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9 Feb 2023 / by Pauline J. Yao

A Close Look at Michael Lin’s Relational Artwork ‘Untitled (Cigarette Break)’

An installation artwork consisting of two cream-coloured armchairs in a corner with a metal ashtray bin in between them. Five canvases with a graphic print of flowers on a pink background hang on the white walls above them. This print also appears on the side and back of the left armchair, and on the seat cushion of the right armchair. The chairs and ashtray bin sit atop a polished wooden floor.

Michael Lin. Untitled (Cigarette Break), 1999. Sofa chairs, metal ashtray, and emulsion paint on wood. M+, Hong Kong © Michael Lin

The experiential possibilities of painting—approaching it not as something to revere or behold but rather to engage with—runs deep in Michael Lin’s work

Created in 1999, after he had returned to Taiwan after studying abroad, Untitled (Cigarette Break) is one of Lin’s most concise statements on the relationship between paintings and installation, ornamentation and modernism, and two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. The installation consists of two LC2 armchairs—an icon of international modernism initially designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand in 1928—placed at a ninety-degree angle, with a standing metal ashtray positioned in the corner.

Textile pattern design depicting red and beige flowers on a pink background. The anthers of the beige flowers are purple, while the anthers of the red flower are yellow.

A close-up of the textile pattern design in Untitled (Cigarette Break). Says curator Pauline J. Yao: ‘. . . [this work] is where things began with him [Lin] using these textile patterns. He was interested in how these patterns speak of a certain kind of history of decorative arts, textile patterns and traditions that exist in Taiwan.’

A cheery pattern spreads across varying ‘surfaces’, linking upholstered sofa cushions with paintings hung on the adjacent walls. Lin’s proposal is deliberately circuitous and double-edged; paintings come down from the wall to merge with the everyday, living room–like space, while household textile patterns are transformed into works of art to be hung on the wall. In both cases, the work is shown not as distant but to be experienced up close, often through tangible means.

But almost as indispensable as the presence of pattern is the addition of the ashtray—an object plucked from daily life that signals a human element . . .

With Untitled (Cigarette Break), Lin stages a multilayered conversation between ornamentation and modernist design, contrasting clean lines and stark geometries with bursts of floral colour. But almost as indispensable as the presence of pattern is the addition of the ashtray—an object plucked from daily life that signals a human element, and more specifically, the aimless banter associated with a cigarette break. The installation speaks to Lin’s unique approach to Relational Art, which seeks to create spaces of social interaction while also addressing the connection between design and art, and painting and furniture. Emphatically human, this work also sets the stage for Lin’s more monumental spatial interventions involving textile patterns to create ‘situations’ whereby viewers are invited to walk, sit, or recline on the work. As with his other installations, the injection of pattern and decoration here is designed to disrupt and infuse ordinarily bland spaces with exuberance.

Michael Lin: Relational Art
Michael Lin: Relational Art

Michael Lin discusses the experiential nature of his work. ‘For me it was about somehow creating a space rather than an object. The work doesn’t end at the object. It was to make work that was difficult to somehow see the edges of the work so that you were immersed, or you were in the work or part of the work,’ reflects the artist.

Video Transcript

MICHAEL LIN: ‘What is this? Is this art?’ That was a question I was asked a lot. I guess I was more interested in questioning, how art functions, and so I guess I always gravitated towards art that was somehow functional.

A lot of my works are untitled. It’s kind of an open-ended situation. There is a certain kind of liberty to that.

The audience were invited to sit on the work, to lie on there. Some people took their afternoon naps on it. With each of the pillows, I made paintings also. So, kind of somehow bridging the gap. They didn’t feel that kind of distance with the art.

Most of the fabrics I have been using for the last twenty years in my work has come from very popular prints, I would say from the sixties, seventies, all the way up to the eighties maybe, in Taiwan.

Textiles are something quite intimate. Especially these textile designs. [They] were mostly used as the wedding night bed. They were given by the wife’s family as part of the dowry. I discovered that the audience had a very immediate kind of reaction to the patterns. It was important that it was familiar to the people that saw them, and in general most people have a real kind of nostalgia. So, I started to focus more on that idea of, you know, using this collective memory of the past, as a vehicle to kind of have some sort of dialogue about art and exhibition with the audience.

‘Untitled (Cigarette Break)’ was a kind of attempt to make work that the audience really had to be in contact with. If you sat on the chair and the art retain the trace of your interaction and your physical body with it, you know, smoking, or blowing out smoke is kind of a visualisation of your breath. It’s also a form of relaxation. It’s also a kind of break from a routine. So, I think those are all communicated in what’s there. And then the paintings then become some sort of space.

There are five paintings in this work, and they relate directly to the five cushions that make up a chair. So, it’s this kind of expansion of this macro-micro relationship. For me it was about somehow creating a space rather than an object. The work doesn’t end at the object. It was to make work that was difficult to somehow see the edges of the work so that you were immersed, or you were in the work or part of the work. We’re doing something that’s completely outside of the exhibition experience. And I think that that was a provocation.

The space of relaxation that Untitled (Cigarette Break) represents suggests an echo of Imported, a work Lin made one year earlier. In this work, he transported 600 bottles of Taiwan Beer, 200 cartons of Long Life cigarettes, and tables and stools to Paris, inviting audiences to sit and enjoy ‘local’ Taiwanese products. Both works speak eloquently to art-making as a form of generosity and creating spaces for interaction and exchange, aided by the social lubricants of alcohol and tobacco. With these projects, Lin reveals the ways art mingles with the contours of human activity.

This text is a reprint of Pauline J. Yao’s essay on Michael Lin’s Untitled (Cigarette Break) from the M+ Collections Highlights book, available from the M+ Shop. Untitled (Cigarette Break) is currently on view in Individuals, Networks, Expressions at M+.

All images: M+, Hong Kong © Michael Lin

Pauline J. Yao
Pauline J. Yao
Pauline J. Yao

Pauline J. Yao is Lead Curator, Visual Art at M+.

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