Rise of the Dragon

The skyrocketing artist on launching her first opera at the 60th Venice Biennale.

Lap-See Lam. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.

From a Sámi pavilion to faux-Cantonese opera. As preparations continue for the opening of the 60th Venice Biennale on 20 April, the Nordic Pavilion continues to take on new guises. The Nordic countries take turns hosting the pavilion, and for this year’s edition, Moderna Museet asked Swedish artist Lap-See Lam to create a new work in collaboration with composer Tze Yeung Ho (Norway) and textile artist Kholod Hawash (Finland). The resulting work, The Altersea Opera, is currently being rehearsed on location in Venice.

Born in 1990, Lam is one of the youngest artists ever to take on the Nordic Pavilion. Since graduating from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art (Mejan) in 2020, her career has skyrocketed – a rise unrivalled by any other Swedish artist of her generation. As a student, she received the prestigious Maria Bonnier Dahlin scholarship, exhibited at the high-brow Nordenhake Gallery, and participated in Performa and several other international group shows. After that, a number of solo exhibitions in the Nordics were followed by shows at the Swiss Institute in New York and Portikus in Frankfurt in 2023. 

Lam’s grandmother came to Sweden in the 1970s and opened the Bamboo Garden Chinese restaurant in Stockholm. Lam’s parents ran the business throughout her childhood, but sold it in 2014. As a way of preserving her memories of the restaurant, she scanned it in 3D. During her years at art school, the work grew into an archive of Chinese restaurants in Sweden and resulted in Lam’s first renowned virtual reality work, Phantom Banquet (2020), an eerie walk through ghostly glitchy Chinese restaurant interiors which launched her artistic career.

I reached Lam in the midst of the busy installation work, two weeks before exhibition opens to the public. It was the third time we’d scheduled a phone call, and finally the artist had an hour to spare for an interview. A few days later, Tze Yeung and Hawash arrived in the floating city, and rehearsals began for The Altersea Opera, a performance directed by Lam and curated by Moderna Museet’s Asrin Haidari.

Lam used her phone to show me around the enormous glass and gravel pavilion and finally landed on an enormous dragon head, as tall as the building behind it, placed in the courtyard. The other end, the dragon’s tail, is on the other side of the pavilion, and throughout the glass building a bamboo structure shoots up from floor to the ceiling to form the outline of the dragon boat, the Floating Restaurant Sea Palace, which has been a recurring feature in Lam’s work since her solo presentation at Bonniers Konsthall in 2022. 

The ship was built in the early 1990s by entrepreneur Johan Wang, who dreamt of a floating Chinese restaurant in Gothenburg. The boat was constructed in Shanghai harbour (the dragon was designed by Chinese artist Lou Wang Cheng) then towed all the way to Sweden. Unfortunately, the business flopped, and after numerous attempts to get the restaurant up and running in various European cities – including Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen – the boat was eventually brought back to Gothenburg and left to rot. In recent years, it was used as a haunted house “taken over by a thousand-year-old curse from the Orient” by the Gröna Lund amusement park in Stockholm during Halloween.

At Bonniers Konsthall, the ship was the starting point for a shadow play about the girl A’Yan’s journey through time from eighteenth-century Canton and Sweden to Chinese restaurants in the 1970s. The saga continued with Tales of the Altersea(2023), about the underwater journey of two twin sisters starting from a dragon ship at the bottom of the sea, and now with The Altersea Opera in Venice, where we follow the mythological figure Lo Ting, a human-fish hybrid, as they journey across the oceans in the dragon ship.

Bruno Hibombo as Past Lo Ting in The Altersea Opera, 2024. Photo: Mai Nestor. Textile work © Kholod Hawash. © Lap-See Lam. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Nordenhake and Moderna Museet.

How is the installation coming along? 

We are right in the middle of everything. Asrin, the producer, and I have been here together for two weeks putting together large parts of the installation, from Sunday onwards. Gradually, the others who have been involved in the project will join us. First, Tze Yeung Ho will arrive with our sound engineer Giovanni, and then Kholod Hawash with her team. After that, the rehearsals for the opening performance will begin. Everything is going well so far. 

What does the pavilion look like at the moment? 

The two major parts of the installation are in place: a dragon head and a dragon tail from the Floating Restaurant Sea Palace that we have transported all the way from Gothenburg. Inside the pavilion we are now building bamboo scaffolding with the help of bamboo master Ho Yeung Chan and his brother.

What is your history with the dragon boat Floating Restaurant Sea Palace?

The first time I saw it was in 2016 when I was a student at Mejan. The ship was moored at Gröna Lund, and you could see it from the window of the 3D lab where I was scanning Chinese restaurants for my bachelor’s thesis. It took several years to piece together the entire history of the ship. Through staff at Mejan, I found out that it had been a restaurant, and when I finally got hold of the restaurant owner Johan Wang, the vessel was at the Högmarsö shipyard outside Stockholm. I started by 3D scanning the entire boat. I was so fascinated by the dragon ship in relation to my previous works, which were all about diaspora in transition. The iconography of the dragon had changed with its journey across the oceans; for me, everything was so clear in this ship. The Altersea Opera is about bringing the dragon back to life, bringing this dead, decaying place back to life.

Lap-See Lam, The Altersea Opera, film still, 2024. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Nordenhake och Moderna Museet.

How did this project come about?

Asrin Haidari and Hendrik Folkerts from Moderna Museet came to my studio and wanted to discuss the Venice Biennale. It was going to be a Nordic collaboration between Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and since I work collaboratively in all my projects, they were curious about how I would approach the task. After our discussions, we decided that we wanted the Nordic Pavilion this year to feature a new work created from scratch by all three countries, but the collaboration would not necessarily be between three visual artists. We decided that we wanted to do an opera. Then we made the decision to bring in composer Tze Yeung Ho from Norway and textile artist Kholod Hawash from Finland. The work has evolved over these ten months of working together, and is still taking shape through all the materials and voices involved in its construction. It is almost too early to talk about it, as it is still emerging and being shaped.

Where did the idea of an opera come from?

When Asrin, Hendrik and I had our initial discussions, I was in the middle of working on my exhibition at Portikus. For that I was also working with the ship, in the work Tales of the Altersea. I had started reading about the history of Cantonese opera, which has its origins in travelling storytelling by Red Boat Troupes. These boats travelled with their companies from village to village on the Pearl River. Often they consisted of a large ensemble – just like in this project. There were musicians, costume designers, and people working on the ships. Opera is a total work of art, which gave us the opportunity for true co-operation between the countries.

But The Altersea Opera is not a Cantonese opera, the piece written by Tze Yeung has many different references and is based on a libretto by me. Kholod Hawash created the costumes for the ensemble. 

Tell us about your collaboration. How did you find each other?

None of us have worked with each other before. I have worked with other musicians before and with a different type of music in my works, but then I came across Tze Yeung’s work. He usually works with chamber opera and musical theatre. After a meeting, it seemed obvious that we would work together, and later in the process I realised that we have very similar backgrounds: he grew up in northern Norway with a family that ran a Chinese restaurant and is from Hong Kong. And, like me, he had long wanted to make work on his relationship with Cantonese opera.

Both Asrin and I had seen Kholod’s work independently of each other and had her in the back of our minds. She came into the project slightly later than Tze Yeung, and has contributed references from Arabic mythology and folklore. Even though I am the director, everyone has been equally involved in shaping the project. In addition to Tze Yeung and Kholod, we have a huge number of other collaborators, including our ensemble and a Cantonese opera duo from Hong Kong. There are many passengers on this ship. We haven’t rehearsed the live part together yet. That will happen now, from 12 April.

Lap-See Lam, Dreamers’ Quay, Dreamers’ Key, installation view, 2022. Bonniers konsthall, Stockholm. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

In previous years, the Nordic Pavilion has taken the form of a group exhibition with each country represented by one artist, all on equal footing. But Moderna Museet, which is responsible for this year’s pavilion, has chosen to shake up the framework that had previously been in place. Do you know why?

I think Moderna wanted to make something productive out of the collaboration this year, and not force the artists into a set mould. This has been a very organic process, where we as artists have created something based on what we want to do. I think this can provide a sense of liberty when it comes to how future pavilions are organised.

What is the opera about?

The story is based on the Floating Sea Palace and a mythological fish-human figure called Lo Ting, which derives from Hong Kong folklore. It is an epic story, a journey across the oceans, where we follow the past and future Lo Ting as he travels back to his former life on Fragrant Harbour. The narrative has lots of references to other classic tales. I wanted it to be a universal story that would be easy for Tze Yeung and Kholod to approach. The opera features Amsterdam-based performance artist Ivan Cheng as the future Lo Ting and pop artist Bruno Hibombo as the past. 

Your big solo exhibition at Portikus, which opened early last year, was called Tales of the Altersea and featured an eponymous work. The mythological figure Lo Ting was part of that work as well. Is this a serial work? How do your works relate to each other?

My works are a kind of continuation of each other, and I see them perhaps more as a total work of art in the end. Lo Ting is believed to be the ancestor of the Hong Kong People. I was drawn to Lo Ting’s hybridity and the requisite process of transformation. My previous projects have been very much about how symbols change their meaning in different contexts, like the dragon taking on a whole new meaning when moved from one place to another. Today, I see my art as a kind of universe – world building, where characters, mythologies, and stories have their own little place, and where they can sometimes reappear in later works. In this way, all my works are ongoing.

Composer Tze Yeung Ho. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.
Textile artist Kholod Hawash. Photo: Pirje Mykkänen.

Mythologies are a common thread in your work. Your works are presented like fairy tales, and you take on different forms of storytelling, from the present as well as the past.

I use mythology, or storytelling, as a way to debunk existing myths. In it, I mix different references and stories as I like – contemporary mythologies with old ones – in a rather irreverent way. I don’t start from any rules or frameworks. The stories come from everything that passes through my head and my life. However, the written part of my work often comes as a final step. It emerges as a kind of glue that enhances or accentuates certain parts of the overall artwork. It’s as if I need to create different spaces and materials for the stories I have inside me, from my life and history, to emerge. My own life has been a common thread throughout my work. In this way, it is different in Venice, where I have opened up the story for other artists to inhabit it.

Why do you think your art has been so successful?

When I make my works, I always try to think about people being able to relate to the work regardless of prior knowledge. It should communicate on a gut level. I think this is perhaps one reason why my works are interesting to a larger audience.

Has there been a moment in your brief but rich career that you think was particularly important to your success?

I’ve really had a lot of opportunities over the past few years to do exhibitions and projects, and it’s been quite intense. Every opportunity has been important, but I think my exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall was especially important because it gave me the time to do research and expand my work to a larger format, for a larger audience. That in turn laid the foundation for the exhibitions that followed. I don’t take any of this for granted, so I work hard to make the most of every opportunity. The Venice Biennale still feels unreal, even though I’m sitting in the pavilion right now.

How do you feel about the calls to boycott the Israeli pavilion? I understand that some of the people working with the Nordic Pavilion have signed the international petition, but far from everyone. Are there differences of opinion or even tensions within the group?

I, like many others, am deeply concerned and appalled by what is happening in Gaza, and I have signed the petition. We are a large group and it would be strange if there weren’t different opinions on the issue of boycott as a political strategy, but I have not experienced any tension within the group. It is a surreal feeling to work with art in the middle of the circus that is Venice while war is raging. I think everyone feels that to some extent. But the exhibition is also an opportunity to reflect on what is happening in the world around us.

Lap-See Lam, Tales of the Altersea, installation view, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Nordenhake. Photo: Alwin Lay.

How do you hope the audience will receive the work? And how does this installation reflect your view of art more generally?

For me it’s all about the process. What happens along the way is my driving force. I want my works to be open to interpretation. But in order to make the work, I’ve had to forget about the audience for a while. In contexts like Venice, there are so many people who will see the work, it becomes overwhelming to think about that in the middle of the creative process.

How would you describe your process? You are an artist who works in many different media, both digital and analogue. Often, many different worlds come together in your work. What are the different steps that lead up the work? 

My process is kind of like a domino effect of materials and collaborations. I work very intuitively and don’t really have a plan from the beginning. I always try to embrace the unpredictability along the way and let the material itself speak more than the initial intention could. It all started with the earliest works, like Phantom Banquet, when I tried to 3D-scan my parents’ Chinese restaurant in Stockholm before they sold it. My visual language in those works grew out of the incompleteness of the material due to the digital process. 

What are your thoughts on the visual design of a work? How important are the objects compared to the ideas, or is a work’s appearance just a logical consequence of the world building?

The objects are a stage or a space for my worlds to exist in. They are not there just to be looked at as a kind of representation, but rather active components for these stories to exist in. For me, the objects are more like clues into the world, or ways to materialise an idea. In Phantom Banquet, the tables and chairs were perhaps more like containers for the experience. When it comes to colour or form, I don’t work according to a clear idea. The head and tail, which will now be the most visual part of the Nordic Pavilion, have been in the back of my mind for a couple of years now and are symbols I have worked with in my shadow play works, but there they have been more embedded in the story. There wasn’t really an active choice from the beginning to include or not include them. It’s more that this series of works has led me to recreate the ship right now because it’s the right time and the right place for it – in Venice, the sinking city. 

Lap-See Lam with the dragon head by sculptor Lu Guangzheng for The Altersea Opera. Photo: Mattias Lindbäck/Moderna Museet.