Luleå Biennial 2018
In Lap-See Lam’s works Beyond Between and Gwái, she picks at the idea of authenticity. The desire to consume that which is “strange” or “foreign,” from food to images, is turned on its head to become a mirror of ourselves. Like antique sculptures or artefacts in museums are sometimes reconstructed, and have their missing parts returned to them, Lam has collected objects from a soonbygone culture of Swedish Chinese restaurants.
During the production process you’ve been researching the local history of Chinese restaurants in Luleå. Can you tell us a little about that and about the conversation you had with the restaurant called Waldorf?
My starting point for the project was to trace Luleå’s first Chinese restaurant: Restaurang China. Located upstairs from a dry cleaner’s, the Vasa Pub on Storgatan 61 was sold in 1977 and became the city’s first Chinese restaurant,. In 1985, Luleå Centrum initiated a comprehensive redesign of the city centre to make space for the regional insurance company, Länsförsikringar’s, large new building in the city. As part of this, the original wooden houses where the restaurant was located were demolished and a space on the ground floor of a new building was offered in its place. Today, Österns Pärla [The Pearl of the East] is housed in the same rooms but by different owners.
With the help of Norrbotten’s archive center, the City Archives in Luleå and the library's newspaper archive, I was able to procure some building inventories, pictures and articles about the restaurant. I posted an ad in Norrbottens-Kuriren, talked to press photographers and asked for traces of the restaurant in various forums on social media. I did not have a finished idea of what I was looking for or what the work would become in the end - but rather took the former restaurant as a way in to a city whose history I was not so familiar with. My meetings with Philip Kuo, co-owner of Luleå's Chinese restaurant Waldorf, were rewarding. The conversation that was supposed to be about Restaurang China opened up to another type of conversation beyond the actual places. After that, the work came to be more about trying to create a representation of what is not visible when you look at a Chinese Restaurant: to show what is not shown, the words that cannot be translated and the gaps that arise between generations.
Can you tell us about the two sculptural components in your installation, the roof and the chair, and their titles?
The title Beyond Between came about intuitively. For me, those words together recall a sense of transition. The work is about translation, the movement from one stage to another, and what can be lost on the way. It may be when one language is translated into another, when one generation becomes the next, when a memory is transferred, and when a material is rendered as a different material. With this title I wanted to emphasise the feeling of movement and being at a point of transition.
The work is a reconstruction of an interior of a restaurant that no longer exists, and consists of two parts. First, the actual parts from the inner ceiling and second, an extension in white plastic, a kind of roof prosthesis in the style of a pagoda. The prosthesis is developed using 3D scans of the restaurant that were made before it closed.
During the 1970s, the same people that started Luleå’s first Chinese restaurant Restaurant China, ran three restaurants in Stockholm and two in Uppsala, one of which was Ming Garden. The interiors of the restaurants all followed the same concept: imported objects and designs from China that were adapted for the rooms with the help of Stockholm department store Nordiska Kompaniet’s interior design firm. The recreated roof from Ming Garden, then, existed in a red version in Restaurang China in Luleå. The link between one of Stockholm’s first Chinese restaurants, Ming Garden, and Luleå’s very first, Restaurang China, as such form a small part of a larger map of the Chinese diaspora in Sweden. A similar green inner roof is also in place in the Waldorf restaurant today.
Gwái means ghost in Cantonese and is the title of the levitating chair next to Beyond Between. The chair is on loan from Waldorf and placed facing the restaurant. It carries excessively long chair cover that drags across the floor.
What is the significance of darkness and haunting in this work and prevues works by you? Why is that an interesting construct for you to think through?
The ghostly aspect has been part of my work since I started documenting Chinese restaurants that are about to close. Abandoned spaces, memories, languages in translation and cultural displacement can be linked to the idea of haunting. The ghost first emerged in my 3D-scanned restaurant environments in the form of digital fragments and glitches and then gradually emerged as a character. In Mother's Tongue, a work by me and Wingyee Wu, the Chinese Restaurant is a future ghost and the story's protagonist. In this installation at Luleå Konsthall, the figure emerges from the dark in the form of two memory-objects: a roof prosthesis and a ghost chair.
Tell us about how you have chosen to present the works in the room and its references to archeological exhibitions.
I have looked at how artefacts are exhibited in museums and how they are often presented with material as speculative support columns. Fragments that are rebuilt for instance with plaster, where it is made clear what is old and what is constructed. At this type of museum there is a distinct idea of historical authenticity, which becomes interesting in relation to the narrative of the Chinese restaurant. It is a place that testifies to the spread of the Chinese diaspora through small businesses; how it reflects an exoticised image of the Chinese but at the same time expresses its own cultural affiliation. A simultaneously fictional scene and entirely real place in the lives of many people in a new homeland. In this way, Chinese restaurants are important places for understanding how ideas about ethnicity take shape, were interiors can be investigated as ethnographic objects.
At first sight, the roof looks like it is made out of plaster, but actually it is 3D-printed in expanded polystyrene The contrast between these materials, ceramics against the polystyrene, produces a sense of both separation and reunion. The works are presented as if in movement, as the roof prosthesis is tilting, and the chair levitating.