Atelier Michael Lin

A Modest Veil

Bruce Grenville

Michael Lin has produced a remarkable range of paintings and installations since the early nineteen-nineties. While his art is highly recognizable and often described as utilizing enlarged painted images based on traditional Taiwanese fabrics, this familiar and easy description seems to fall away whenever any attempt is made to apply a categorical description to his works. They are paintings, but it would be difficult to say that they meet the conventional criteria of contemporary painting. They are instead produced in a workshoplike environment, usually involving the collaboration of a small team of painters who utilize templates and work on discrete sections that are later joined to create the whole.

The designs that Lin uses are invariably described as being derived from traditional Taiwanese textiles, a description that seems meaningful when compared to conventional Western fabric designs. However, Lin often takes pains to acknowledge that while the fabrics may be specific to Taiwan, they also reflect the complex nature of modern Taiwanese history: one can recognize the use of traditional Chinese motifs such as peonies and phoenixes, but also of Japanese cherry blossoms and a color palette derived from kimono fabrics. One might imagine that Lin’s choice of source imagery is significant as a result of his own personal history and the nature of his development as an artist, and thus constitutes an act of expressing his Taiwanese heritage, but Lin’s use of and alterations to the patterns suggest that his conception of difference is not based on a simple repetition of traditional notions of nationalism and identity.

Lin’s works are often monumental in scale and involve a rigorously conceived relationship to the architectural spaces they occupy, but they are nonetheless surprisingly anti-monumental, and they decisively counterpoise the surfaces on which they are displayed. In these and many other ways, we are consistently brought face-to-face with the critical contradictions of Lin’s art. It is this paradox, formed through dialogue and offered as an expression, that lies at the heart of Lin’s projects. I want to return to these ideas later, but now I would like to take this opportunity to shift to a focused discussion of a small group of projects that reveals the focused and meaningful relationship which exists between Lin’s paintings and their architectural contexts.

Our 2010 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition represents an exemplary instance of Lin’s oeuvre, for his broader artistic project, especially with regard to the notion of architecture and its critique, is evident in it. The initial discussion of the exhibition began several years ago when the original plan to produce an work for the interior of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s lobby were considered and then rejected after a site visit confirmed that the lobby space was not well suited to a monumental installation. Several alternative sites were subsequently considered but discarded until a final proposal was made to produce a large-scale work for the Gallery’s façade. To understand the significance of Lin’s choice, it is necessary to consider briefly the Gallery’s architecture and history. The Vancouver Art Gallery occupies a Neoclassical building constructed in 1905 and originally used to house British Columbia’s provincial courts of law. In 1979 the courts moved to an adjacent site, and the building was retrofitted to house the Gallery and its collection. While minor changes to the building’s exterior are visible—for example, in the area of the café and stairs at the back of the building— the structure has remained largely untouched and its Neoclassical narrative continues to be strongly communicated.

The building is bounded by a large square and fountain at the front and a small public square at the rear. Significantly, the architect who retrofitted the Gallery spaces decided not to utilize the grand public entrance at the front of the building, instead building a new one placed obliquely at the back. The building is located at the municipal heart of the city and utilized regularly as a site for public gatherings of all kinds—festivals, ad hoc civic celebrations, commemorative events, vigils, protests, etc., frequently take place in the square in front of the Gallery—and throughout the year the square and steps are home to resting shoppers, school kids, buskers, junkies, businessmen, homeless people, tourists, bike couriers taking a break, and many others.

However, while the space outside the building is a much used site for public assembly, it is also one on which the judicial authority of the provincial government was exercised for more than seventy years. While much of the structure’s historical legacy is defined by the standard judicial decisions of a Western democratic society, there remains to this day a strong ambivalence toward the building and its role in the enforcement of national and provincial laws that were widely regarded as being unjust and detrimental to members of the First Nations communities in British Columbia.

Built in 1905 by the architect Francis Rattenbury, the building was given a Neoclassical design similar to many of the public structures erected in Canada from the early nineteenth century onward. The use of that style in Vancouver in the early twentieth century was a confirmation of the conservative and colonial identity of the newly formed community, which was seeking to express its place within the British Empire and the model of authority it imposed on Canada as a western outpost.1

Lin’s proposal to produce a mural for the Gallery’s façade was in keeping with several of his other large-scale projects from the last decade. While these projects share many of the same goals and characteristics with the one in Vancouver, some subtle variations in the latter raise interesting questions about the nature of Lin’s artistic practice and its development.

The 1998 installation House is one of the earliest large-scale works by Lin for which a massive painted mural (measuring approximately nine by five meters) covered one of the interiors walls of the Bamboo Curtain Studio outside Taipei. The decisive and dramatic transformation of the space—a former chicken farm converted into a gallery and art production facility—through the introduction of a monumental, vibrant patterned surface was a radical intervention in the aesthetics of the space and its uses. Entitled Back from Home, the installation reproposed the domestic allusion of the title of the work while introducing the notion of migration. This ambiguous play with the exhibition space and its perception is common to much of Lin’s work in this period, when he was wrestling with his own notions of home and homeland after returning to Taiwan in the mid-nineties.

In this work, the hand-painted surface is determined and bounded by the architectural form of the building in such a way that it is integrated with the building’s architecture yet simultaneously threatens to explode it with a riot of color. The pattern features a massive peony embedded within a design that repeats and echoes across the wall. The dominant hue is a vibrant red, which is offset with spots of blue and strong, linear white elements. This is a variation on a popular Taiwanese design that became very fashionable in the sixties and seventies and was frequently used on a variety of household items, including quilts, cushion covers, curtains, and clothing. The color invariably used with this pattern is a red identified so strongly with the fabric design that the Taiwanese government’s Council for Cultural Affairs promoted it as “Taiwan red” in 2005. Lin’s use of the pattern in this context and on this scale is clearly intended to provoke a dialogue about cultural identity; rather than functioning as a simple affirmation of Taiwanese nationalistic sentiment, it questions the complex nature of the concepts of home and homeland in Taiwan during the nineties.

In 2002 Lin was invited to create a work for a building that houses the city hall and library in The Hague. Entitled Atrium Stadhuis Den Haag, 12.07–08.09.2002, the resulting painting was made for the floor of an atrium in a building designed by Richard Meier. The mural is composed of 380 wooden panels and extends over 1,100 square meters. It is a massive intervention into the space of the building, one that seems to dwarf the visitors who use the library and offices. Lin was invited to carry out this project as part of an official exchange between the Netherlands and Taiwan.2 In this context, Lin chose to utilize a design employing a tulip motif rather than the Taiwanese peony, although he described the work as a “Made in Taiwan” floor. If the earlier work for the Bamboo Curtain Studio revolved, in part, around the question of an emergent dialogue regarding the nature of Taiwanese identity in a changing political climate, then one might argue that Lin’s project for The Hague revolved around those same questions but in a more global context.

Lin’s description of the floor as being “Made in Taiwan” raises questions regarding the importance of global trade and the identities that are based upon the origin and circulation of goods on a global scale. The rise in awareness of Taiwanese manufacturing that occurred in the eighties was a result of the global circulation of textiles and toys produced in Taiwan, and then in the nineties Taiwan’s domination of the production of laptops and computer chips came to the fore. The question of what constitutes the Taiwanese identity is complex and extends beyond evolving relations between the Chinese and Taiwanese governments to encompass the identities formed through the global circulation of goods and cultural exchange. Lin’s decision to present his work in this context keeps that narrative subtext active in his practice. A second narrative current involves the relationship between the painting and the architecture of the city hall building in The Hague. Constructed in the mid-nineties and designed by Richard Meier, the building displays many of the notable traits of Meier’s style. The thoroughly modernist white-on-white palette emphasizes the building’s gridlike organization and unifies its interior and exterior spaces to create a monolithic presence. Lin’s painting on the floor of the atrium is thus nothing short of a rupture in the building’s modernist logic that threatens to overwhelm the structure completely in a riot of vibrant colors and sinuous, organic forms.

It would be wrong to describe Lin’s work as being driven by an iconoclastic response to modernist architecture. In fact, it is important to realize that time and time again it enters into a fundamental and meaningful relationship with the architecture of the space that hosts it. The nature of that relationship is difficult to characterize, but Lin has certainly been consistently careful to avoid the kind of traditional one that usually exists between painting and the gallery space. In a discussion regarding his 1999 work Untitled CigaretteBreak, Lin described the importance of redefining the relationship between the art and the architecture, of shifting the divisions between art, design, and architecture and rethinking their relationship to the body: “For Untitled Cigarette Break I was thinking . . . about the relationship of ornamentation to modernism. For me, the LC2 chair of Le Corbusier reflected perfectly the white cube of the gallery space I was showing in. The chairs became a scale model of the room. The paintings on the wall were scaled somewhere between the chairs and the room. I thought of smoking as a more conscious way of breathing. Smoke describing breath. Chairs describing the room. Walls becoming a shirt for our ody.”3

The configuration Lin describes here is one that prioritizes relations between things, and between people and things. The architecture of the gallery is described by the chair, the paintings are conceived in relation to the chairs and the room, and smoking, performed by a body in the space, activates the whole, thereby creating a process so encompassing that the body and the walls of the room become one. It is a rather theatrical description, but it unquestionably alters our perception of the work and the space. Instead of being two autonomous entities—the artwork and the gallery—bound in a relationship in which the existence of one is predicated on negating that of the other, they are joined in a relationship based on repetition, mimesis, and symbiosis.

Lin’s 2005 installation in the Kunsthalle Wien project space brings the question of the relationship between architecture and his work to the foreground. Constructed in 2002, the project space is a unique building. Despite its recent conception, it has the form and character of a Mies van der Rohe design from the sixties such as the pavilion of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where transparency, uniformity, and clarity are the architecture’s defining principles. Being a “project space,” the Kunsthalle Wien building is appropriately reduced in scale, with a gallery measuring only seven by thirty-two meters on one side, and a café and events hall on the other. Lin’s project for this space involved the production of translucent monochrome stencils that were used to cover the panes of the gallery’s glass curtain wall. Two thirds of the panes were covered with a translucent green floral motif, and the remaining third in an ornamental, magenta-hued linear design. Depending on the time of day and your location in relation to the glass, you either see the outside world through a marvelously tinted lens or you gaze inward at a magical box lit from within. While it is tempting to describe Lin’s installation as a calculated intervention into the abstract and universalizing space of modernist architecture, it may be more accurate to perceive it as being engaged in a companionable dialogue with the building. Architect Adolf Krischanitz’s design for the Kunsthalle Wien project space was intentionally conceived as a quotation of modernist architecture. Seizing on the modernist principle of transparency, Krischanitz designed a space that is quite literally a project(ion) space: a space dedicated to the launching of art and ideas into the public sphere. Moreover, it is a space that brings the art, the viewer, and the museum into a convivial relationship, with a high priority being given to spaces for dialogue, presentation, and social exchange. Lin’s decision to produce a work that would emphasize these characteristics brings him into a relationship with the architecture that is more complex than one based on a reductive critique of modernism. Given the building’s location across the street from that of the venerable Vienna Secession, it is tempting to take this line of reasoning further and to imagine that Lin’s intervention allows the building and its inhabitants to project outward and engage the Secession in this dialogue.

Like the Secessionists, Lin proposes that art must not be constrained by an academic couriers, shoppers, junkies, school kids, buskers, businessmen, homeless people, and tourists that pause there during the day. The fundamental importance Lin attaches to the public use of his temporary spaces is clearly iterated in his own statements regarding the work and its purposes: “I am less interested in the formalized space in the institutions for presenting art. These spaces on the margins of the institutional space, the events and social interactions, are much more important for me. I am much more interested in the everyday, the general culture. It is in these places where art is not so clearly defined that questions of the function of art come to light.”5

By way of conclusion I want to return to the question of the contradiction in Lin’s art and point out that his underlying decision to utilize mass-produced, traditional fabric designs as a basic element of his art raises engaging questions regarding the significance of repetition and difference in his work. While Lin’s adoption of the fabric patterns seems almost casual, a found object that is easily at hand, such a reductive interpretation produces a premature closure of the work. In this context we are left to consider the relative veracity of his identification with that identity, and we are largely limited to a discourse that revolves around the notions of the real and simulacra.

The significance of Lin’s repetition of traditional fabric designs is not to be found in the mechanical repeating of a found design, for he actively changes the originals, altering their scale, displacing them from their domestic setting, and formalizing their colors and patterns. Instead, its significance is to be found in a strategy of repetition that brings difference to the center of the discourse and moves away from questions about representation, identity, symmetry, equality, and originality toward ones concerning variability, dissemblance, multiplicity, and actuality. Lin’s notion of difference is most effectively realized in his engagement with architecture, painting, and design, whereby he consistently decenters those practices in order to insert not his own identity, but an idea, a space of discourse, an expression of the possibility of a public space—a place in which interactions can be expressed.

At times he appears to be passive; he is a house painter, he says, a maker of pedestrian and unremarkable places of respite. But this supposed passivity might be more accurately described as a means of resisting a reductive, oppositional stance that ceaselessly pits one concept against another—that of one architecture, one identity, one nation, one history.

Set of rules that confine and determine its tools and potential for meaning. While Lin stops short of calling for an all-embracing, universal art form, or gesamtkunstwerk, it is tempting to use this opportunity to assert once again that his practice is expansive and relational rather than discrete and autonomous.

Preliminary discussions regarding a project for the Vancouver Art Gallery began shortly after Lin had completed his installation for the Kunsthalle Wien. Lin’s decision to produce a mural that would be mounted in front of the Gallery’s principal façade provides a revealing evolution of his work. In a manner similar to that of the design and placement of the painting in The Hague, the Vancouver project may be seen as a critical intervention in the logic of the building’s design. The three mural panels are strategically placed so as to block the windows and mask one of the building’s most dramatic features, its Ionic columns. In the Neoclassical tradition, the Iconic order was often used for judicial buildings and libraries as an emblem of a learned and civilized culture. While Lin has worked variously with designs for murals that match the contours and surface of the building (as at the ICA in Taipei in 2001 and La Sucrière in Lyon in 2005), provide a carpetlike covering for the floor (as in the atrium of the city hall in The Hague in 2002 and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2002), or take the form of inserts that plug into windows (as in 2004 at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis and in 2005 in the Kunsthalle Wien project space), for the Vancouver project, he designed three panels that are installed in front of the architecture.

Here there is no attempt to integrate or mimic the building’s form; instead, the panels block or obstruct the architecture, a gesture that is intended to obscure the signifying elements of the architecture by closing off the symbolic entryway and hiding the columns and capitals that give the building its gravitas. His purpose in veiling the Gallery’s façade is made evident in an ancillary project for the exhibition, a T-shirt worn by some of the frontline Gallery staff. The shirt bears a simple image on the breast, a fragment from the pages of an Asterix comic that shows a brightly colored curtain decorated with a lively floral pattern. The curtain is slightly parted, and emerging from the gap we see signs of crashing and banging that indicate that some sort of aggressive activity is taking place behind it. A neatly scripted phrase penned by the narrator tells us that the curtain has been intentionally placed there to screen our eyes from a scene of excessive violence: “Let us cast a modest veil over this deplorable and most unusual scene of violence . . .”4 Lin’s mural for the Gallery façade undoubtedly has a similar purpose: it is a “modest veil” that screens a building which once had a mandate to exercise the authority of colonial, national, and provincial rule, but now is an art museum with the mandate of imposing its own history and ideology upon the public. Once again, however, Lin’s mural must be read as a double gesture: it is both a screen that blocks and one that projects, for with this work the artist has also created a vibrant and engaging context for the many social and cultural activities that take place in front of the Gallery building—it provides a backdrop for the public festivals, celebrations, commemorations, vigils, protests, etc., that occur in the square and a home of sorts for the bike

1 When construction of the Courthouse was near completion in 1911, the population of Vancouver was 100,000, but fewer than twenty-five years earlier the population had been under 1,000.

2 The exchange involved Lin, who traveled to The Hague, and a Dutch poet named Erik Lindner, who traveled to Taipei.

3 “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. 62.

4 The original French text reads, “Jetons un voile pudique sur une scène d’une rare violence que nous reprouvons . . .”

5 “The Body as a Site of Culture” (see note 3), p. 64.