on Michael Lin’s ‘Locomotion’ at MCAD
18 February – 21 May 2016
Figure 1 Untitled Gathering, Manila, Installation View
The recent and impressive exhibition of Michael Lin at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design called into question the evolution of work practices and exhibition designs of artists first identified with relational aesthetics in the 1990s. Michael Lin’s explorations on the shifting looks of the domestic mundane rather than the political currents shaping the public sphere gave way to his exploration of a so-called grandmother’s technique of floral pattern making and textile printing. His first creations were pegged from floral motifs and shapes of four traditional pillows. It is not difficult to appreciate the works of Lin since the design patterns are familiar to Philippine visual culture by way of Taiwanese imports of bed sheets from Divisoria. Because of this, the works have become politically and culturally resonant in their presentation in Manila.
Michael Lin engaged, perhaps unwittingly, a historically-charged location by painting flowers on the walls of the MCAD, located inside the De La Salle University campus; the site of one of the most furious battles during World War II. The place was a silent witness to a spree of beheadings at the tail end of the battle of Manila. I can’t help but relate Theodore Adorno’s comment on the barbarity of continuing to write poetry after Auschwitz by reflecting on the thought of painting flowers with art students on this former battleground, which in recent years has become a ragtag neighborhood of slums, sidewalk vendors punctuated by blundering high-rise developments. But the mixture of beauty and barbarity may have been the most profound effect of Michael Lin’s engagement, an offshoot of being situated in this poverty-stricken and war-damaged city.
Rather than bringing in discrete, portable, autonomous works of art that transcend its context, the paintings of Michael Lin are entirely beholden to the contingencies of its environment and audience. He envisaged his audience as the common people in the surrounding areas and set up a situation in which they are not just addressed as a collective, social entity, but are actually given the wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be.
Figure 2 Installation View of Banners created from tarpaulins of pedicabs
I can only think of another artist who engaged in this kind of art: David Medalla, who grew up in the same neighborhood of Ermita and Malate. Medalla was a poet, painter and performance artist, a self-declared wünderkind, who was 17 years old in 1957, when he held performances in his Le Cave des Angelis, a pseudo-cafe in the shell of a bombed-out building on Mabini street, not far from where the museum is located.
In the vein of Medalla, Michael Lin understands that his brand of participatory art not only organizes the artistic space but may also develop a practical life importance by serving as tool for social integration. The role of his artworks are no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to be actual ways of living and models of action within the existing real situations in advancing of a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art.
The monumental floral-patterned murals, ‘Autumn Gold, Deep Ravine, and Dragon’s Fury,’ together with ‘Untitled Gathering, Manila’, a sitting area with 240 similarly painted stools which dominate the cavernous exhibition hall of MCAD, are open-ended, interactive, and resistant to closure, and in the truest sense of relational aesthetics, appearing to be a “work-in-progress” rather than a completed object.
Its mad whiff of color runs in contrast to the blight outside and the gray of the impending rainy season. The artistic activity goes beyond painting flowers on the wall. Lin addresses and exposes the semantics of his activity in the context of participatory art from a calculated device for recipient participation. He invited students of the art school at the College of St. Benilde, as a reflective performance in which the viewer perceives the structure of the painting as no more extraordinary than any other job, and expands the identity of the work through the invited “co-operators”.
The pedicabs are treated like artifacts withdrawn from a loud and restless community.
Working in situ and inside the museum affected the outcome of exhibition immensely. In this manner, the painting patterns gives in to the domains of instinct and to a more natural way to work and to see the work. With last minute variations on the scale and the decision to show the traces of the creative process, the artist reacted to what happens in the room, which one has used over a certain period of time.
Some interesting details in the time-lapse video posted on the museum website shows the artists eating hamburgers, discussing and marveling at the progress of the work more than actually painting it. It’s not just about how the work is influenced by the space, but also to the possibility of developing something outside the institution and the museum. While it depended heavily on the judgment of the artist, Lin has shown openness in his conceptual trajectories. When he came to Manila, he did not even know how he was going to call the exhibition, or if he would describe it as an exhibition or a project. In a sense, he has shown that he trusted the process. Allowing the process to develop its own strength and to have relationships with people and ideas.
Figure 3 Installation View of the banners created from tarpaulins of the pedicabs
The three banners hung like quilts on flagpoles were crafted from the pedicabs’ former tarpaulins that were exchanged for those which bear Lin’s design. They call to mind decollages by Jacques Villeglé, where the ripped posters weathered naturally over time resemble the faded designs of the pedicabs. As in the gesture of the whole exhibit towards its location, the work pays homage to a more visceral artistic expression, which Michael Lin has uncovered; Filipinos have been known to mark or personalize objects, which are the source of their livelihood. This is more evident in our jeepneys. By piecing these canvasses of folk expression, Lin has displayed the genuine artistic quality of the quotidian ways of the community he absorbed.