Atelier Michael Lin

The Painted Garden

Rhana Devenport

Michael Ming Hong Lin transforms architectural spaces into painted gardens of overwhelming delight. The artist floods the interior surfaces of heroically charged architecture with vivid ornamentations featuring amplified flowers, foliage and phoenixes. The visual references are sourced in humble beginnings – the fabrics found in Taiwanese homes as honeymoon bed-covers and pillows. By superimposing magnified versions of these textiles into the authoritative domain of institutional architecture, Lin crafts new meaning within these spaces. The artist deliberately intervenes and interferes with the original architecture. Lin plays the interlocutor, and subverts expectations of what these formal structures are built to accommodate, what ideas they are intended to reinforce, and how visitors are expected to feel and behave within their confines.

Minor arts, minor spaces

Stealthily employing the elements of parody and surprise, Lin toys with hierarchies. Although his imagery is drawn from everyday life, to unfamiliar eyes it appears fabulous and splendid. Here the artist disturbs notions of the exotic and the familiar and plays upon ideas surrounding the exoticisation of ordinary materials in extraordinary circumstances. He forces ‘monumental’ architecture and ‘everyday’ fabrics to meet in unlikely and provocative juxtapositions. His placements within buildings are strategically located. Rather than selecting grand sites for his interventions, he often chooses inconsequential spaces and transitional zones. For APT 2002, Lin’s site of intervention occurs in the transitional, ‘in-between’ space that is not usually considered a prime location for art – the café. This site is a transit zone between outside and inside, a liminal space of entrances and exits, where glassed boundaries are transparent and penetrable. Here visitors may relax, read, eat, gaze outward or peer inward, they can reflect upon what has just occurred, consider what might yet be experienced, and delight in the role of voyeur without censure. By superimposing the ‘minor’ artform of textiles within these ‘minor’ spaces, Lin subverts the way buildings are used. The public art museum, for instance, was originally envisaged as a space where visitors were expected to undergo certain experiences -, being educated, being enlightened and being ‘in awe’ of art. When hallways, floors, structural walls and other functional interior spaces are overlayed with Lin’s lurid patterning, the alliances between authority and public architecture are disputed. Interventions are made across divisions that demarcate high and low art, useless and useful spaces, and public and private domains

In Lin’s spaces, resplendent, florid patterns are transposed over utilitarian surfaces. The arresting visual impact of the transformation invites visitors to linger in unexpected places. In some instances, such as his project ‘Kiasma Day Bed’, Lin creates intimate rest zones, sites for stillness, for daydreaming and temporary dwelling. These are spaces created expressly for doing nothing and where time passes slowly. Bachelard speaks about the subtle changes that occur within spaces through the act of dwelling; ‘The function of inhabiting constitutes the link between full and empty. A living creature fills an empty refuge, images inhabit, and all corners are haunted, if not inhabited.’ 1.

The fabric of memory

Lin began working with Taiwanese fabrics in 1996 having returned to Taipei three years earlier after completing his high school and tertiary education in the United States. Dismayed by local political squabbling in his hometown, Lin immersed himself in a private, domestic life. Painting still-lives at home, he was soon intrigued by the embroidered muslin pillowcases made by his wife. In turn, these remnants of the domestic world were adopted and amplified by the artist as an avenue through which he could explore what it was to be ‘home’.

Everyday fabrics, in constant use in bedrooms and living rooms, could be seen as silent embodiments of memory, as continuous filaments of history that exist within the domain of private life. The artist borrows from textiles found in most Taiwanese homes a decade ago. These are now slowly fading from daily use, being considered a little old fashioned and kitsch. The stories embedded in these materials are invisibly recorded as intangible evocations of intimate life rather than as formal documents of events articulated through language. By referencing these fabrics and the inherited sensibilities that surround them, Lin tracks through temporal and spatial realms as he borrows specific cultural nuances and iconographies that remain as traces within these cloths.

A turbulent history of influences from Portugal, The Netherlands, Spain and Japan has been inflicted upon Taiwan since 1517 through colonisation. Household fabrics may be understood as persistent filaments of inherited linking back through the millennia. Patterned textiles have a long history in the region. The imagery of commercially printed fabrics in Taiwan could be traced back to the fine silk tapestries (‘cut silk’) of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) which feature exquisite configurations of birds and flowers in opulent colours. These in turn reference the tapestries from the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) being the golden age of the artform in China. Silk embroidery as an artform is even older, the earliest surviving evidence was excavated from a tomb of the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in the southern Hunan province.

Through his art, Lin undertakes a vital process as he salvages images rendered invisible by daily use within the peripheral domain of home, function, craft and subjective life. Cultural lineage, spheres of overt and subtle influence and hierarchies of power are gently provoked from the personal perspective of the artist’s own life, family and home. Lin explains:

I lived in [the] country with my grandfather when I was a little boy. I still remember such muslins were made into bedding as a girl’s dowry, to me they also mark an age when Taiwan was transferring from manual production to mechanical production, and from rural to urban. That’s why I insist on using hand-made paintings in my work. 2.

Hand-made, home-made

Lin consciously references the home-made; he uses motifs derived from ordinary household applications, generated by and through domestic textile design and fabrication, an activity mostly undertaken by women. By highlighting this often-anonymous artform, Lin critiques notions of authorship and originality. The artist rejects commercially driven systems of mass production and undertakes a laborious process whereby designs are transferred via projection onto wood. The artist then collaborates with a team of people to hand-paint the images. If the amplification occurred via photographic or digital means, this new super-graphic would launch different interpretations. Through his chosen working system, Lin taunts the ‘Made in Taiwan‘ emblem as internationally synonymous with consummate manufacturing techniques. Gestures of the hand are evident in Lin’s painted cladding which camouflage the underlying surfaces. A sensual quality, usually absent from public buildings, is invoked. Lin takes his disruption of hierarchies one twist further by often inviting his audience to step onto and into the work, or by touching, using and lying upon it. Thus the preciousness of the hand-made artwork is undermined and rendered serviceable as well as picturesque.

Tactile sensitivity

Kenneth Frampton suggests in his essay ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism’ that architects can mitigate against the forces of a bland and ubiquitous internationalism. He warns of the fine line architects must negotiate between the use of sheer-surfaced technological materials, and the tendency to regress into nostalgia or glib decoration. Rather than an over-emphasis on the scenographic, Frampton pleads for a heightening of the senses within the built environment, what he calls ‘tactile sensitivity’ within ‘place-form’;

One has in mind a whole range of complementary sensory perceptions which are registered by the labile body: the intensity of light, darkness, heat and cold; the feeling of humidity; the aroma of material; the almost palpable presence of masonry as the body senses its own confinement; the momentum of an induced gait and the relative inertia of the body as it traverses the floor; the echoing resonance of our own footfall. 3.

Lin consciously abandons a generic and international visual language in favour of visual forms located in his home place by adopting vernacular fabrics of Taiwan as his idiom. And by introducing ‘down’ spaces into formal architecture, the artist re-focuses his audience’s awareness on the sensual aspects of their own presence within the space. Domestic architecture, with its workaday messiness and rampant array of decorated surfaces, remains embedded in the hidden fabric of the city. Monumental architecture, meanwhile, often predominates as a site for internationalism. By locating his work in museums and public buildings, Lin restores the presence of the intimate and personal in these spaces and activates these sites with an energy and intent that is seductive and disruptive. Further, by employing magnification, Michael Ming Hong Lin arrests and transports the viewer.

Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. 4.

Lin uses mimicry and imperfect replication to achieve his sometimes discrete, sometimes startling interventions as he creates painted gardens in public spaces, inscribed for private use.