I first became familiar with Michael Lin’s work around 2008 when we began planning for his monumental installation on the Georgia Street façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery for the 2010 Olympics. Working between Brussels, Shanghai and Taipei, Lin has developed a multi-faceted and innovative practice known for reconfiguring public spaces and engaging audiences in unusual ways. Often invoking traditional motifs derived from Taiwanese textiles, he has created hand-painted installations for museum lobbies, cafés, and building exteriors that push the boundaries of contemporary painting and transform the way audiences perceive these spaces.
Interview by Emmy lee Wall
Portrait by Jennifer Latour
Copy Edited by Tina Shabani
You graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design in 1990 and received your MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1993. What kind of work were you making during this time?
During my time in Pasadena I was interested in cinema. After graduating I moved back to Taiwan thinking that I would apprentice myself to one of the Taiwanese New Wave Cinema directors.
What triggered your interest in painting after your initial focus on cinema?
I dropped the idea of working in cinema when I discovered a group of artists with similar backgrounds running an artist run space called IT Park. Half of the artists in this collective had just returned home from studies abroad in Europe and the United States. In the beginning I started to paint mostly for economic reasons. At the same time I am not sure if what I was doing could be called painting. For my first exhibition at IT Park I took panels of steel to the auto body shop to be sprayed.
A TALE OF TODAY, 2016
Your work currently comprises so many different media — painting, sculpture, installations of objects as well as monumental painting installations that transform a public space. Could you tell us a bit about how your practice became so multi-faceted and how these varied components fit together?
My work predominantly concerns itself with an engagement of the site of presentation whether that is an exhibition space or a particular locality. So media and scale are choices that are made accordingly.
MR. & MRS. PAUL MELLON
In engaging the site of presentation, are you attempting to call into question or somehow shift the relationship between art and architecture?
At a certain point I felt that painting (a discrete two-dimensional object hanging on a wall) in an exhibition space was unable to address the questions I wanted to pose. I started first by painting on the floors, then the walls outside of the exhibition spaces, in entrance halls, exterior walls, and around corners. I became more concerned with architecture and the spaces created by the walls, the urban landscape, and public spaces. Rather than architecture as a container or frame for art I am interested in it being an integral part of the experience and meaning of art.
There seems to be a very democratic aspect to your work. You are taking painting—traditionally a very revered object not to be touched—off the walls and allowing people to walk on it, sit on it and touch it. Is this a conscious element of your practice?
The main question that was very important to the development of my work at the time was the relationship between my practice and the audience. I was thinking very pragmatically about the actual contact point of the audience and the artwork. I worked at IT Park gallery not only as one of the artists of the collective but also the bartender and manager. I answered questions, designed invitations, made drinks, and also spent a great deal of time watching people looking and interacting with art. I saw the exhibition very much as a ritual, starting with the installation, the opening party, to the de-installation. At a certain point I saw the artist’s role as a host, and the audience’s role as a guest.
You were born in Tokyo and grew up in Japan and the US. You now live and work in Brussels, Taipei and Shanghai. Do you think living in between these different sites of cultural production has affected your practice?
Definitely. I believe that growing up in these different cultures has influenced my practice, but even more so practicing in these different cultures has informed and shaped my work.
UTAH SKY 2065-40, 2015
Your large-scale painting installations appropriate traditional Taiwanese textile patterns, which are quite decorative – a word that can carry a negative connotation in contemporary art circles! Can you tell us a bit about your selection of these designs and their significance in your work?
When I returned to Taiwan after almost 20 years in the United States I worked on a restoration project supported by the government of my ancestral home. At the time I was coming to terms with my cultural history, a question that happened to coincide with the political and cultural turning point in Taiwan. Ornament is something that was purged from all traditional cultures in the modernizing process. Ornament is craft and points back to more of a collective expression. I was interested in how these issues could be raised through this traditional form.
I like the idea of the patterns you use pointing to a “collective expression”. Can you tell us a bit more about the purpose of that?
The patterns that I appropriated were immediately recognizable to the audience as something coming from their daily lives. They were something from the recent past, part of a collective history specific to Taiwan. They were not clearly linked to the cultural tradition that came from China, but were more complex and pointed also to the Japanese colonial past.
As the government in Taiwan transitioned from a dictatorship to a full democracy in the 90’s, questions of the colonial past and the Chinese cultural tradition were heavily debated. These competing histories, one, which was completely erased and the other instrumentalized to counter the Cultural Revolution in China by the ruling government, were being questioned by the opposition party which was steadily gaining popular support.
It’s so interesting that these seemingly “decorative” patterns point to such a rich history. It’s also poignant that while you are using these traditional motifs that were historically mass produced, your monumental works are actually hand-painted, complicating ideas around originality, repetition and appropriation. Can you discuss your thoughts around this?
It is important that my work is handmade in the same way that traditional crafts are valued on skill and accumulation of labor. The role of traditional craft was one of the models that I use to conceptualize my work. In this way I attempted to position my practice in the context of Taiwan where modern and contemporary art were seen as foreign imports that had no relation to traditional culture. It was a way to establish continuity with tradition rather than a complete break as expounded by Modernism. To see my practice as coming from a craft tradition is to see it as work or labour rather than creation, the prevalent romantic idea of the artist as creator at the time in Taiwan.
Are you able to tell us what you have planned for your commision at the Central Presbyterian Church in Vancouver? Did the religious setting affect your thought process in conceiving the work?
It was quite a surprise when I received the commission from the Central Presbyterian Church since ornamentation is often absent in the churches. I was asked to work on the glass curtain façade of the building. I was interested in the idea of the projection of color.
Can you tell us what other projects and exhibitions you are currently working on?
I am currently working on a large-scale project for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, a collaborative project for the Shenzhen Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, and a group exhibition at the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome.
Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us Michael!