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