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Take Away My Authority

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 15, 2012

Originally published in Model Home, A Proposition by Michael Lin. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


The aim of this show is to take away my authority and to bring in as many other people as possible…. A lot of things are being left open. not because of lack of time but because the material of the process is the subject.

Michael Lin[1]

In this kind of space, science turns into poetics. Architecture becomes the framework in which this can occur.
Yoshihara Tsukamoto[2]

In 1971, the Italian artist Alghiero e Boetti travelled to Afghanistan and set up an embroidery workshop at a hotel in Kabul. Working with local antiquities dealers, he gathered a group of craftswomen to produce a hand-embroidered map of the world. Following the artist’s directives, the Afghan embroiderers represented each country’s territory by the patterns and colors of its national flag. This relationship, subverting divisions between artist  and maker and giving concept, method and process equal significance in the final work of art, engaged Boetti until his death in 1994 and resulted in his bestknown series, Mappa. At first, Boetti was meticulous in laying out each new map, selecting the color thread for each diagram and checking errors as work progressed over months or years. But as the series continued, he became interested in the chance mistakes the anonymous, commonly illiterate Afghan women made, particularly in their choice of color for the ocean, whose nature they had never seen: the blue morphed into green, purple, and even pink. National flags changed, too, as new territorial divisions and political identities came into being in the wake of wars, revolutions and regime changes. Inscriptions in Farsi drafted by Boetti’s coordinators make up the borders of each Mappa, usually recounting the circumstances of the local production, quoting Sufi poetry, and dating works according to the Islamic Afghan calendar. After the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by Russian troops, Boetti’s production moved to Peshawar in Pakistan, where the group of Afghans had taken refuge.

According to Boetti, his embroidery works are not a form of collaboration in the contemporary sense. Rather, they are “visualizations of different anonymous realities—nameless yet with his or her own name.” Beauty lay in the co-existence of other realities and his reality.[3] These singular but co-existing realities include the worlds of ancient handicraft and avant-garde art, decoration and script, women’s work and men’s work, the secular and religious. They also include the jarring differences between capitalist Europe and war-ravaged Central Asia of the late Cold War era. Boetti’s work questions the inevitability of authorship and authority by ceding individual subjectivity and creativity—modernism’s central truths—to a collection of people working across great distances in radically diverse fields and socio-political realities. Ultimately, the meaning of Mappa resides in the very dislocation of meaning.

The politics and poetry of Boetti’s long-term project working with Afghan craftswomen 3000 miles away from his Rome studio resonates with Model Home: A Proposition by Michael Lin. This project operates as a workplace inhabited by disparate sets of co-workers. By willfully ceding his artistic control through a range of partnerships, associations, and cooperative contracts, from urban theorists in Tokyo to migrant laborers in Shanghai, Michael Lin demonstrates the latest in what I call the “network paradigm” in contemporary global art practice. This term describes a recent phenomena that goes beyond Public Art and Relational Aesthetics popular in the 1990s. While grounded in similar ideas about art as a platform or laboratory for social interaction and political engagement, the “network paradigm” points to a form of art expressly committed to working with people in fields and among realities far outside the arts. It is an open workplace in real and online space, alive with errant discussions and unpredictable group dynamics, and committed to creative research on the state of our planet. It simulates the Internet model of blogs as infinitely variable social media networks, rather than defined containers of content: Users can freely access, consume and forward content in any direction. Projects arising from this model won’t add up to make sense about anyone subject; rather, they challenge our codes of cognition and incite new ones through unexpected interactions and connections. Drawing on people and ideas that cross disciplines, media, historical periods, cultural discourses, economic class and national borders, the rural and the urban, the “network paradigm” overturns the authority of the artist in favor of dynamic and unscripted participation—a spectacular subversion of power. Michael Lin’s call to “take away my authority” is a desire to engage with this emerging social intelligence.

Space to Occupy

Like Boetti, the basic element of Michael Lin’s art is the appropriation and reconfiguration of ornament and craft to serve a conceptual-art idiom. In Lin’s case, he takes the bold, brilliantly-hued floral patterns of mass­produced Taiwanese fabric typically used in domestic settings for bedding and pillows and blows them up to cover canvases, gallery furniture, and entire walls, inside and out, of public institutions. The style of his peonies, iris, cosmos, and sprays of fringed pinks set against bright single color backgrounds are a hybrid of Chinese decorative-arts imagery, Japanese colonial culture (which introduced the futon bedding cover) and Taiwanese mixed desire for East Asian branding. Unlike a found object or readymade in the Dadaist and Pop Art sense, Lin’s commonplace decorative patterns link to premodern, feminine and domestic ideals, and blur the lines between the vernacular, popular and intimate. By bringing these motifs of Taiwanese material culture into the modernist halls of high culture, displacing them from their domestic origins, he opens a space to display all kinds of “difference.” Their temporary nature is also unsettling: Monumental in their altered scale, they are meticulously hand-painted by teams of assistants on plywood panels and then destroyed at the end of each installation.

As critic and curator Hou Hanru has written, Lin’s “essential concern…is not so much about painting as it is about the public space and the role of the contemporary artist in the public sphere.”[4] Rather than make paintings to stand in front of, Lin makes paintings to walk through, lie on, play in. They are more like a medium than a thing. As early as 2002, Lin acknowledged that he was “more interested in creating a painting as a space to occupy.”[5] By turning architectural spaces into “situations” that are interactive and provisional, Lin invites the visitor to take an active role in the work’s production of meaning.[6]

Over the last decade, Lin’s site-specific installations have become increasingly architectural and participatory. He covered the whole Palais de Tokyo lobby floor with pattern and pillows for the public to use (2002), organized a wedding by lottery in a room he covered at Contemporary Art Gallery St. Louis (2004), and created a huge spiral ramp for kids to run around at the Jardin Public at the Edinburgh International Festival (2007). While working within the institutional frame, he incited social activities normally outside that frame to happen.

Model Home takes a more radical turn. Feeling his painting had become like a “brand” and people were becoming “blind to the actual work and its social impetus”, Lin approached the Rockbund Art Museum commission as a way to ‘”to open myself up, to blur, to subvert my own product.”[7]

Lin’s first concept was to hgire Chinese construction workers to make his branded blown-up floral patterns on the walls of the museum and to have them live onsite during the process. In the past, he used art students. This time, Lin would specifically chose strangers who are unskilled in painting and indifferent to his art. This co-existence of realities would be housed in worker dwellings designed by Lin’s friends and former project collaborators, Yoshihara Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima of Atelier Bow-Wow, Tokyo. According to Tsukamoto, Lin wanted “to integrate what is happening in China now into his museum space.”[8] By bringing in laborers (gongren), they could address China’s huge social problem of workers living like squatters on their construction sites thousands of miles away from their homes. In a tiny way, they could interface with the 170 million migrants scattered across China’s largest cities who have built the fastest urban sprawl in history—the defining agent of contemporary Chinese life. “I was interested that by working with architects I can be in touch with the real,” Lin mused. “That’s because architecture is implicated more directly with the social.”[9]

Creative Ecologies

Founded in 1992, Atelier Bow-Wow is at the forefront of contemporary urban theory and building design dealing with the uses and production of “social space.” Eschewing form as the sole criteria of architectural meaning, Tsukamoto and Kaijima look instead at how micro, add-on and spill-over buildings making up the urban fabric of Tokyo recast architecture as interplay of contingencies between situation, environment and human use. The commingling of ordinary human activity, natural elements like rain, humidity and light, and built form resulting from continuous trial and error make up an “ecosystem of behavior.” Within this reality, Tsukamoto writes,

architecture becomes the central nod capably synthesizing and facilitating these disparate behaviors. Architecture makes it possible for daily spatial practice to be properly situated in a much broader context. That which is usually solely the realm of social relationships is expanded to include nature and the whole cosmos, resulting in a liberation of the human imagination.[10]

Bow-Wow’s concepts of “social space” and “spatial practice” are drawn from Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre. In his book, The Production of Space (1974) Lefebvre argues that urban space is a social product, a construction of thought shaped by multiple, conflicting and ultimately political processes. His research shifts the understanding of space from what architectural form generates to what social processes generate, and sets up a dialectic between lived and ideational spaces. The social production of urban space, characterized by everydayness, is for Lefebrve the process by which capitalism itself is reproduced in society. For Bow-Wow, the concept of spatial practice, meaning space as reproduced in everyday life, allows them to map typologies of urban space that are entirely non-descript and self-generating. But they interpret Lefebvre through their own creative and remarkably Japanese lens. Where the French philosopher saw alienation, Bow-Wow sees compassion, humility, generosity and the animation of inanimate things. For Tsukamoto and Kaijima, there is no difference between form and phenomena, between architect, city planner and user. The practice they call “behaviorology” is a science of studying human beings in relationship to their natural habitat, however clumsy, cheap or chaotic. Critic Meruro Washida observes:

“Atelier Bow-Wow’s understanding of the relationship between people and social spaces is inverted: in their formulation, it is not people who create social spaces, but social spaces that use people to bring themselves into being. When this occurs, designers and users alike are used by these spaces, and in the process, the distinction between designers and users is eliminated.”[11]

Atelier Bow-Wow has a long history of collaborating with artists and curators and intervening in exhibitions. The Rockbund Art Museum project held particular appeal because they could finally realize work in China, whose rapid urbanization fascinates them. Like Lin, they are interested in the daily habits of people and use their work to study the “in-between characteristics of society”—not the individual, not the mass, but just the flux of people living and doing their ordinary business in their urban environments. Charged with designing sheds for the twelve workers who would live onsite for three to four weeks while they paint the third-floor gallery mural, Tsukamoto and Kaijima visited the dormitories of local construction companies and interviewed workers about their living spaces. In keeping with their design philosophy, they wanted to create new kinds of spaces that could provoke new kinds of behavior. So, their sleeping units made of standard shipping containers each hold three rather than the usual four beds, with each one facing away to allow for greater privacy. Loggias invite the men to gather, smoke and play cards. And “attic spaces” in each unit hold a place for one to retreat and be alone. In this way, Bow-Wow stimulates an “ecosystem of behavior” that allows “an overlapping of different rhythms” through the agency of space itself.

With the sheds underway, Lin and Bow-Wow brainstormed other ways to connect the workers residency and Shanghai itself to the viewers’ experience of the show, expanding its conceptual purview to provide other kinds of content on other kinds of platforms. They commissioned the young filmmaker Cheng Ran to make an art work about the Chinese workers living and working onsite, which would then be shown during the show. Sound art by Lou Nanli (aka B6), whose work overlays concrete sounds of the cityscape and landscape with orchestral and contemporary-music tracks, would create ambient sound for the duration of the installation. Finally, the urban theorist and architecture critic Li Xiangning would conduct a field survey with his students of Tongji University College of Architecture and Urban Planning in order to compile Made in Shanghai, photographs and isometric drawings cataloguing new categories of urban structure based on Atelier Bow-Wow’s radical prototype, Made in Tokyo. Bow-Wow’s catalogue, begun in 1991 and now a book and popular website, examines nothing buildings embedded in urban space like parking garages, driving schools, shopping arcades outfitted inside elevated train tracks, and other B-grade facilities normally overlooked by professional architects. But seen with compassion, these “no-good” buildings become a way to understand the off-hand synergies that mutually enliven humans and their built environment.

Finally, in a nod to Constructivism, utopianism and the Bauhaus, Lin would reimagine and reenact the Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club on the second floor gallery. This model room was shown as a Soviet exhibit at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1925. Rodchenko’s design expressed revolutionary ideology through a spare and rational economy of form and function. Amidst the chess table, bookcases and photographs of fellow artists, architects, writers and critics who made up Constructivism’s interdisciplinary group enterprise was a memorial to Lenin, paying tribute to his Bolshevik goals for the proletariat’s full participation in social and political life. In the Rockbund incarnation, a collection of Scandinavian-inspired log furniture, the WorkersClub displays the findings of Professor Li’s field survey, Made in Shanghai.

Michael Lin’s reference to Bauhaus is a strategic critique. In his 1919 program for the new school in Weimar, Germany, Bauhaus director Walter Gropius decried how the arts had become “isolated” in the modern age and envisioned a “new unity” of mediums culminating in architecture. Vassily Kandinsky expanded on this vision, imagining an “experimental laboratory in which all the resources of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, and poetry would be deployed simultaneously to create ‘a monumental abstract art’ both multisensory and immersive.”[12] Wary of the seductive powers of the global contemporary art establishment, and recommitted through his collaboration with Atelier Bow-Wow to the local as site for the social function of art, Lin’s Model Home demonstrates what the title says: It is a proposition. A hundred years after Bauhaus, in the thick of Shanghai, Lin finds himself at a new frontier of science beyond art. The “network paradigm” is today’s Gesamtkunstwerk. “Our goal,” wrote the Bauhaus artist László Moholgy­Nagy to Rodchenko, “is to give a summary of all that is contemporary.”[13]

Originally published in Model Home, A Proposition by Michael Lin. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

“Take Away My Authority.” In Model Home, A Proposition by Michael Lin, pp. 19–23. Exh. cat. Shanghai: Rockbund Art Museum, 2012. [Chinese and English].

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[1] Michael Lin, Skype interview with the author, January 20, 2012.
[2] Yoshihara  Tsukamoto, trans. Steven  Chodorisky, “Architectural Behaviorology” in Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, behaviorology (New York: Rizzoli, 2010), p. 11.
[3] Alighiero e Boetti (1982) cited in Nicola Müllerschön, “Versatile Collaborations: Narratives of Alighiero Boetti’s Afghan Embroideries” in Hans Belting et al. Editors. Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture (Osfîldern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011), p. 49.
[4] Hou Hanru, “Michael Lin, Public Artist” in Nicolas Borriaud, Bruce Grenville et al, Michael Lin (Vancouver and Osfîldern, Germany: Vancouver Art Gallery and Hatje Cantz, 2009), p. 27.
[5] Michael Lin (2002) cited in Ibid., p. 27.
[6] According to Nicolas Bourriaud, this aspect links Lin’s art to artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija and the movement known as Relational Aesthetics. See “Michael Lin and the Concept of Ambience” by Nicolas Bourriaud in Ibid., p. 11.
[7] Lin, Skype interview with the author, January 20, 2012.
[8] Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Skype interview with the author, January 20, 2012.
[9] Lin, Skype interview with the author, January 20, 2012.
[10] Tsukamoto, “Architectural Behaviorology”, p. 11.
[11] “Atelier Bow-Wow as Artists: Changes in Art and the Potential of New Social Space” by Meruro Washida, trans. Nathan Elchert in behaviorology, p. 251.
[12] See Leah Dickerman, “Bauhaus Fundaments” in Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity (New York: The Museum of  Modern Art, 2009), p. 27–28.
[13] László Moholgy-Nagy (1923), cited in Ibid., p. 29.

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