The Rhinoceros’s Dream

Essay by Stephanie Cristello

In very small but faithful, watchful eyes each picture the light reflects into the water.

Your own knight. Your own dragon.

Ready for anything.

— Lars Gustafsson, Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, (1515) [1]

In the English language, key and quay are homonyms. One unlocks entries (into hallways, symbols, treasure chests), while the other docks ships, allowing them to either burden or unload their hulls of goods and passengers. For the dreamer whose mind carries scenes of travel, the two words are indistinguishable: the faraway opens through the sea. Continents separated by divides (at the hands of volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors) evolved differently—Western antiquity belonged to the Greeks and Romans, while in the East, ancient civilizations developed for more than four thousand years. They were strangers to one another until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, via colonies and mercantile trade routes (an imperial impulse of the West). By the late nineteenth century, the decorative-arts style known as chinoiserie was a pan-European phenomenon. The “China craze” embodied a collective desire for an imagined aesthetic—a series of translations and misunderstandings so deep that the original and the copy were no longer discernable. [2] Divorced from history, the veneer became the object. Like Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros (1515), drawn from the verbal descriptions of an animal the artist had never seen, authentic images became enmeshed in the fault lines of “exotic” representation.

In the work of artist Lap-See Lam, remnants of the style that developed following the opening of channels between Canton and her native Sweden in the 1700s are approached through two other words: “consumption” and “taste”—terms invoked to describe the aesthetics of chinoiserie as well as the sensory experience of cuisine. In Europe, mania surrounding the exotic was described in terms of hunger, craving, something to devour. An insatiable desire to conquer—if not land and people—cultural symbols. Such is the case with the dragon, whose mythological figure manifests as a central motif within the artist’s solo exhibition Dreamers’ Quay, Dreamers’ Key, at Bonniers Konsthall. The series of newly commissioned works—ranging from film to virtual reality, sculpture, and installation—present a final act in a multiyear trilogy whose other parts are composed of Mother’s Tongue (in collaboration with Wingyee Wu, 2018) and Phantom Banquet (2019–21). The works chronicle fictional accounts set within the emblematic environment of Chinese restaurants in Sweden, establishments whose interior design and architecture (in Sweden as throughout Europe and the Americas) are influenced by the fantasies of chinoiserie. In Dreamers’ Quay (2022), the eponymous film consists of a 360-degree projection of a shadow play (a type of theater that originated in Central Asia during the first millennium BCE, before gaining popularity in France in the eighteenth century as ombres chinoises).

The narrative begins in 1978 in Choy’s Garden. From the voiceover of the decorative tree at the centerpiece of the dining table, we are introduced to the plot as the legend of the Singing Chef. The protagonist, a teenage girl named A’Yan, is subsumed into a time-travelling portal within the kitchen of her family’s restaurant. We follow her across three locations influenced by the sea trade: the Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm in the year of 1753, a Dragon Ship at Gothenburg from 1991–2018, and an East India Company vessel at sea in 1786. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, A’Yan is unstuck in time. We witness an elective history. The film’s scenography—3D scans of real locations compiled and spliced together to create the fictional set—is digitally rendered and reduced to sepiatoned black and white, mimicking silhouettes cast by flickering candlelight. The script’s mention of various goods within the script—porcelain figurines, enameled vases, china plates, roomdividing screens—are not pictured. Instead, we imagine them.

Imagination is, after all, how the aesthetic of chinoiserie took root in European production. Décor is not always trivial; in the case of chinoiserie, ornamentation is an echo chamber that carries the cast of the European cultures that appropriated Chinese motifs. For the French, it melded with Rococo; for the British, with the Gothic. [3] In Lam’s vision, chinoiserie manifests as critique by imparting the same gaps in vision—the same misunderstandings, which result from imposing capricious dreams of what one thinks should be—in the approach of the work. Though certain architectural elements from the artist’s chosen sites remain recognizable, what we can see is equally defined by the glitches and holes of what we cannot. Contrary to the hybrids that resulted from European guesswork of an aesthetic removed from cultural history, Lam’s work embraces the absences between the fragments as tangible portents.

In his poem about Dürer’s Rhinoceros—an emblem of the mistakes that arise from the West’s imaginations of the East—the Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson writes of the animal trapped “in the picture’s terrible net / and this time forever.” [4] Certain errors endure. For Lam, this is where the definitions of quay and key align. As I write this text (Halloween, 2021), the interior of the abandoned Floating Restaurant Sea Palace in Gothenburg is being rented as a haunted house. Docked at the harbor, the Dragon Ship is a host to props of horror—far away from the creature’s holy origins in Chinese symbolism. Gustafsson’s poem ends with what the rhinoceros becomes: “Your own dragon. Ready for anything.” [5] Prepared to sail, perhaps, into the degrees of dreaming required to excavate and reclaim aesthetics damaged by the misconstructions of history.

Stephanie Cristello’s essay is included in the first major publication on Lap-See Lam’s artistic practice, published by Bonniers Konsthall and Lenz Press in conjunction with the exhibition. The book is a richly-illustrated presentation of new and earlier works, with additional essays by Mara Lee Gerdén, Svante Helmbaek Tirén and Xiaoyu Weng.

1. Lars Gustafsson, Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, (1515), trans. Yvonne L. Sandstroem, Southwest Review 76, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 139.
2. “Much of the Chinese export trade consisted of wallpapers, furniture, and porcelain sets made to order according to European designs, or even in imitation of Western chinoiseries, so that Chinese craftsmen found themselves striving to outdo one another in their renderings of Western preconceptions of Chinese art, and a Chinese observer would have been hard pressed to recognize in the exaggerated motifs of a cliched oriental exoticism anything remotely Chinese at all.” David L. Porter, “Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 3 (Spring 2002): 404.
3. Porter, Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste. 404.
4. Lars Gustafsson, Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, (1515), trans. Yvonne L. Sandstroem, Southwest Review 76, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 139.
5. Ibid. 140.

A version of this text was first printed in Mousse Magazine, Issue 78 (Winter 2022).