Atelier Michael Lin

No longer can anything exist in isolation

Pauline J. Yao

In the face of the realities of Chinese culture as a whole, the greatest responsibility of China’s intellectuals and artists is to exert every effort at any cost to help the people of China to shed the past and transform into a society of free and creative spirits. This will be the true measure of China’s ‘modernization.’

The world is watching closely the future of Chinese art!1

In this spirited manifesto, drafted in 1985 by the New York based Overseas United Chinese Artists, Ai Weiwei and his compatriots outline a series of points pertaining to the future development of Chinese art. Filled with enthusiasm for art’s potential to bring transformative change, the rallying cries it contains are at once naïve and prophetic. The words grab at a collective spirit and group identity that equates creative output with grand narratives of progress and modernization. It would be hard to ignore certain parallels this has to an earlier moment in art history, namely the Russian constructivist agenda of the early 1910s and its west European counterpart of the 1920s. This was a period captivated by the sense that art, like society, could be utterly transformed in the here and now. The creative act in art became synonymous with the mental and spiritual work needed to perfect the substance of material and spiritual life and the creative mind of “Man” was equated with the construction of the whole of our culture. The period bred politically engaged artists who considered it their duty to build a better society, and who, in applying their artistic skills towards industrial production, took the conscious path towards developing « new things for the new life. » It was not a time for picturing social form per se, nor struggling with realms of representation, but instead engaging with social life itself as a form of production and medium of expression. In so doing, the dream of redemption, of creating an imagined community to counteract endless alienation could take its form in the avant-garde banner – “art into life!”

For the Overseas United Chinese Artists, as for other artists working inside China during the 1980s, massive changes within societal structures were already underway. Intersplicing art into the praxis of life and common society was but one way to reinvigorate the existing institutions and to encourage radical ways of thinking about China’s future path to change. But if earlier eras in China have been dominated by calls to ‘modernization’ then this one is more steadily fixated upon notions of ‘production’. In a constant state of regeneration, rebuilding and renewal, the specter of production looms large in contemporary Chinese society, and its logic embeds itself in material production—manufacturing, assembly, and industry, as well as to its immaterial forms—namely, the social production of a new society. This rhetoric has led many contemporary artists in China over recent years to overtly comment upon production in their work, be it through appropriating assembly line manufacturing (Liu Ding’s Products, 2005), engaging with the space of the factory floor (Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia, 2006-2007) or re-situating the space of making and industrial production within the gallery space (Zheng Guogu’s Processing Factory, 2008; Zhang Peili’s Mute, 2009). These visual references are matched by artists who make use of semi-industrial methods in the creation of their own art, through practices of hiring unskilled workers to assist in the making process, such as artists Zhang Huan, Ai Weiwei, Liu Wei and Yan Lei among others.

And yet, the questions of doing, making, being, seeing and saying that encircle issues of production in art are enmeshed with those of labor, and where labor is involved, politics are never far behind. China’s frequent moniker as “the world’s factory” derives from an essential fact: by global standards, labor in China is relatively cheap and plentiful. By the mid-1990s, surveys estimated that the number of internal migrant laborers ranged from fifty to seventy million nationwide, a number that ballooned to over 130 million by 2006.2 These numbers are prerequisite to China’s exponential growth, which has been averaging 10 to 12 percent for the last few years, finally earning its place as the world’s second-largest economy. Few would agree that such growth is without serious risks—surges in labor unrest, widening income gaps, rampant corruption and pollution to name just a few. But with these numbers also comes higher awareness and changing attitudes towards this growing service population: from migrant worker museums in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to more slight shifts in vocabulary. In a rather short time, the term ‘migrant worker’ or mingong has grown less frequent, replaced by the more general term of dagong, which means ‘working for the boss’ or, more accurately ‘selling labor’. Connotations in the latter to commodification and a capitalist exchange of labor for wages are readily apparent. It is worth noting that both of these contrast with the term gongren or urban worker, which carries a certain status in Maoist socialist rhetoric. The new term dagong diverts strongly from earlier heroic representations of workers endless toiling away collectively towards in the name of socialist ideals and instead rather pointedly suggests a hired hand or wage worker—a mere (powerless) cog within the wheels of the capitalist system.

Even though terminology used by authorities or media to define today’s workers has shifted, one can say that their official status has not. Most wage laborers carry rural household registration but their social status and class identities remain ambiguous at best. Even though they are permitted to go out from their homeplace to work, they are not granted rights to urban permanent residence permits. Maintenance of the distinction between permanent and temporary residents through the household registration system enables the state, at all levels, to sidestep obligations to provide housing, job security, and welfare to rural migrant workers. As a result, most live in either factory-provided collective dormitories, in substandard migrant villages in the outskirts of the city, or in temporary housing set up on a construction site. Despite obvious downturns in the economy that have slowed productivity and annual growth projections to a modest yet robust 7.5 percent, the impetus placed upon manufacturing and producing in art is contained by the counterpoint of unseen labor that brings it all to life.

Enter Michael Lin’s current project Model Home, a total work of art that, in Brechtian terms, looks at production not solely in terms of what is being presented on the stage, but in terms of the entire apparatus. The walls of each floor function as one extended canvas, a continuous surface that binds public and private, commencement and completion. Lin makes use of the walls in the foyer entrance in the same manner as those of the galleries above, and the hierarchies of space usually found in museums are thus realigned and redsitributed. Evolving from the ground floor to the top, lines of Lin’s chosen pattern wrap the interior in a crescendo of completion that reaches its apotheosis only at the uppermost level. The painting thus stands in for the process of construction itself: it is representative of a process-based practice whereby the act of making is indistinguishable from the finished product. As such it disrupts traditional perceptions art as a single event or object authored beforehand and subsequently presented to an audience. Such a meta-construct is also enacted through collaborative gestures whereby Lin cedes authorial control to other parties further dissuades traditional renderings of singularity and individual expression. For if art is understood as an expression of autonomy and unity (above all the unity of the authorial intention), then any concession to contingency, spontaneity and multiplicity will be perceived as a transgression. Additionally, most art inhabits two registers of labor—one involving the symbolic value of the work itself, the act of creation and making, and the other involving the hermeneutic labor of the audience when asked to engage and confront the work.3 Lin’s work has traditionally gone further, not only because the scale of production requires a modest consumption of labor, but because in his practice semantic and symbolic labor converge—there is a willful collapse between stage and audience, between aesthetic and social realms. As Walter Gropius stated, “No longer can anything exist in isolation. We perceive every form as the embodiment of an idea, every piece of work as a manifestation of our innermost selves.4

This inward turn gives us cause to consider another crucial aspect in relation to Model Home and Lin’s practice in general, namely: what is art’s relationship to the social? One answer might be found in the recent shift towards social practice in contemporary art, the so-called ‘social-turn’ trend that got its start in the 1990s. The theoretical horizon of relational aesthetics, or relational art, as outlined by Bourriaud, takes “the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.”5 If pre-modern art examined the relationship between humankind and the non-human transcendental (the deity), and modern art explored the relationship between humankind and the external world (the object), relational art marks a shift to a new paradigm: art that examines humankind’s relationship to itself. Such an assessment is contingent upon seeing the realm of the social as generative and capable of producing new notions of community and collectivity. Among other things, relational art is credited with the creation of “convivial aesthetics” that is, works that emphasize interpersonal relationships, a communal space for sharing and soliciting interaction between individuals. The defining trait of these works becomes interactivity and participation. They become collaborative by virtue of the fact that the interaction of the viewer is required to create meaning, and seeks to undermine the sovereignty of the author in order to empower the viewer.

However, all of the concentration on creating spaces of ambiguous human relations and providing a means of open participation and interaction belies the role of the artist as sole instigator or creator of such social spaces and the behind the scenes director of the labor that generates them. As critics have pointed out, relational art and participatory art hardly signals the death of the author, rather some believe it reinforces it since more and more authors are needed to help newly empowered readers/viewers catalyze their own agency. Additionally, the actual work required to create these environments in the first place is often overlooked. In other words, there would be no meals shared with Rirkrit Tiravanija if Tiravanija was not laboring and working to prepare the meal; no benches on which to have conversations if they were not meticulously fabricated by a team of workers, no silver-wrapped candies to take away if there was not someone to wrap such candies let alone move them and set up according to the artist’s instructions. The forms of labor associated with art production in visual art have taken on new meaning in art’s social turn, a turn whereby art, in becoming a situation or a process, cannot shed its ties to a collective and material being. “A work is now a club, a bar, a meal, a cinema, a hang-out, a dance floor, a game of football or a piece of furniture” as Lars Bang Larsen recently claimed, and “the sole author and the contemplative beholder were atomized in works that called for togetherness and were often created by collectives or self-organized entities.”6

Michael Lin’s interest in creating spaces of conviviality owes much to this dialogue. He has become known for large-scale paintings of textile patterns that transform non-descript, transitional architectural spaces into ‘situations’ that introduced a dimension of social interaction and shared conviviality to the typically solitary art viewing experience. The social component of Lin’s practice starts with his production process. Over the years, Lin has employed countless assistants and art students around the world—a community in its own right—to assist with the production of his work. By rough calculations, over the last ten years Lin has hired in the realm of four to five hundred assistants, some of which work for a period of time lasting six to eight weeks. In the same way that Lin’s practice works to create a space of inter-personal relations; it simultaneously inhabits that same space through concentrated work and production, sometimes for a period of time equal to the period of exhibition. His mode of working relies primarily upon skilled labor—usually art students or recent art graduates skilled in the craft of painting. The replicability of craft practice is crucial to Lin’s method and is essential to the social operation of the workshop. Craft knowledge is discursive and transmissible; comprised of skills that can be taught and passed on, thereby providing a platform for shared labor that can be used to mobilize new relationships. In its ideal form, the workspace hierarchies evaporate and each painter becomes an equal participant in the development of the work. Model Home suggests a change occurring not just in the working process and enlisting collaborators and co-authors to the finished result but signals a deeper change within the artist himself: for the first time Lin foregoes his usual practice of hiring copious students and skilled painters and has chosen to instead with a limited number of contracted laborers. These workers have no special skills in painting or art background—and will perform their tasks with limited direction from Lin. Additionally they will live and work on-site within the space of the museum. Such a process has in part been designed to allow for imperfections and to disrupt notions of authorial control.

Lin’s work and career has long embraced different but closely related features of a central concept: generosity. Giving away beer and cigarettes, treating the audience to a comfortable place to rest or listen to music—these gestures of magnanimity are designed also to foster a sense of togetherness and communality. In the social contract that is the art experience, the audience member, or viewer, is a recipient of what the artist makes…but what happens when the artist is not the maker? Or when there are multiple makers? Acts of generosity within Lin’s practice are extended further for Model Home as the artist invites others to participate in the creative process, resulting in a dislocation of the authorial voice. The call to participation that surrounds much international contemporary art practice today is part of a larger dialogue centered on the social dimension of collaborative, participatory, or collectively produced art that arguably situates itself within a history of avant-garde and dematerialized art forms.7 For Lin, soliciting viewer participation and encouraging a common spirit is part of a larger task of transforming the conventions of how modern art functions—namely, the radical separation of art and its public. By association, this would include the distinction between individually authored art object and the author him or herself. As Enwezor states, “Collective work complicates further modernism’s idealization of the artwork as the unique object of individual creativity. In collective work we witness the simultaneous aporia of artwork and artist.”8 Tellingly, the subtitle for Model Home is not “A Work by Michael Lin” but rather “A Proposition by Michael Lin”. The phrasing suggests the hypothetical space of a proposal rather than a finished work, an experiment in collectivism rather than a steadfastly solo-oriented gesture. What Lin is proposing is a collaborative process imbued with a multiplicity of voices and disciplines, and which actively transcends feelings of modern-day alienation and distanciation through more meaningful encounters with the self. Model Home represents collectivism’s primordial appeal, that is, the desire to experience oneself as an encompassing being of a nation or state or public; part of an imagined community where ideals cohere and boundaries of difference are transgressed, even temporarily.

As the words in the manifesto of the Overseas United Chinese Artists attest, the collective social form is always first and foremost a fetish—a part that substitutes for the whole. The fetish we are experiencing now in visual art is the redemptive dream of collectivism, evident throughout today’s infatuations with socially engaged art, community-based art, and participatory or relational art—all of which stress the process and space of inter-subjectivity and communality over the concrete production of an art object. The questions scholars, critics and artists have put to art over the years concerning an artwork’s relationship to other artworks, to itself, and to larger society, in fact have less to do with the actual process of production than of the individual artist’s relationship to society and the stake of human relations and everyday social reality. As Lin proposes, such practices do not supercede questions of material production and the consumption of labor but they do offer new ways of thinking about collective authorship and collapsing distances between producer and consumer, artist and audience. Enfolding the act of making into Model Home, and collaborating with architects, designers and sound artists in the process, Lin’s continual goal of imagining a truly free and open space finds its ground. It is also on this ground where a fruitful and lively engagement between art and life begins.

1 Manifesto of Overseas United Chinese Artists, 1985, New York, private collection of Joan Lebold Cohen, accessible online:

2 See “Patterns of Temporary Labor Migration of Rural Women from Anhui and Sichuan”, The China Journal, July 2004, Roberts, Kenneth; Connelly, Rachel; Xie, Zhenming; Zheng, Zhenzhen and also China State Council Research Office Team (2006) Research Report on China’s Migrant Workers [in Chinese]. Beijing: Zhongguo Yanshi Publishing House.

3 See Grant Kester, The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 100-106

4 Walter Gropius, “The Theory and Organization of the Bauhaus” published in Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003): 310.

5 See Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p.??

6 see Lars Bang Larsen, “The Long Nineties”, Frieze, Issue 144 (January-February), 2012.

7 See Participation (Documents on Contemporary Art), ed. Claire Bishop (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 10-17.

8 Okwui Enwezor, “The Production of Social Space as Artwork”, published in Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945, ed. Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007): 223-224.