JS: When. Did. You. Start. Making. Paintings?
ML: I’ve always been making paintings. I’ve made paintings in different ways. In the early 90’s I was making paintings with a spray gun, with industrial lacquer that is used on cars. It was not until ‘96 that I started to use the brush to paint. That’s when I started to paint patterns and flower motifs.
JS: And how did you come to use the Taiwanese floral motif in your work?
ML: I started to use these prints when I was in Taiwan because I discovered that it was a very good way to communicate or open up a way of communication with my audience. The floral prints are coming from the domestic setting of people’s homes. It’s something very warm and very direct. They felt at ease to enter the work. It was something that they were all familiar with. That was the beginning of how I started to work with these floral patterns.
JS: You were putting the work in its own environment. It was a way to question the work toward its environment.
ML: Yes, it was a way for me to think about my relationship to the environment. Prior to making this work I had been at school in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles I made work that reflected that environment. I concerned myself with the surface and finish of paintings, a kind of car painting. It had a lot to do with the environment of the school that I was in at the time. The school that I studied at is very well known for industrial design, especially car design. I had all the facilities that allowed me to work with such industrial materials. Cars are so much part of the culture in California. It became very clear when I came back to Taiwan, that this kind of language that I was using was from somewhere else, or it was more difficult for the audience to engage in. Finding these floral prints that come from the environment that I was working in, that come from the people’s lives that I was trying to communicate with, helped me and my work to open up a dialogue with my audience.
JS: But it’s very interesting because you were coming from making monochromes with this car painting, to floral, real motifs. You go from one extreme to the other.
ML: Yes, it was extreme, but you can understand that what I saw in those monochromes was coming from the car culture, there is a history of this discussion in California. The story goes that Robert Irwin picked up his dealer from New York at the airport, they’re driving on the freeway, and Robert Irwin is trying to convince his New York dealer that car culture or the car is a very important part of cultural life in California. The dealer didn’t believe him and the argument ended suddenly when Robert Irwin stopped his car on the side of a freeway and told his dealer to get out. It was not because he was upset, but that he wanted to leave his dealer out on the freeway to let him understand how important the car was in Los Angeles to everyday life, to everybody’s life as a tool for getting around and as a form of identity. The culture of low-riders and hot rods are important when one is trying to understand art being made in California. The monochrome paintings I was making with industrial paint were products of my environment that facilitated my engagement with Los Angeles. In Taiwan, in the same way, I was trying to find a medium or a language to work in that would be able to communicate to the people. A vernacular.
JS: But from the car in Los Angeles, to the flower in Taiwan, you went from the outside of the street to the inside of the house. So it’s a big movement.
ML: That’s a very nice relationship. I didn’t think of that. But what I want to use as a description of it, is this idea of folk culture. It’s about the everyday, quotidian, banal things. It’s art from the people and not fine art or high art. That was the kind of relationship I was trying to make.
JS: But the home is a very important thing for you, since when you work in an institution or in a gallery, you have been famous for painting the floors and walls, transforming the place into a stage where the viewer becomes part of your work, and not just the formal, traditional painting.
ML: One of the important motivations behind this was the gallery that I worked at in Taipei called I.T. Park. I worked there for two years. It was a gallery that was open from 12 noon to 12 midnight. There was a bar in it, and I was the bartender. That environment had a lot to do with how I thought about my work and how I thought about art in general. During that period an exhibition space was a place that I sat around with people drinking in. We looked at art and talked about art in a very casual and indirect way, but also talked about everything else. It gave me a chance not only to look at art but to look at people looking at art. It became clear how important the audience and the way they interacted with art was. I became aware of the exhibition as a form similar to a ritual, with very clear codes. I proceeded to questions those codes and attempted to transform and recreate them. It was this environment that pushed my work into this direction.
JS: So you are doing more than a wall or a floor painting. For me you are developing an environment. An environment in which we are on another dimension.
ML: I create spaces. In the beginning, I consciously chose spaces outside of the exhibition space in the museum; for example, the entrance area for the Taipei Biennial, the bar area or the restaurant area of the Palais de Tokyo, areas that were not traditionally used for exhibiting artworks. The audience encounters my work in non-art spaces that are less intimidating, allowing them to be more at ease. This kind of inclusive space helps create an opening, an area where one is not restricted to certain kinds of behavior and codes unlike the exhibition space where one is to speak quietly, look with intent, and ponder gravely the importance of art. I am interested in instigating a different attitude towards how we interact with art.
JS: You’re shifting the behavior towards painting, towards the artwork in general.
JS: And it is somehow from the perspective of performance, of ritual.
ML: The work is an inviting backdrop or a stage on which the performance can take place. The performers are the audience that enters into the space. It is a theater of the everyday. As soon as the audience walks in the performance begins.
JS: Is the performance inside the motif which has been in most of your work until now, a blow-up of this traditional Taiwanese flower, blown up in a kind of conceptual or post-Pop painting?
ML: What is important with the color and the floral prints is that it breaks with the white cube, it references the domestic, and is therefore more welcoming. Due to the large scale of the prints it is able to transform an industrial space into a very sensual space, a fantasy space. It immediately opens the space up to allow for a more open, free, and perhaps even bad behavior.
JS: You told me that you were less interested in this floral motif in an iconographic or symbolic way, and it was more important for you that people relate to it in a familiar, sensual way.
ML: Yes, it is not so important for me what the flowers mean symbolically. It’s more about the prints as emanating the domestic, the sensual…they come from textiles and fabrics, and for everybody these are things that we have intimate contact with. Things that we either are sleeping with, or that we wear on our bodies. So their relationship to us is very much tactile and of the senses.
JS: Where do you find all these motifs? In markets?
ML: I find them everywhere, in all the textile markets. They are everywhere, in every culture you have them.
JS: Yes, it’s transcultural in fact.
ML: All pre-modern cultures have these kinds of ornament, be it Greece, the Middle East, Asia, Polynesia, or Europe. Whether it’s Austrian cross-stitching, or Delft-ware in Holland. So in all traditional cultures we have this. It’s culturally specific, but at the same time something that we all share.
JS: So in other words it has nothing to do with the American formalism from the Sixties or early Seventies.
ML: You mean in terms of the formalist painting?
ML: It’s more a reaction, a resistance. I am against a hegemonic modernist view. I am interested in the vernacular and see it as a resistance.
JS: What were your references when you started to do this kind of work?
ML: My references were very direct, things that were happening in my environment politically and socially. Do you mean contemporary art references?
JS: Any kind of art, but of course contemporary art as well.
ML: Early on in my development my references and motivations came from the Taiwanese new wave cinema. I learned about Taiwanese culture through the cinema, and that really affected the way I came to think about my work and my relation to cultural identity and history.
JS: And you told me as well that this reference to Taiwanese cinema was parallel with your own struggle and the contradiction between your education and your genealogy.
ML: Yes, that’s also an important point. At the time Taiwanese cinema was searching for an identity and its own language. I think very much in the same way that the French New Wave in the Sixties was trying to create a new language of cinema. In the same way that this new language of cinema was created in the context of that time, I was also searching for my own language and voice to communicate with what was happening at that time in art and in Taiwan.
JS: And what about your references in contemporary art?
ML: At the time there was a lot of reaction against some of the minimalist writings, for example towards Donald Judd’s resistance of certain works that went beyond the specific object. I was thinking also about Franz West, who was quite important for me as an artist, who created provocative relationships with the audience, acting on and manipulating sculptural objects. Also Dan Graham’s critiques of modern architecture and the urban environment were very important for me.
JS: Certain people said you developed a kind of post-Pop aesthetic?
ML: [laughs] I don’t know, those are the sorts of labels that I can’t be responsible for. Pop in the sense that I borrow from popular culture, that I work with everyday objects and things from everyday life. Pop in the sense of popular.
JS: Recently you started to make painting to hang on the walls where the motif is smaller than the field, so a little motif in the middle or on the side. Somehow for me it looks a little bit like Monet, or Jackson Pollock with the idea of all-over, and just a fragment of the gigantic thing on the side.
ML: I’m not sure how I can answer that question, but in terms of what I’ve been doing since 2004, I have started to paint on canvas again, and I’m thinking a lot about serial painting, about the relationship of how the painting is made to how it’s shown. I think a good example was the painting that I made for the contemporary art museum in Tokyo last year, where 90 per cent of the room was the drawing on the wall that connects to the 10 percent that was the painting surface. I am thinking about how a painting becomes a space, the relationship of how a drawing becomes a painting, or which one comes first. There are several different issues I’m trying to explore with painting now. I feel a lot freer now, coming back after years of not making works portable. I come back to painting with more ease, energy and less inhibition to explore the possibilities.
JS: So you were born in Taiwan, lived in Los Angeles, then moved to Paris, then went back to Taiwan, and now you’re living in Shanghai. Why this move to Shanghai at the end for someone who’s always on the move? Why China?
ML: The decisions that brought me to all these places have been a complex and uncertain weave of personal and professional motivations. It was never a specific choice in saying, yes, I want to go there; there are these different kinds of impulses in my life that bring me to these new places. And I think that it’s hard for me to explain why I end up in all these places, but I have the ability since I’ve been moving so much, to be able to assimilate into these environments very quickly and easily. So for me it’s quite easy to move through these different kinds of cultures, to be always in environments that I don’t understand fully. And I don’t know if that’s a quality that could be somehow talked about in relation to my work, just to explain this kind of movement.
JS: We see this in your work. For example, recently you have used cartoon-like figures entering into your world of flowers…
ML: I’m in the midst of having my meeting with David Chen, Director of Shanghai Gallery of Art, about the show coming up in September 08 and I would be very happy if you could come; you would see a whole other trajectory of what we have just been talking about. Maybe by seeing this new show, it would broaden the way you thought about the work before.
JS: I’m sure! This is why I’m still working with you after all these years. You still surprise me a lot!
ML: I hope you come and get a surprise.
JS: How about the question of the making of the painting itself. You use a very interesting process where you make a small drawing, and then you expand it on a large scale, with a lot of assistants working on it. Your process spans the traditional and the contemporary. What do you think about that?
ML: The actual process of the painting is quite straightforward. I find it quite interesting how a lot of people still want me to pose in front of my paintings with a brush, most of the work that I do is much like a readymade. The product at the end is painting, paint on a surface, but the actual relationship to my work, the physical relationship that I have to it, is not a very important point. All the textiles, patterns and colors that you see are all appropriated. I take them directly from the textile. I choose the textile, and how it is cropped and placed. But as far as the composition and the colors, they are coming directly from the textile. I don’t mix colors. It’s a very industrial process. The paints we use are all coming directly from the paint store. The same as what you buy to paint your house. It’s house paint, and as far as the actual painting, because of the scale of the work it was always beyond one person’s ability to paint. Therefore there is always a large team of people working with me or for me. I see myself sometimes as the architect who draws out the plan, and then it is produced, contracted out to a team.
JS: Have you ever thought about making architecture yourself? Because from the beginning you have had this real sense of space. Have you ever thought of building something completely? A real building, or some other architecture?
ML: I’m very interested in architecture. I was not trained as an architect, but I’m interested. I don’t know if I would actually build something completely on my own. With my position and my work, I always work with someone else in a collaborative relationship, or a complementary relationship. So I think this is one point that’s very important about my work—none of it is ever singular in the sense that it exists by itself; it is always there in relation to something else. It is always co-existing with something else. I’ve made some project with architects in the past few years, and my work is there to complement the architecture. And that’s an important point.
August 11 2008