The Sublime Schizo-Aesthetics of the Chinese Restaurant

Lap-See Lam demonstrates the advantages that transhumanism, technocapitalism, and post-internet art have in common.

Lap-See Lam, Beyond Between, 2018. Foto: Peter Hansen / Señor Studio.

How does one get beyond the divisive in-between that separates people into cultures in the way that they used to be separated into races and ethnicities? This seems to be the question guiding Lap-See Lam’s exhibition at Erik Nordenhake’s gallery in Stockholm. Lam is born to Chinese immigrants in Stockholm, and her work often departs from the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant, which is alternately romanticized and deconstructed in a post-internet art that, reminiscent of Hito Steyrl’s accelerationist classic Factory of the Sun (2015), is both distanced and personal, pathetic and ironic.

Lam’s much noticed smartphone app, Mothers Tongue (2017–2018), a retrofuturist tourist guide to the history of Chinese restaurants in Sweden made in collaboration with director Wingyee Wu, is in itself a minor contemporary classic and a perfect example of how one can work in both accelerationist and accelerationist-critical ways at once. In contrast to Steyerl, in Lam’s work there appears to be a cultural romantic, nostalgic swan song about lost time — about the time that is always lost.

Lap-See Lam, Horizontal Landscape, Vertical Ghost, 2019. Foto: Peter Hansen / Señor Studio.

As viewers, we travel through the glitchy Chinese restaurant landscape like deterritorialized cursed ghosts in a wrecked time ship. The exoticization of Imperial China’s horror vacui aesthetics with pagodas, coiled screen walls, dragons, flowers, silk textiles, peacocks, lanterns, and porcelain vases is elevated to nearly sublime dimensions, where the technological ruin Romanticism is amplified by irritating glitches and software bugs. Lam pokes fun at the work’s protagonists, a mother and a daughter, their language confusions and two-headed desires to both adjust and maintain their cultural distinctiveness. In this sense and many others, Lam’s is a genuine schizo-aesthetic that embraces contradictory desires and instincts, in a motion that captures tradition as well as modernity, the past as well as the present.

Today, China is achieving technological dominance thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s accelerationist politics and Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley, where technocapitalism has reached unknown heights. How can one approach Lam’s art through the West’s post-apocalyptic reading of China’s technocratic advances? I would argue that her art reactualizes that discourse, but in a new way, as a neo-apocalyptic critique of technology’s future triumph over man. At the same time, it contains the sickly sweet promise of something no one yet quite dares to talk about. Namely, the advantages that transhumanism, technocapitalism, and post-internet art have in common: a dissolution of political cultures, traditions, and subjectivities. 

Will this not eventually liberate us from our time’s identity conflicts? The cybernetic transcultural übermench will not only be able to invent any identity whatsoever, but also go wherever —  to any planet — creating a cosmic elite that will look at us as laughable cave dwellers. I’m being ironic. At the same time, however, it worries me that we have not yet managed to free ourselves from the torture chamber of identity politics. Will Lam succeed? Does she even want to, all things considered?

The answers are uncertain, and I don’t quite know how I should relate to the two sculptures that preside over the gallery, Beyond Between (2018) and Horizontal Landscape, Vertical Ghost (2019), the former a green ceiling fragment from a Chinese restaurant that rests like a broken wing, a sad gesture, a relic,  the latter a mirror monolith placed horizontally in the room like a Lacanian mirror stage transferred onto a schizo-aesthetic self that perhaps does not (or does not want to) recognise itself in the reflection. Or in the tiles on the floor, which lie there like remnants from the same lost world, or the cold, desacralized, and impersonal design aesthetic that encapsulates the whole room. Yet, if someone could bring us beyond this in-between space, it would perhaps be Lam. 

Installationsvy från Lap-See Lams utställning Horizontal Landscape, Vertical Ghost (part 1) på Galleri Erik Nordenhake. Foto: Peter Hansen / Señor Studio.