SALEM — The starting point of “FreePort [No. 005]: Michael Lin,’’ at the Peabody Essex Museum, is a porcelain figurine called “Mr. Nobody.”
He is a toothy guy, 9½ inches tall, with striped pantaloons ballooning up to his neck, and he holds a bottle and a cup in front of him. Made in the late 1600s in China, “Mr. Nobody” is one of the first known representations of a European in Chinese porcelain.
With inspiration stemming from an Elizabethan-era satire on class inequality, the figurine is part of PEM’s expansive collection of Asian Export Art. Lin’s work is the latest and most ambitious installation in PEM’s series inviting artists to respond to one or more pieces in its permanent collection.
Lin is best known for his massive installation paintings of decorative textile designs, which have animated such places as the floor of The Hague City Hall atrium and the façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This is his first project with porcelain. The opportunity to work with this particular collection struck home ; he was born in Tokyo, raised in the United States, and now lives in Shanghai and Brussels.
He also usually works with a team of uncredited assistants, and “Mr. Nobody,” along with many of the pieces in the porcelain gallery, is the product of anonymous Chinese artisans who worked in shops mass-producing such items.
Those porcelain-producing shops are still around in China. Lin commissioned one to manufacture hundreds of reproductions of “Mr. Nobody.” Assembled in his installation “Everybody,” they take up the middle of PEM’s porcelain gallery, standing on drying racks like so many portly, drunken soldiers. In these numbers, the character of “Mr. Nobody” takes on more heft. Trevor Smith, curator of contemporary art at the museum and the mastermind behind the "FreePort" projects, impishly called the group “Mr. 99 percent” when talking about the work.
“Mr. Nobody” figurines are for sale in the museum shop. The cycle of import commerce continues.
Anonymous watercolors dating to roughly 1820 and depicting porcelain production in Guangzhou, China, hang on the wall. They depict a pastoral enterprise, with ceramics workers applying glazes and carefully following the steps of the process. Lin took an unnamed photographer with him to the “Mr. Nobody” factory in Chao Zhou, in southern China, to document the figurines’ manufacture, and he intersperses these with the watercolors. The process has not changed much.
"Everybody” is quirky and fun, thanks in large part to the character of “Mr. Nobody” himself, but there’s a hectoring quality to it. If you are at the museum to enjoy the beauty of the objects, you may find yourself feeling scolded about that consumerism. While Lin heightens consciousness about the economy of imports, he does not really examine the role of the museum in that economy as an arbiter of value.
Looking at the installation, I struggled to determine where I fit, as a museum visitor, in this class equation: Was I a nobody, or a somebody? What would it signify if I purchased a “Mr. Nobody” in the gift store: that I was in on the joke, one of the 99 percent? Or that I was one of an intellectual arty elite? Or that I was a consumer of high-end museum-shop gifts? In the end, I didn't even go to the shop. It was too stressful.
In the second part of “FreePort [No. 005],” Lin does what he does best. Borrowing from coats of arms European nobles commissioned from Chinese shops on porcelain dinner services, Lin has painted spectacular ornamental designs wheeling up a cylindrical stairwell just outside the porcelain gallery. The artist rubs any identifying symbols from his version: The central badges are left blank; signifying colors are shifted to blue; the whole thing is done in flattened silhouette, and on a grand scale. The designs play with the architecture, crossing over stairs and circling a porthole window as they dance toward the skylight. They electrify the space.
The stairway leads to the Asian Export Silver Gallery, where Lin has covered the floor in more ornate, spinning designs: griffins, hawks, dragons, all morphing into abstraction in this white-on-blue presentation. It activates a staid, quiet gallery. The floor seems to make the silver shine all the brighter.
Although these interventions into the museum's architecture are, at first glance, merely and wonderfully eye-catching, they carry Lin’s theme about class, anonymity, and commerce more gracefully than the “Everybody” installation does, by abstracting what are essentially family brands of nobility. The porcelain plate emblazoned with the arms of Matthew of Thornborough, circa 1730, has only a tenuous compositional kinship with Lin’s paintings. The viewer can enjoy the paintings without feeling implicated.
The “FreePort” projects pose a challenge, inviting contemporary artists into permanent collection galleries, which can feel sacrosanct. Lin undercuts the idea of preciousness we carry into the porcelain gallery. He pulls us into the fray. He shatters a few ideals. He’s a bull in a china shop.
That’s his job, as a contemporary artist. Yet there is another hierarchy at work here, another tastemaker — one that commissioned him, and that he does not acknowledge as he sifts through a history of consumption, exchange, and valuation: the Peabody Essex Museum.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.