FOR HIS 2008 exhibition What a Difference a Day Made, Michael Lin committed the ultimate act of retail therapy: he bought everything in a shop. The artist had moved to Shanghai in 2006, becoming quickly aware of a distance that existed between himself and the people around him: “I guess I’m ‘Chinese’, I blend in quite easily here. At the same time, due to my educational background, and also culturally and economically, there’s this distance,” he says.
It was a series of non-incidents that led him to this breakthrough – the discovery that other units in his building were inhabited by multiple families, whereas he and his then girlfriend enjoyed the same amount of space to themselves. The revelation that while he cowered in front of electric heaters and under electric blankets in winter, his neighbours wore coats indoors and left the windows open. The realisation that instead of at 7-Elevens and Ikeas, the locals frequented a za huo dien – a general store, “a shop that contained all of the things in my neighbour’s houses that they were using in their daily lives. For me that was a cabinet of curiosities, a museum of the everyday,” he says.
And so Lin came one day to this shop, with a couple of calculators and a couple of staff from his gallery and a big moving truck, and for his inaugural exhibition at The Shanghai Gallery of Art, bought the whole shebang, which he proceeded to inventory and categorise. It came to 4,000-plus items and some 400 types of things. An upstairs gallery was transformed into the shop, complete with a shop front – “Some people actually thought the gallery had moved, and walked away,” Lin laughs – and, to demonstrate the physicality of the items, performers from the Shanghai circus were pulled in to juggle the various things.
“There was this idea of trying to find this language that I knew that my neighbours and the people in Shanghai would understand. It wasn’t like I was making abstract paintings so that they would walk in and say, ‘I don’t understand’. There was no barrier between what I was showing at the gallery and what they knew. I found, somehow, a vernacular, a language, a dialect. It was a way to allow me to somehow bring the audience in and engage them in something.”
This hunger for interaction was present in Lin’s work long before his move to Shanghai. The Tokyo-born, America-educated Taiwanese artist found himself living in his ethnic hometown in 1994, after his graduate studies, a period during which he produced some of his most famous works, many of them involving large-scale handpainted versions of a Taiwanese flower print often found on quilts and pillowcases. The use of the motif, like the recreation of the general-needs shop, was a device to induce feelings of familiarity. “[The flower motif] was something that was somehow in the collective memory of the people, that they recognised immediately,” he says.
The idea of involving people in his work first occurred to Lin when he was working with a Taiwanese art collective called IT Park, in 1994. “For the opening of my show, they built a bar in the gallery. They knew when I was in school in LA that I worked as a bartender, so they said, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t really have anyone who knows how to make drinks, so can you man the bar?’ This was a real collective so there was no hierarchy and we were all working together, so I said, ‘Yeah, sure, great.’ That I was a bartender at my own exhibition inside the gallery was a very important kind of relation that was set up there for me. It triggered a lot of different questions and that really was where my work was cultivated. I worked at IT Park for two years serving drinks. Most artists make their work, and they hang it on the wall or install it, and then they walk away. And because I worked there, I was there all the time, and I’d often have to answer questions, so I was in that position where I could see how people interact, and what kind of questions they have. And not only that, I was serving them drinks, and drinking with them. That’s how somehow I started to think about art as more of an event.”
This inadvertent side job caused Lin to question the relationship of the artist to his work, his audience and his environment. In 2004’s Grind, an installation at MOMA’s PS 1 cafe, he used the floral design to envelop an entire room of the dining venue, wrapping diners in his art. In 2008, in Untitled Gathering, that floral print was splashed across a mosaic of square-topped stools that could be pulled apart and rearranged from the main structure.
Because of the scale of his work, and its interactive nature, Lin was a natural favourite for art extravaganzas, the biennales and triennales that take place across the globe. The floral motif was the most salient common denominator, but his predilection for working with space and architecture also grew to be a signature – and ultimately, a facet of the work that was less suffocating for the artist. Although he expanded the repertoire of his prints beyond the confines of Taiwan, working with the ethnically relevant patterns of other cultures, he ultimately abandoned the practice.
“[The floral motif] was pre ‘lifestyle’, I would say. Because ‘lifestyle’ is such a term in the last 15 years. This was pre lifestyle, pre branding. I feel that those two things took over how I work, and I understand why, because of the scale of my work, so the visual impact kind of overtook some of the more subtle and contextual impetuses that came with it.” He moved forward with pieces like What a Difference a Day Made, using new tropes to induce that same cultural nostalgia.
Lin’s work may be less brand-able today, but core elements remain true. In the Encounters section of Art Basel in Hong Kong, audiences will have a chance to see – and no doubt touch – for themselves Lin’s latest commission, large-scale pieces punctuating the web of booths at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. As always, it will touch on Lin’s desire to bring people into his space.
“It’s a work that’s really made for the fair,” says Lin. “It’s a monument-slash-public furniture. My starting point is always, what is the site, what is the context? Basically an art fair environment is kind of like a museum, in that it’s kind of a non-site. It’s built for a purpose and then it’s taken down. There are these kind of ‘public squares’ that happen in these fairs, they’re these roads of booths. So I thought of it as this public space, I think that’s what Encounters is really about – to have works that are not within the frame of the gallery, but really out in the open. I really thought about a public sculpture. It’s, maybe, my monument.”
Lin, of course, will be on site to assemble the piece, and will most likely be lurking somewhere near it – though this time, consuming drinks, rather than serving them.