Swedish artist Lap-See Lam’s ability to marry the world of 3D scanning and Virtual Reality with a delicate, dreamy artistic expression has put her on the Forbes 30 under 30 list. But do people see the art behind the tech?
Words SASKIA NEUMAN Photography KIMBERLY IHRE
On the morning of my interview with the artist Lap-See Lam I open Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. On the cover of the culture section is a huge image of the artist. Lap-See hasn’t told me this story is coming out, but of course our pending interview, scheduled for later that day, becomes all the more real. All of a sudden something that felt very casual, an easy conversation between two people, incites a certain amount of tension in me. However, after skimming through the article I realise it’s more of an introduction to Lap-See and my feelings quickly subside.
I’m curious about how Lap-See developed her artistic practice, what drew her to using cutting-edge technology to create a framework in which she is able to investigate her, and her family’s past. I’m fascinated by her ability to marry the world of 3d scanning and Virtual Reality with a very delicate, dreamy artistic xpression.
I was introduced to Lap-See in 2017, when she won the coveted Maria Bonnier Dahlin Foundation prize for emerging artists. Mother’s Tongue, a seminal work existing in several iterations, is a collaboration with film director Wingyee Wu. The work found its form first as an App, then morphing into a film, (the work was later acquired by the Modern Museum of Art in Stockholm).
A single artwork by Lap-See often has many lives. One idea develops into many utterances, including film, sculpture, music/sound, resulting in all-encompassing installations. Technology, along with other methods of expression, are used to take one initial idea to many different places, pushing boundaries with each new version of an artwork.
Lap-See travels through time and space in her practice, her films have visited physical Chinese restaurants that no longer exist. Introducing layers of complexity to these milieus that have been torn down in real life. By creating a world that challenges the viewer, Lap-See pushes our imagination and feeds our curiosity. She collaborates freely with family and friends, opening up an esoteric artistic practice. Making it familiar by filling her work with voices of relatives in her films, introducing recognisable characters to speak her truths, investigate her ideas and create poetry for the viewer immerse themselves in.
My first question was about your important work Mother’s Tongue but, maybe before we start that, do you have any reactions to this? (holds up a copy of Dagens Nyheter, Culture section; Lap-See is on the cover).
— It feels like everything I do is to make my grandmother proud so, I’m waiting for her reaction, for her to see my cover.
Of course, there must be nothing better than to have her be proud of you.
— Yeah, she has a corner in her apartment with like press things about me; just like dedicated to me. I love that.
That’s so nice… wait, how many siblings do you have?
— I have two older brothers and a younger sister. So, three siblings.
How do they feel about your grandmother’s corner dedicated to you?
— Ha ha, I haven’t asked…
Your family must be very proud. There’s something special about being recognised for your achievements, it’s such an affirmation of good work and interest from others.
— It’s amazing. It’s also super nice to feel that I can reach a wider audience. Even though my work, which is contemporary fine arts, can be a bit complex and hard to understand.
I’d like to break down this barrier of complexity. I’m very interested in your work Mother’s Tongue. I’d like to know if the technology you use in making this work plays a part for you, personally? Does the technology play into forming the discovery process of this work?
— Mother’s Tongue is a work by me and the film director Wingyee Wu. It has two co-authors, and it’s a very important work for me. Looking back at it now, almost three years since the first version was made, I feel really grateful that the work has been presented in many contexts. I feel that the work is a document of great collaboration. The project, which started with the intention to document these places (Chinese restaurants in Sweden) are significant in understanding the cultural history of the Cantonese diaspora. Then the work itself, Mother’s Tongue, the process and the collaboration, became that document in itself, along with all the people that are involved in making the work. It’s quite interesting how the process itself became the intention of the work. The work is a true testament to collaboration and symbolism. It was the first time I collaborated with Wingyee Wu, as well as collaborating with my mother’s cousin. Even my mother plays a part in the work, acting as the former restaurant owner; her character struggles to let go of the restaurant. The restaurant turns out to be a symbol of Hong Kong’s independence. My cousin plays the daughter, and Wingyee Wu’s cousin plays the part of the grandmother, which is set in the future. It was a great collaboration; using family, who all have their own experiences of the topic the artwork is centred around. They’re all part of different generations and have a different understanding of our diaspora community. On the question of whether the technology available played into forming the discovery process into the work, it did, very much so… The material, the technology I use in my work, has really given me a language to use, a new terminology to think through. To answer your question fully I would need to go back to 2015 if you don’t mind?
— In 2015 I started this project, Scanning Chinese Restaurants. During that year my parents sold their own restaurant. This was a place that my grandmother and her brother opened on Södermalm at the end of the 1970s. Stockholm was a very different place back then and my parents eventually took over it. We spent a lot of time there; it was like a second home. The process of scanning the restaurants was born out of them selling the restaurant, which lead to this feeling of unsolved separation that I felt. It felt very important, the restaurant was such a symbol of achievement for my grandmother. I wanted to document this place that meant a lot to me and my family. I had just heard of this 3d scanner that belonged to the architectural department at The Royal Institute of Art, in Stockholm. My intention was not to make this into an art project from the beginning, just to document the restaurant for myself. I needed to do something with all the feelings I was carrying. This feeling of trying to hold on, to grasp onto something that is slipping away. The 3d lab at the school invited the artist Caspar Forsberg to do a workshop. He had 3d scanned Slussen before it was demolished. Hearing about this, along with his enthusiasm when I told him that I wanted to scan the restaurant, was very inspiring to me. I became more and more drawn to the technology when I realised it was used within archaeology, architecture, and for forensic investigations. I understood there must be a preciseness in what a scanner could capture. In my mind I’d already created this emotional souvenir and I trusted the scanner to be able to archive the full restaurant in high res. By the time I started the project the new owner wouldn’t let me scan the restaurant, so instead, as a reaction to that, I started to scan other, similar restaurants in Stockholm. I scanned New Peaking City that was near Östermalms Hallen, on Nybrogatan, a week before it closed.
”I needed to do something with all the feelings I was carrying. This feeling of trying to hold on, to grasp onto something that is slipping away.”
I know! It was the Chinese restaurant we would go to as kids.
— That’s amazing.
Yes, it was very familiar to me.
— New Peaking City is the main restaurant in my work Phantom Banquet.
I’ve heard you mention New Peaking City previously, I recognised it straight away.
— That’s so funny. Esther, the 3d lab teacher (at the Royal Academy) just followed me around with this scanner worth half a million kroner, to scan all these places during that year. Ok, I’m going to give you a lot of information about the technology.
— The scanning process was one part of the overall process. The second part included unexpected obstacles. This was a fairly new technique at the time. Today 3d scanning has developed very fast, it’s easier to access. These days you can scan things with your phone, but in 2015 there weren’t any documented how-to manuals or tutorials on YouTube on how you could use this material as an art piece. One of the main obstacles was to be able to import this very heavy scanned material into the computer, into a programme that would be able to handle it.
— My initial idea was to create hyper realistic environments, that would be very exact, to preserve these memories I had and create almost symbolic souvenirs. It was during the process of converting the files that all the material developed the aesthetics we see in the final artwork. The look and feeling of ruins, the shell-like, shipwreck aesthetic. This unintentional outcome resulted in images that directly capture what the work was going to be about; memory, history, the passing of time. This result is because of the technical malfunctions, and the generations lost in converting the material in these distortions. What’s interesting is that that this was never my intention. It was something that I kind of discovered.
And you had to accept it, because that’s what happened.
— Yes, I was about to go into the material and refine it and pick out the things that could be saved, but then I stopped… and allowed the material to speak for itself. It was the actual raw material, before I made any technical choices, or choices in the aesthetics and technique, that really shaped the way that the material was going to speak to the viewer.
Isn’t that fascinating? This notion that you start with 3D scanning and the technology that you’ve employed to help you in your work is used for its precision in architecture and archaeology. The result is less precise than you intended, but perhaps more similar to what we imagine when we think about what archaeologists discover in their work. You discuss symbolism and things that you’ve saved as this memory of your parent’s restaurant, something very non-tangible. With the final result in your artwork not being perfect or completely accurate it becomes more like your memory?
Because memory is so subjective.
— Fiction. Perhaps by telling a lie or telling a story, you come closer to the truth. That’s also something that connects to the material and how the material acts. You know, everyone has these connotations and they understand that it’s a Chinese restaurant, but it looks totally different. So just in that moment you look at it, you have to kind of change your perception of it. That was really interesting and I wonder what would have happened to the material if I didn’t stop cleaning it up. I’m really happy that I stopped.
I’m interested in what time means to you. I believe it’s important because it’s a good lead-in to talk about the technology that helps you express yourself through your work. Your artistic practice covers elements that are so contemporary, and you’re exploring recent histories, your family’s past, but the final aesthetic has a timeless element. Do you ever think about the future, not just in your work but also personally?
— I think that’s a brilliant question, because as a framework, the work deals with the transformation of a Chinese restaurant, but also about the time it was in and how things have radically changed. My work touches upon Sweden from the 1970s until today, and beyond, into the future. My practice touches on how globally we’ve changed in our ideas of other cultures and accessibility to these cultures. I think I use this space as a visual language to grasp quite universal questions that are about time, life, death, ideas about self, community; finding some kind of spirituality in our modern world.
— The use of time is imbedded in the very first thing that I did, which is documenting a place. The use of the 3d scanning comes from a desire to preserve a place which is changing or closing. It’s really about time. Trying to desperately hold onto something that might not be part of a future. Thinking about what happens to something so abstract, like a memory of a place, when that place doesn’t exist anymore. How do we use a language to talk about that? Fiction is kind of an alternative way to talk about history. Depicting history and changing it, because the way we use fiction reflects how memories are constructed. How it is always a process that we remember, we edit, we recreate memories.
”Fiction is kind of an alternative way to talk about history. Depicting history and changing it, because the way we use fiction reflects how memories are constructed.”
Also, how we curate memories. Misremembering is often about whether it was good or bad memory. It’s the subjective idea of how you prefer the memory to be, or how you project something onto a memory.
— Exactly. I always create an artwork as a memory, but always leave something for the viewer. Leaving the memory, or in this case the work open, is an open invitation. I often think about not making my work so definite. Involving interactivity and leaving something in it open, to let time in the artwork continue when you see it.
That leads me onto VR in your practice. What I find so inspiring and fascinating about your work is that your ideas, and the experience you’re conveying, is brilliant regardless of the technology that you’re using. I find that when artists employ very advanced technology, the focus becomes on the tech, rather than on what the artist is trying to say or the intention of the work, or even the process that led them there. You’ve managed to balance a beautiful idea and an artistic concept. You’ve made sure that it shines through and that’s what the work is about, rather than the vehicle it’s using to get there. You might disagree, and actually it is in fact about the technology; the VR output. What’s your intention?
— I think your analysis is very precise. I don’t feel the technology aspect has the central part in my work. At least not in the process, although it might seem like it if you just look at my artistic practice from outside. I explore the material, which works through technology. I still work with a lot of the material that I scanned with the 3d scanner in 2015. The process in working with Virtual Reality has been slightly different. For years people encouraged me to use VR because I have access to all of this 3d scanned material, which can be used in a VR platform, but I’ve been reluctant… I’m really not that impressed by new technology or into embracing every new thing. I don’t have a special interest in it, or transhumanism. I often feel using VR in artwork can become slightly ”technology fetishism”.
When the focus is on the VR it takes away from the fact it’s an artwork. Then it’s not about art, it’s only about tech.
— Yes, it’s also typical in the art world. Someone has to be the first artist to make a work using a different technique, mastering the technique and winning this ’competition’ rather than using it for a purpose. Initially, I felt I would never use VR, then I was in the process of making a physical sculpture and I slowly changed my mind. The neon figure for example (a sculpture), that’s a fragment of someone who accidentally passed by the scanner, which I then used as a ghost figure in my work Phantom Banquet. I was in the process of trying to make a sculpture in some way. I wanted to understand scale in relation to my own body. In the 3D lab my teacher had an idea of putting the ’ghost figure’ into a VR scene and we tried it. My teacher was so excited, he said, ”you can see it in Virtual Reality and you can have a sense of the scale of the ghost figure.” When I saw the work in VR I was blown away. It was obvious to me that the material had to be shown in VR to do it justice.
— All of these themes I touched upon in my earlier works became so clear by looking at the material. I went into the VR process not impressed at all, but then it was as if the material said to me ”you have to show me in VR.” I think it was good to enter a technique that I didn’t like from the beginning or was unimpressed by. I also have to admit I never did proper research on VR artworks prior to making Phantom Banquet. Maybe that was a good thing? I just went into the material and sat there for a long time, just worked with the animation, avoided being influenced by other VR artworks.
Do you research more now? Look into new technology, now that you’ve found your footing within 3D scanning and VR? Since the work is so good, and you seem very comfortable with using VR, it seems like a very successful method for you to use. Do you look to the future for the next big tech breakthrough?
— Not really. I try to be in the process of being surprised by things. I don’t search for new technology, so I let it all be kind of open. I’m not like looking for the ”next big thing” or something.
You’re on the Forbes 30 under 30 list and you’re nominated for The Future Generation Prize. I wanted to talk about your reflection of being deemed as ’new’ and if you think that is a good thing or a bad thing? In contemporary art, the narrative about newness can unequivocally be translated to beauty and youth. You’re working with new technology but investigating the past and you’re being heralded as something new and shiny. What does that mean to you and how do you think about it?
— I mean I don’t try to… of course the art world is a very competitive world where one is always searching for the new voice or the next generation etc. I’m just be honoured to be a part of that Forbes list, but I’m trying to do this, to find a way to do my work for the long term. Not just be something… you know, hip and happening in a time. I see it as an opportunity to exhibit, to reach out, but I don’t put all my efforts into it.
”I think it was good to enter a technique that I didn’t like from the beginning or was unimpressed by”
Did you ever think about newness in the terms of it allowing you to experiment or play around… not only in your work but also perhaps in your artistic persona, perhaps these opportunities allow you to try other things?
— All the VR and scanning, this is something I do now. I don’t see them as my only expression or my only tools. It’s just something that happened to translate my ideas very well, that developed through a coincidence. That’s why I’m not searching for new technologies. Perhaps I will be painting in five years…
Talking about this idea of newness, new technology, and youth, and also being female — there’s so much riding on the idea of ’never been seen before’, which in its inception is wonderful. You and your work should be celebrated, but my gut reaction is ’this isn’t just something new for now’, your artistic practice is something that should be taken care of.
— For me, the content of the work always goes first. I always try to be quite clear in the way my work is written about. It’s content first, and then the technique is kind of a by-product.
My final question is about Performa, which is this performance biannual in New York City. It is the centre stage for performance art, but also contemporary art. The biannual infuses performance, sculpture, music, installation, dance and theatre. There’s so much baked into participating in Performa, which means that there are all these different artistic expressions meeting in one place. You exhibited a version of your work Phantom Banquet at Performa in 2019. What was your experience of preparing for it?
— It was one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever done. When I think about it, when I struggle with something in my work, I think if I managed to survive Performa, I will survive anything. I was invited as part of the Swedish Pavilion, but I was also in collaboration with the Royal Academy in Stockholm. There was already a lot of pressure in terms of representation, making something that was good, being part of the Swedish Pavilion and understanding what that means. I’ve never done performance in that way. I was in the process of exploring VR at the time, trying to explore scale in VR. I was very new to it, trying to determine if VR would work for me, in my practice.
When I presented that work for the Performa team they encouraged me to think about the performative aspects of my work, and how I could enhance my work and turn it into a live experience. How could I make virtual reality into something more social? They usually invite artists that have never done performance before to do performance-based work because that’s an interesting way to expand the field. That developed into Phantom Banquet, which is like a performance or an installation that incorporates all of these things that we’ve talked about; VR, sculpture. It’s a time-based work, so you go into an installation and you’re supposed to be there for thirty minutes and during these minutes there are like different chapters that happen with the light and animation; things go on and off.
Can you describe the work? How was it exhibited at Performa?
—Phantom Banquet was a four-part installation. It consisted of three different rooms. Set in Stockholm, beginning with a story from 1978 about a young waitress who disappears through a mirror into this dimension, into a mirror world. Then, this whole narrative unfolds through this staged banquet setting with the help of an actress, scenography, VR, sound, light setting and projected animation. You walk into this installation as a viewer and you experience the girl’s transition between the worlds and you’re put in this first perspective with the VR.
— Suddenly you’re swept into the restaurant through the mirror world floating out from it and into a universe populated by other Chinese restaurants and then you take off the VR goggles. We used the VR as a drop curtain, along with actual physical curtains in the installation. For the grand finale, we collaborated with this group of senior musicians. They call themselves Columbus Park Senior Orchestra, which is basically a group of Cantonese self-taught musicians who sit in Columbus Park in China Town every day and play traditional Cantonese music for the community. I saw them during my research trips in New York and I thought to myself, “here we have the performance element.” I invited them to play as part of the grand finale of Phantom Banquet. Four of them played and the Neon Ghost sculpture was set in the middle as kind of the silent singer. There was a high level of surprise and anticipation around the work.
Was Performa an enjoyable process?
— Ha ha ha, it was very stressful. The entire artwork was made during a very short period of time, in a context I was not familiar with. I’d never produced anything in New York before. Meeting all these new people was overwhelming, but I also had many great people helping me. I remember before doing Performa I couldn’t imagine how it would feel when it was over, it was all so new to me, and so difficult. I learned a lot.
It’s fascinating to hear how you’re almost forced through a process where you’re obliged to learn about something completely different. In this case it was performance, incorporating music and installation into your work. Done right, the whole experience has the potential to possibly make you a better artist, and a better person.
— I think obstacles, encountering things that you normally don’t do, that you’re not comfortable with, is very good for your development in general. It is very good for mine.