The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Lap-See Lam
When the artist Lap-See Lam first used a 3D laser scanner seven years ago, the results took her by surprise. She had hoped to capture a precise recreation of the interior of a Chinese restaurant in her hometown of Stockholm. But the images that came out, far from realistic, were fragmented and distorted. Tables and chairs appeared jagged, like decayed objects in a shipwreck. She liked the glitchy scans, seeing in them a reflection of her complicated relationship to a subject that was personal.
In 2014, Lam’s parents had retired as owners of the Stockholm-based Chinese restaurant, Bamboo Garden. She wanted to preserve the memory of the business she grew up with, which her grandmother and great-uncle founded in 1978. But when the new owner declined her request to scan the restaurant, she switched course and began scanning other Chinese restaurants to capture what she saw as a rapidly changing community—and one that is shrinking.
“I hear all the time, ‘Oh, that restaurant closed,’” said Lam, who is Cantonese Swedish. “They have also transformed, going more into this buffet, fusion style of food.”
The uncanny effect of the scans captured something of this transformation, as well as the complex position of Chinese restaurants in Western culture. “It was as if the material talked about all of these things I’d been thinking about — feelings of separation, of displacement, of dissolved language and culture, of mistranslations, and hidden parts of history,” she explained. “These characters and stories I write emerge from that, almost like ghosts in the material.”
Lam’s scans, which now encompass more than 20 Chinese restaurants, have become source material for numerous artworks that probe questions of cultural identity and diasporic experience. She has 3D-milled eerie, disjointed sculptures of restaurant furniture; engraved glitchy contours of patrons’ movements into wall-sized mirrors; and co-designed an app that sends users time-traveling through an imaginary restaurant’s 80-year lifespan.
The artist’s use of technology to complicate and construct new perspectives on her culture has made her a fast-rising name in Sweden’s art scene. She was picked up by Galerie Nordenhake in 2018, the year she began her MFA studies at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Art. The museums are also paying attention: This year, a major solo show of her work opened at Trondheim Kunstmuseum, and another will follow in February at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. She is also a finalist for the 2021 Future Generation Art Prize, which means her work will appear in a collateral exhibition at the upcoming Venice Biennale in 2022.
The centerpiece of these forthcoming shows is her haunting installation Phantom Banquet, which Lam debuted, as a live performance piece, at Jeffrey Deitch’s New York City gallery for Performa 19. Visitors that enter the immersive artwork sit at a Chinese banquet table. Using virtual reality headsets, they float through an underworld of fictionalized oriental interiors that are shredded and weathered. Spectral figures and objects roam these imaginary restaurants, as if seeking to ground themselves in the unmoored site.
“I want to step back from those overtly ingrained ways of seeing [these spaces],” Lam said, “and I want to withdraw representation as well.”
Viewers who enter the virtual spaces are offered only breadcrumbs of reality, and must experience the familiar environments with fresh eyes. Lam often manipulates restaurants’ archetypal ornaments and materials, like jade and black lacquer, which have fed the Western imagination, becoming inseparable from a fetishized, commoditized image of China.
“I think [the work] is always trying to understand or give context to something that I don’t really understand,” Lam explained. “I try to understand different ways of looking at the exotic, with curiosity but also reluctance.” The West’s superficial fascination with Chinese culture does not equate to any kind of acceptance of it, she added, noting the rise of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.
In her work, Lam is continually reaching deeper for a vocabulary that would give form to slippery notions of cultural authenticity. She frequently adds objects to Phantom Banquet’s virtual environment, tweaking the narratives that pervade the space. At Bonniers Konstall, the physical installation will include projected shadows of restaurant interiors that serve to further dissolve her digital source material. Her work asks: What is real, and what is imagined? How porous is the boundary in between?
Growing up in Stockholm, Lam had what she describes as “double feelings” toward Bamboo Garden. She felt pride in her heritage, but also a kind of detachment stemming from a duty to see the restaurant as a means to an end. “We learned early that the business was a way for [my parents] to make a better life for us, so we’d be freed from running a restaurant,” she said.
Like many family-owned Chinese restaurants abroad, Bamboo Garden succeeded by catering to Western palates. Lam’s grandmother, who first immigrated from Hong Kong to London, kids in tow, found a chef position at one of Sweden’s first restaurants run by Cantonese immigrants. Eventually, she and her brother opened Bamboo Garden, designing its menu to suit predominantly white guests and decorating its interior to evoke a place one could call the Far East. She brought her siblings to Europe from Hong Kong and taught them how to run a Westernized Chinese restaurant. They established their own enterprises in other Swedish cities.
In Lam’s early years as an art student, family history hadn’t preoccupied her. She often created minimalist or abstract sculptures that expressed her formal interests. But she grew more invested in the narratives around Chinese restaurants as her parents approached retirement.
“In the U.S. or Britain, these establishments have been researched and have been a part of cultural history,” Lam said. Not so, according to the artist, in Sweden. She saw an opportunity to begin a conversation.
The artist has mined the iconography of Chinese restaurants in works like Beyond Between (2018), a to-scale replica of a Chinese roof hanging, made of 3D-milled polystyrene, save for several green ceramic tiles that were once part of a decorative roof in a Chinese restaurant. The suture paradoxically creates a sense of wholeness, as though filling a gap in a memory. Yet the ghostly sculpture’s reappropriation of this furnishing underscores the roof’s artificiality.
Part of the brilliant complexity of Lam’s work is that she never quite differentiates between the gaze of those othering and of the othered; she is, after all, aware of the fictions that that those living in diaspora can instinctively construct as a way to fiercely hold onto ideas, even fantasies, of personal identity.
“Is it possible to create meaning in this place, despite that it is a time and place of otherness?” Lam mused. “What happens when that culture is being flattened, mystified, and distorted?”
With Mother’s Tongue, an app produced with filmmaker Wingyee Wu, Lam explores the dilution of one’s culture for survival. Three women proprietors of a fictional Chinese restaurant describe changes to keep up with the times. At one point, the restaurant speaks up: “Parts of me are so displaced, that displacement has become my sense of being.” It is eventually sold around the year 2058, after cyborgs have replaced its human workers.
For Lam, it is less a sense of nostalgia than pure inquisitiveness about her family history and culture that drives her to construct these sites of sitelessness. “I think [my work] is a way for me to really make these histories, and ideas of grief, come forward, that perhaps I still carry from other generations,” she said. “I don’t want to control the material, I want it to speak and teach me things.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Lap-See Lam by Beata Holmgren/Studio Femme for ELLE. Courtesy of Lap-See Lam.