Atelier Michael Lin

Michael Lin and the Concept of Ambience

Nicolas Bourriaud

When Jérôme Sans and I invited Michael Lin to participate in the 2005 Biennale de Lyon, he made a wall drawing for the front of the La Sucrière building that consisted of a monumental reproduction of a tiny wallpaper sample. The gigantic mural extended over a hundred square meters, covering the entire wall surface with the exception of the windows, and was adapted to the surface’s constraints, thereby turning the building into an object. In a few short years Lin has made his mark on the international art scene with a body of works that spread easily identifiable patterns over a variety of surfaces and volumes. But the apparent accessibility of his art is misleading. In my experience of working with him as a curator, the underpinnings of Lin’s work give rise to a number of complex questions.

Just as the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija is often reduced to a sole figure constituted by the redistribution of Thai food, Lin’s is reduced to the reproduction of Asian decorative patterns.

The reductive association of these two artists does little to illuminate the work of either, for both have been wrongly identified with the visual and/or conceptual forms that marked their early efforts. Moreover, their works have other points in common—although not where one might initially expect to find them. First of all, both extract a clearly identifiable form on which to base their work from the general social production and popular culture of their countries of origin. Secondly, both make use of the problematic concept of ambience, something that in the nineteen-nineties developed as an artistic strategy out of its earlier use in music, and of the form that corresponds to this strategy and conveys it, that is, the platform on which the encounter with gallery-goers takes place. But considerations of Lin’s works must also include the observation that painting, and abstraction in particular, have arrived at critical junctures in their history. In every one of Lin’s interventions, each of which is made for a specific architectural space, questions arise about the survival of the work’s lexicon, the autonomy of the piece in relation to the architecture that accommodates it, its resistance to instrumentalization, its effectiveness in relation to a certain historical situation, and its value as a language that attests to an aesthetic position.

In the most varied contexts, Lin tests forms stemming from modernist abstraction by bringing them into contact with the challenging concepts of the decorative and the readymade.

What is a pattern? What is décor? And what becomes of painting when the artist voluntarily subjects it to the play of its disappearance in an ambience?

I. Pattern as a Visual Tool

The salient act of Lin’s work—the reproduction of textile patterns—belongs to a practical category: the post-production of the history of pattern. But before commenting on the meaning and value of the operations that constitute Lin’s works, we must look at their iconography and ask what the artist’s employment of such a repertory of forms means. In many interviews, Lin has foregrounded his personal history and family memories as well as his desire to revive interest in traditional patterns and fabric-dying methods. Must we then conclude that his work is based on the act of making something new out of something old, of “putting the past into the present”? These fabric patterns (which, at least in the early stages of Lin’s work, display traditional Taiwanese floral motifs) are derived from collective memory, anonymously designed, and used to decorate popular artifacts intended for domestic use. Lin’s choice of this basic raw material places him within a specific space–time continuum that has not only a geographical aspect (the Far East), but also certain socioprofessional limits (qualified craftsmanship). These patterns are not immediately recognizable, however, as coming from a bygone era; their persistence over time and eventual international dissemination make them hard to date and thus imbue them with a sort of timelessness. After they are enlarged and incorporated into the artist’s installations, their geographic origin is not always obvious either. Their interlacing, brightly colored flowers or geometric figures in pastel hues could have been produced, in this era of globalization, anywhere in the world. Paradoxically, Lin’s rootedness in a specific context leads to a form of abstraction. Pattern does not constitute, for him, a theoretical point in the same way that it does, for example, for Yinka Shonibare when he features African decorative patterns produced in Indonesia in order to show the cultural dispossession of the peoples of Africa.

Rather, it would seem that his Taiwanese iconographic sources, which the artist has linked to childhood memories, function in Lin’s work just as Daniel Buren’s 8.7-centimeter-wide stripes or André Cadere’s wooden rods do—in other words, as a visual tool that enables him to mark the architectural forms on or within which his work is exhibited. This visual tool proves to be less neutral than Buren’s, however, since it is imbued with strong cultural connotations connected to Taiwan, the world of craft, and, especially, the very nature of textiles. Working from this raw material constitutes a sort of provocation. Fabric has always been viewed, at least in the West, as the very antithesis of painting—as a functional, massproduced, ornamental object; it belongs to the world of decoration, to that of the pretty as opposed to that of the beautiful, or even to that of kitsch.

II. The Decorative and Enlargement

This notion of kitsch could very well be the hidden foundation of Western aesthetics insofar as it constitutes art’s absolute foil, its demon (or, indeed, its “daimon,” in the Platonic sense of the term). Kitsch is the art of the uneducated masses whose interest in form is about pleasure and visual comfort rather than the discomfort that art sets out to produce by questioning our intellectual and visual presumptions. If Henri Matisse came within a hair’s breadth of kitsch when he declared that he wanted to make “works as comfortable as a good armchair,” and if this type of consumer product is now employed by artists such as Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, who draw upon low culture as their raw material, then kitsch remains—as Clement Greenberg put it in his canonical text on avant-garde and kitsch—at the heart of Western art discourse. The way in which Lin has seized upon the problem by constructing spaces from a raw material as insipid as floral fabrics amounts to a sort of formal putsch; from his position as a nomadic Taiwanese artist, Lin questions the foundations of the modernist aesthetic. This first claim is then followed by a second. The decorative is traditionally associated with the world of women, just as the types of patterns Lin uses are associated with gentleness and the domestic realm. This unconscious association follows the same vector: in Lin’s work, both a sense of kitsch and clichés about femininity serve to disrupt the radical character of the installations, like a Trojan horse designed to contain a better discourse.

Critical of the visual regime of art in the age of ambience and marketing display, Lin’s work invades the most heterogeneous contexts like a gas. Moreover, he systematically adapts to his exhibition venue by following a site-specific principle that seeks answers to questions from the nineteen-sixties about the relationship of the work of art to its context.

It could be said that Lin’s installations are based on the principle of unlimited enlargement: the work expands outward exponentially from a chosen pattern, limited only by the confines of the venue. This dimensional convention obviously refers to the world of publicity—the aesthetics of window displays and commercial advertising—as well as to the history of visual art and design. We should not forget that the American Abstract Expressionists adopted large formats precisely when oversized billboards first appeared and when the Hollywood film studios invented the cinematoscope format and VistaVision®, which were designed to immerse viewers in visual spectacles. The way in which Lin extends pattern to monumental dimensions corresponds to a specific historical stage in the capitalist iconography of the oversized, of the image as environment—its gaseous moment.

III. Sampling Social Production

Twentieth-century art developed alongside numerous protocols that made it possible to incorporate objects, images, and figures stemming from both the world of industry and that of craft. Considered radical and avant-garde for their time, these sampling processes now, constitute a repertory of usable gestures and methods—a toolbox, as I described them in my essay “Postproduction.”1 Among these sampling tools, there is, of course, the Duchamp ready-made, which is a pure sampling taken from the world of contemporary consumer objects without any modification. The principle of the ready-made became more complex and diversified in the fifties with the works of Jacques de la Villeglé, Mimmo Rotella, and Raymond Hains (who were named poster artists because they collected and reused torn posters, the visual castoffs of urban industrial iconography), and with those of Belgian artist Jacques Charlier, who in 1964 began making use of his paid position with the technical services department of the city of Liège to exhibit his photographs. Many different sampling methods relating to the pictorial, sculptural, or mechanical representation of consumer objects appeared in the sixties. Pop Art explored the use of the serial processes of mass-produced American culture, while a less well-known movement, that of Mec-art (mechanical art), appeared in 1963–64. Led by the French artist Alain Jacquet and the Italian Gianni Bertini, it set out to explore purely mechanical means of producing images.

The sampling principle that proves to be closest to Lin’s work, however, seems to be located in the concept of Industrial Painting, developed from 1959 on by one of the founders of the Situationist International, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. The Manifesto of Industrial Painting called for an end to perceiving art as an activity separate from other means of production and instead proposed an inflationist art: a “unitary applied art” that is made according to assembly-line principles and exploits the possibilities offered by machines. Thousands of kilometers of paintings must be exhibited in the streets, said Pinot-Gallizio; it was to be an art for the people, one without copyright or authors. Today, when Lin expands a wallpaper sample to the dimensions of an environment, he is to some extent pursuing the dream of the Situationist artist, for he is, quite literally, creating a situation out of elements of popular culture—a virtually inflationist art (since it could, in principle, be enlarged and reproduced endlessly) that is based on production intended for contemporary use.

Although one can find an echo of industrial painting as conceived by Pinot-Gallizio in Lin’s work, Lin has replaced the assembly-line model, which had predominated in 1959, with that of digital telecommuting, which has become the hegemonic model of our era. Lin’s large-scale installations are made, therefore, by pixellating images. Cut up into geometric segments, these images are then painted in the desired dimensions by a team of assistants and assembled at the exhibition site. This moment when the work becomes a huge production site seems to me to belong to the logic of the work itself. Lin is not necessarily physically present at every stage of each project’s fabrication, a fact that corresponds to the underlying logic of contemporary work processes and means of production.

The way in which each assistant is initially confronted with the task of making a tiny fragment of the work, as if it were an independent painting, and is then caught up in a collective act of assembly brings Lin’s work back to its starting point—the workshop that produces the patterns.

IV. The Figure of the Platform

When Jérôme Sans and I were named directors of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 1999, one of our first decisions was to give artists the responsibility for the artistic direction of certain strategic spaces in order to create a center of contemporary art. Beat Streuli, for example, designed a project that used the restaurant windows as its support. When we thought about rearranging the space of the cafeteria, which is located below the exhibition rooms and opens onto the broad terrace joining the Palais de Tokyo to the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, we immediately thought of Michael Lin. This was a two-phase project, first of all because, beginning with the inauguration in January 2002, the work was presented just as it was, in a still undefined space in which visitors could stretch out on cushions that the artist had placed here and there. Some months later, the cafeteria tables and chairs were installed in this zone, and this lent Lin’s spectacular floor piece—a floral pattern in tones of violet, fuchsia, and chrome yellow—a more ambiguous character that lay somewhere between a functional space and one composed of the remains of an independent work.

Lin is one of a generation of artists who in the nineties gave the notion of ambience a conceptual value in its own right. Until then, the term ambience, which stemmed in part from the earlier rise of ambient music and its later spin-offs in the first years of the nineties, was considered as pejorative as the term “decorative.” But from the very moment that the concept of ambience (in other words, the constructed situation) was integrated into a formal artistic project, it was no longer considered as a vacuum: instead, it became one of many plastic elements. The platform, both as an element of the work and as a physical framework for artistic intervention, became one of the most useful vehicles for the formal translation of this notion of the artwork as a structured space which is designed to accommodate visitors and in which a variety of activities can take place. Rirkrit Tiravanija, whom I mentioned earlier, organized his exhibitions in accordance with certain functions, such as having a meal, reading, drawing, etc.; Liam Gillick proposed orchestrated spaces devoted to specific tasks associated with the world of business; and Surasi Kusolwong developed environments in which different activities came together. The entire list of these “platform works” is long and includes reading cubbies, cafés, and spaces for public speaking or collective production. From 1990 to 2000 there was an increasing number of works like these in which the viewer was an integral part of the formal device and constituted one of the figures in the artistic sphere, which is something I tried to describe back then in my essay “Relational Aesthetics.” Lin has always incorporated this idea of a twofold integration of the visitor into his works. Two perfect examples of this are Kiasma Daybed (Helsinki, 2001), a space in which visitors to the exhibition could relax, and Untitled Cigarette Break (Taipei, 1999), a space in which one could smoke. “When you look at a painting,” says Lin, “you are concentrated and on your feet, but the relationship that is established with my works is more physical. It has more to do with the relationship that exists between you and your sofa than it does with the relationship that can exist between you and a painting.”

This physicality of the viewer’s relation to the work answers a canonical question of modernism, that of the management of duration in art. In Art and Objecthood, for example, Michael Fried criticized Minimalist art for its “theatricality” and “scenic” character—in other words, for the inclusion of elements related to duration, which was in opposition to the presentness and immediacy he saw as characterizing pictorial modernism. The platform work extends the problematic issues of Minimalist art and its critique of modernism by organizing the duration of the visitor’s presence in a dialogical manner and by making this duration a formal element in its own right. Here it is the activity (sitting, stretching out, smoking, etc.) that determines duration. This has less to do with the viewing time of the piece, as it might in the work of Tony Smith and Robert Morris, and more to do with the time it takes visitors to pass through the platform-environment, which is regulated by a specific protocol. Michael Lin belongs to a generation of artists that has shaken up our relationship to works of art by treating the visitor/ viewer as a raw material that plays a decisive role in the production of meaning. He accomplishes this by changing the visitor’s static act of viewing into a dynamic one of moving through an environment, but also by reviving the question of what visual tools are necessary for the constitution of platform works like his own.