SEWING LIFE AND DEATH: Material Art from China

S E W I N G  L I F E  A N D  D E A T H

The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China

at LACMA, Los Angeles, until January 5, 2020

Text by Rosanna Albertini

Here is the thread sewing my mind to the first generation of Chinese contemporary female artists: “my mother was a seamstress.” It’s a recurrent matter of fact in their lives during or immediately after the cultural revolution. I avoid capital letters. I could also say, “my mother was a seamstress, so was her mother, as the other grandmother couldn’t be, having lost four fingers of her right hand cut off by a machine in a factory producing thread for sewing.” Many women were seamstresses in Italy at the end of WW II. Such a heavy heritage didn’t make me an artist. Unless my hand-making books has some roots there, but probably not, the thread that I like to handle comes from the narrative thread in the written book, from the writing tension.

Among many interesting artists at LACMA, four female artists stopped my heart: 

MA QIUSHA    LIN TIANMIAO    YIN XIUZHEN    PENG YU

These artists were all new for me. The more online research I did trying to have a more comprehensive idea of their work, the more astonished I was by their art and by them in person, interviews revealing the struggle of identities as fragile as butterflies fluttering at first, and becoming very steady in the blink of an eye, flying out of the cocoon of collective mythologies mixed with communist ideology, not to mention thousands of years of a powerful civilization. They bloomed by working hard. Still with one foot in patriarchal families and the other crossing one of the fastest social transformations in history. Studying and living in the US for awhile, and going back, to preserve cultural values in the storm of energy that pervades their country. Feeling the pain as well as the positive influence of change. Lin Tianmiao winds thread around bodies and every object she can find, physically changing them with raw materials. She has in mind “a simpler past” while she accepts that her existence cannot be separated from everything around, and not only in China, all over the world. 

“Being an artist is a very personal thing and often a lonely thing” she says.

Sewing, fabric, and the thread itself are just the right materials to portray emotions still on the seesaw between past and future, to keep them flexible as long as possible. The present seems to be faceless for the time being, still veiled, still needing a human blanket over the sharpness of changes that are planned more than asked for.

 It was always a matter of slowing time, with sewing or weaving, from Penelope waiting for Ulysses to the time when Bertha filava, in Italian fairy tales.  The matter yes, but time first, time driven by female hands, the juice for the metaphor. Slowing time, maybe, allows these artists’ minds to pause on the physical world like migrating birds. They need to fly, no matter the risks. And they do. Their wings are large and strong. They cover the human condition, in China and elsewhere.

MA QIUSHA, Wonderland: Black Square, 2016  cement, nylon stocking, plywood, resin, iron, 96 7/16 x 96 7/16 x 23/16 in. Courtesy of Beijing Commune.   LACMA 2019 Photo RA

The Wonderland Amusement Park of Ma’s childhood has slowly disappeared. The rough surface of the road on which the artist used to skate back and forth from her mother’s to grandmother’s house is the solid canvas of the square, covered with black stockings. In other similar pieces of this series colored stockings or clothes soften the same ground. If it’s a map, roads are not traced, there is only a soft proliferation of irregular fragments of nylon, they all had walked slipped on women’s legs, and now they are a body on their own, never flat, petals of blackness. 

LIN TIANMIAO, Day-Dreamer, 2000, white cotton threads, white fabric, digital photograph, height adjustable on actual site: 196 13/16 x 86 5/8 x 59 in. Courtesy of the artist. LACMA 2019. Photo RA

The artist’s body floats midway from the sky face down, and sends her profile towards a pedestal on the floor. Cotton  threads edge with stitches the flat shape of her figure —a wound marked with no blood— before it falls like vertical rain. The base is empty. Has Lin embroidered the artist’s destiny? limited in time but persistent as a challenge, an impossible dream. 

LIN TIANMIAO, Here? or There? 2002, mixed media  Courtesy Gallery Lelong

LIN TIANMIAO, Endless  2004, mixed media Courtesy Gallery Lelong

Yin Xiuzhen moves Lin Tinmiao’s inner struggle into an outdoor landscape. She doesn’t fear showing attachment to remnants of the past, old and more recent, inexpensive traces of daily life quickly erased from the cityscape. She collects used fabric, clothes and shoes from all over the world, surrounding herself with so many past lives that her personal relevance turns to zero, a molecular, an alchemical function. Through her art, the face the present shows is a texture of multiple times. The most significant threads are invisible, broken like dry branches. They are the same in every human, by genetic or cultural recomposition; and they exist beyond national borders, different languages and food. 

YIN XIUZHEN, Shoes with Butter 1996, color photograph Courtesy Pace Gallery Beijing (Hybrid of spirituality and materiality inTibet)

YIN XIUZHEN, Transformation 1997, B & W photographs mounted on used cement tiles. 7 1/16 x 7 1/16 x 1 15/16 in.  LACMA 2019, Photos RA

YIN XIUZHEN, Transformation 1997, Beijing, Photo Song Dong, Collection of the artist, Courtesy Pace Beijing

With Trojan, at Venice Biennale 2019, Yin Xiuzhen brings back the homeric tragedy as a topic of our own contemporary drama: not only the horse has entered our world, we do more, we enter the horse! And inside it’s strangely appealing, a space of thoughts we would disclose in an empty cathedral, far from conflicts, aware of our fractured ideas. We get ready to crash. Yin Xiuzhen adds Nowhere to Land, always in Venice. I don’t feel like adding words on that. Silence on our folly. She got it all. 

YIN XIUZHEN, Trojan, Venice biennale 2019 (Photo designboom.com)

YIN XIUZHEN, Trojan (inside) Venice biennale 2019 (Photo designboom.com)

YIN XIUZHEN, Nowhere to Land, Venice biennale 2019 (Photo designboom.com)

Peng Yu is perhaps the extreme edge of the boat. Spiritual threads link her to the afterlife humans whose bodies were left behind, buried or forgotten in frozen rooms for medical experiments. Exile is not for them. Feeling our own exile she filled a jar with fat sucked out of those bodies, sort of a lacrimal bottle to collect tears, but gigantic. And she poured the fat into a river that runs around Beijing, to merge with all the other leftovers pushed around by the water. But first of all she sewed visible leftovers of life in the river to a tangible, physical component of death, so completing the circle: never give up with feelings, one doesn’t need to be dead to be nice, affectionate, a gentle dead. One can be gentle, even when living. 

PENG YU, Exile 2000, still from video. Duration: 3′ 12″ Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp-M HKA, on view at LACMA 2019

ALBERTO ALBERTINI : DISASTERS

DISASTERS 

 by Alberto Albertini  

(Father and Son – Oreste and Alberto n.2)

DRAWINGS ALBERTO ALBERTINI MADE AS A CHILD

About the drawing of a falling airplane. Since Alberto was born in 1927, the following events started when he was about ten years old, more or less in 1937, and continued. Besano, Lombardia

The beauty of a disaster is fascinating, upsetting and attractive. Certainly not for the victims, but for us it’s incomparable. Attraction comes from breaking the usual routine, brightening up the attention by a sharply different happening. And something more is there —I believe— something dug up from unconscious or previous mental habits: hidden desires of revenge, failed achievements…

I was fascinated by disasters from my early years, they were in the air. At school we received fascist and military culture: we had to learn about muskets, grenades, anti gas masks and the complete military rank from simple soldier to general! I was never been able to learn it, but in the meantime the subtle pleasure of disaster was crawling in me. 

With Giorgio, who had a lot of toys and a great electric train on which he used to keep apples to dry, we used to produce railroad disasters: they were his trains. Had they been mine — I desired them so much — I don’t think I would have treated them that way. I made up for my deprivation by drawing more innocuous scenes. Giorgio and I also loved to take pictures of tanks hit by cannons. Tanks were the prevailing toys, but I was attracted by the caterpillar tracks, that gave the possibility to go everywhere, even off road. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving forward, I transformed an old little game my father had played with me into a complete military construction. Father used to put a match into a small tube, then using another match’s flame he heated the tube’s bottom and pfff, the first match was shot out of the small tube! Thanks to my inclination toward building, I moved to using bigger brass tubes and made a carriage with rubber wheels from other toys: a miniature cannon that I could drag. Such evolution involved the problem of the explosive substance that I fabricated following the instructions in the Sonzogno handbook. Actually it was a handbook for pyrotechnic work that I had bought in order to prepare the black gun powder: 75-15-10 saltpeter-carbon-sulphur. I understood from this that pyrotechnics could be more interesting, which I successfully undertook showing the blaze to the girls, more than sending rockets into space. I paid special attention to Micky Mouse’s whaling ship that I reproduced in wood in miniature, but this too had a small cannon with a harpoon. 

Recently, in a short autobiography in third person, Alberto wrote:

We consider superfluous to talk of the early years, our childhood because, although embryos of the future are already there, (at age five he conceived and made a net of trenches to gather chestnuts without bending his back) we believe that this is what normally happens in everyone’s childhood.  Only the stubborn time of adolescence brings the steady intention to proceed with a project. Which one? He, at that age, loved to say that he was a renaissance man four or five centuries late. And for that reason it would have been impossible for him to embrace all the arts and sciences that were possible in the renaissance, provided one had a special desire and a lot of brain. 

I hope you get the irony. My uncle Alberto is 92 and lives and works in Milano, Italy.

ADIA MILLETT : The Gold of Silence

ADIA MILLETT : THE GOLD OF SILENCE 

  Adia Millett : Breaking Patterns

California African American Museum Los Angeles — February-August 2019

 

ADIA MILLETT, Section 8 2016, Fabric/textile 140″ x 120″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

Be broken into a million pieces.

Only then will your heart no longer be confined

by the precious delusion of your own identity.

And perhaps you will stop being a house

with a few windows for the light to pour in.

Instead you will be the ground and the sky.

You will be the echo of your mother’s cry 

and the imprint of your father’s feet.

You… will be everything!

ADIA MILLETT

Edmond Jabès:

ECRIRE, C’EST RENDRE LE SOMMEIL AUX MOTS. LA PAGE EST LE DORTOIR; ALORS LE REVE PREND LES RENES ET TU PEUX BOIRE A L’ETAPE.

TO WRITE IS TO GIVE THE WORDS THEIR SLEEP. THE PAGE IS THE ROOM FOR SLEEPING; WHICH IS WHEN DREAMS HOLD THE REINS AND YOU CAN DRINK BEHIND THE LINES.

 

THE GOLD OF SILENCE

by Rosanna Albertini

Neither words nor images are easy. They only expand in a visual body moments in which the writer, in our case she’s also the artist, has lost memory, explanations, even the measure of time, and holds her breath in hope that a new world will appear on each page, in every art piece. And I would like to wrench more from Adia Millett about fabric and deconstruction, her pacing and undoing to the point of forgetting the heaviness of the house, both object and word. But, more words would pass through the intersection between her life and mine. I stay with the silence of her art as I see what she drew from history or natural events and remade, maybe skipping lightly and quickly, from afar, the ‘precious delusion’ of her own identity.

Daydreaming is the secret. A golden needle was held by Millett’s neurons, escaped her brain, became the vessel of a thread: a thread of breeze or light, and yet strong and farsighted. My, our daydreaming can only be different from hers when we look at her quilts, but we breath the air between the 8 sections of the house, whose door is there? Does the house wrap the artist around her body or live inside her, recombining layers of fabric with untold stories by many steps preceding words?

ADIA MILLETT, Medicine Wheel 2018, Fabric/textile 120″ diameter Courtesy of the artist Photo RA

Ancestors’ spread a monumental asymmetrical wisdom from a temple with one white window at the center. Fabric adds softness to the timeless speech. Adia Millet brought here, now, the ancestors’ voice gripped in stitches, for our eyes’ soul. She went through the magic of a natural environment: the grass sleeps in the green, birds rest among the clouds, the sky sleeps in the blue, the sun blows insomnia from an orange eye, time sleeps in the wheel. Perhaps humans didn’t really step in. 

ADIA MILLETT, Ancestors 2017, Fabric/textile  65″ x 73″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

Darkness is the not seen, an unknown fable obnubilated by lack of light. A wound was necessary, red like a horizon. A golden rain falls down from the wound, it’s the fable crying gold.

ADIA MILLETT, Golden Shower 2016, Fabric/textile 104″ x 92″
Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

Then tiny houses scattered on tables. Millett doesn’t stop making houses, gloves for explosions of feelings that ask for shape, protection maybe. Metaphors materialized in illuminated small inner spaces from which, once more, what emanates is silence.

The white, luminous center — one or many minuscule lamps —  regulates shadows and meanings, the infinite meanings each of us can imagine. If we are not delusional, we may feel the same in front of a closed door of a neighboring house. Beyond the door museum rooms with no labels, cabinets of daily wonder. We can only guess, make up stories. 

ADIA MILLETT, Blind premonition (flowers) 2009  Mixed media assemblage, 12 x 13 x 14″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

ADIA MILLETT, Capital Gain 2011 Mixed media assemblage 12 x 9.5 x 26.5″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

ADIA MILLETT, Rolando’s Ancestors 2011 Mixed media assemblage 22 x 12.5 x 9″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

When a long history of human traffic and money is included in a tunnel ending with a vanishing point, with ships sealing the void and money growing on trees instead of apples and pears, I saw the power of tales, the more absurd, the more revealing. A popular Italian story brings up the belief that trees with coins instead of leaves would grow when planting a coin in the ground. Poor Pinocchio, blinded by the beliefs of the poor who dreamed of a new life. Capital Gain is a clever, shameless piece. So are the other miniature spaces. Erasing time, including feelings in a niche, the artist invites us to open heart surgeries. Bleeding becomes gold, if you let your heart explode into a million pieces.  

ADIA MILLETT, When I Was a Little Boy 2011 Mixed media assemblage 9 x 13 x 18.5″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

ADIA MILLETT, When I Was a Little Boy 2011 Mixed media assemblage 9 x 13 x 18.5″ Courtesy of the artist, Photo RA

Bibliography

Edmond Jabès, Le Livre de Yukel, Paris, Gallimard, 1964