naturally, the bedding features the same pattern as the walls, from which the audience gains an understanding of the cycle of the project. Another project Atelier Bow-Wow are involved in is « Made in Shanghai, » which they are pursuing together with Shanghai-based architects. This is the Shanghai version of their « Made in Tokyo » project, and involves investigating and presenting examples of the vernacular in architecture, including architecture designed to fill gaps, parasitical architecture, and the kind of hybrid architecture combining peculiar functions, shapes, and so on that would be beyond the scope of any existing architectural program. According to one of the firm’s founders, Momoyo Kaijima, the results of their inquiry will be put to use in the recycling of the city, such as in the recycling of gaps through « Pet Architecture, » the term Atelier Bow-Wow use to describe the small buildings squeezed into leftover urban spaces.

Such a practice involves « carefully nurturing into architecture fragments of detail that comprise parts of small spaces » and « architecture that resembles a combination of humans and buildings, » and networks of this architecture will gradually change the city. In the sense that it is collective memory and anonymously designed, such architecture corresponds to Lin’s concept. In combining his own projects with the work of Atelier Wow-Wow, he is making its context clear.

Installed outside at ground level next to the museum, the sheds, which had been used as accommodation, were raised to the fifth floor using a crane and placed inside the exhibition space. This clearly demonstrates Lin’s approach to the cycle of production and the conferring of value. With regard to production, there is a single flow: from situation, condition, production, postproduction, and the subsequent circulation of production. Lin has shown the situation and condition in each project, presenting the accommodation shed in its actual condition before presenting it as an exhibit, or in other words as production. The meaning of production in society is ultimately given back to society, and through this circuit of exchange, it impacts on the situation. One could say that among all the artists currently involved in art practice, Lin is one of the more self-aware of this cycle.

A video was made of the entire production process in which the shed dangling beneath the crane appears like some living being. As well, a composer copied the pattern on the wall and used it to make music.

All this indicates not so much a collaboration but rather an underlying model whereby a single project gives rise to multiple productions. Not so much work-sharing as project-sharing. Lin has shared the core of the project, the creators, as a team, and in the process revealed the relationship between work and production.

The title « Model Home » is also an indicator of Lin’s intentions as an artist, which are not to put forward an actual proposal for a prototype house but to offer a particular concept as a model. At the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato he created a series of rooms with various functions like a single house as part of an exhibition designed in collaboration with Atelier Bow-Wow. There his paintings were transformed into various shapes and arranged as wall and floor coverings as well as furniture and small platforms.

For What a Difference a Day Made (2008), which inquires into the distribution, consumption, and relationship with lifestyle of the everyday items that surround us in the form of products, Lin purchased all the items sold at a hardware store and arranged them in crates so that they could be moved around easily. Together with the videos of jugglers juggling the items, the crates and items in the installation make us recognize anew the influence and bearing the design of anonymous objects and their very existence have on our consciousness in our everyday lives.

If one were to be bold enough to summarize Lin’s work in the context of that of the situationists, one could say that what he goes out looking for when he embarks on his own particular « dérive » are anonymous patterns loaded with collective memories. By « détourning » them he is able to apply them to various parts of the social landscape and of interiors. However, this process is gorgeous and gentle. As an artist dedicated to preserving everyday cultural memories, to redirecting our consciousness to where it ought to be, and to provoking a positive outlook focused on the here and now, Lin is a feminine, intelligent, 21st century situationist.

The word « ornament » derives from the Latin ornare (« adorn »). It is also related to the Greek kosmos (« world, » « order »). This project by Lin seems to have been woven together like a pattern to which the roles of those involved, including the various creators and workers, bestow order.