The Allure of Matter: Material Art From China
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through January 5, 2020
Article by Cathy Breslaw
Song Dong, Water Records, 2010 Video Projection, (copyright) Song Dong,
Photo courtesy of Pace Gallery
For over 25 years artist Liang Shaoji has used live silkworms to spin silk onto various objects and states “I am a silkworm”. Highlighting the interconnectedness between humans, animals and nature with silk is rooted in the Chinese psyche and with legends that connect silk-making with the creation of Chinese civilization. In the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, twenty-one artists spanning four decades experiment with unconventional materials which serve as symbols of meaning for their work. For these artists, the material is the message and operates as a conduit to clues about Chinese contemporary culture.
Since the 1980’s, Chinese contemporary artists have used an array of materials: black cola ash, cigarettes, human hair, cement, wood, thread, used clothing, plastics, paper, porcelain, gunpowder, nails, silk, and more. Common to all these artists is the rejection of established art forms and traditional materials, and the drive to invent new artistic languages. Thirty-five artworks using these materials take the form of painting, sculpture, installation and performance.
Many of the artists included in this show are well known in the Chinese contemporary art world, but not in the U.S. Artist Ai Weiwei, probably the most well known to Americans, includes his Tables at Right Angles(1998) where he employed a team of craftsmen using 16th century woodworking techniques to join two tables from the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911) without glue or nails, placing them at right angles, reconfiguring them, and depriving them of their original functionality. Weiwei questions the cultural value of antiques and artworks in contemporary society.
Fascinated by its destructive and political implications, Cai Guo-Qiang experimented with gunpowder and developed a method to control and contain explosions to create gunpowder paintings.
Gu Dexin, who began experimenting with plastics while working in a plastics factory, created an installation (Untitled,1989), including plastics melted to abstract compositions, while also arranging used clothing and materials.
Gu Wenda’s United Nations: American Code (2018-19) uses human hair from all over the world to create his installation taking the form of a “house”, with the wish to create harmony by mixing cultures. This work, commissioned by the participating museums for this exhibition, is an ongoing project inspired by the politics and histories of various countries.
Jin Shan’s Mistaken (2015), created a sculpture of wood and plastic, the top being a bust of a heroic Communist worker which appears to melt away in fine strings and the body is made of wooden slats derived from old demolished houses. Shan shares the relics of the Cultural Revolution imagery with the memory of China’s nostalgic and fragmented past.
Lin Tianmiao’s Day-Dreamer (2000), uses white cotton threads, fabric and digital photography to create a colorless self portrait suspended from the ceiling. Having been taught to wind thread into skeins, she appropriates this domestic practice into her work since the 1990s.
Liu Jianhua’s work Blank Paper (2009-12) mimics two sheets of paper hanging on the walls but is actually made of fine porcelain, using pure white clay, unglazed, and fully exposed to the viewer in its fragility suggesting they fill the “empty spaces” with their thoughts. Adjacent to this piece is an installation of 8000 black porcelain flames(Black Flame 2016-17) suggesting a rapidly growing fire flickering across the gallery floor.
As part of her Wonderland Series, Ma Qiusha created Black Square (2016), a “painting” made of cement, nylon stockings, plywood, iron and resin. In a mosaic-like pattern, Qiusha creates a kind of tapestry and pattern both in fabric and stone in shades and sheens of black, alluding to generations of women who easily discarded nylons.
Song Dong’s Traceless Stele (2016), a sculpture of metal stele and a heating device invites viewers to write their own messages on the stone using brushes and water which ultimately disappear. Historically Steles were used as memorials in China for centuries, featuring carved inscriptions to relay information about people or events commemorated. Dong’s interest in the Daoist idea of impermanence using water’s translucency and formlessness is featured, as viewer’s brush-writings disappear quickly. His adjacent video Water Records (2010) plays simultaneously displaying how brushstrokes disappear as the artist completes each drawing with water.
Jin Wang’s The Dream of China: Dragon Robes (1997) made of pvc plastic and fishing line are based on the Chinese Imperial robes and theatrical costumes of generations ago, and bear encoded symbols of five-clawed dragons representing the imperial house and other symbols. Wang has replaced robes of rich silks, gold thread, and brocades with suspended translucent white plastic robes – each with memories or shadows of the original garments.
Xu Bing’s several drawings, collages, scroll and installation uses tobacco as material and subject, exploring the history and production of cigarettes, global trade and its impact on Chinese culture. Emphasizing the U.S. – China connection, Xu uses raw tobacco leaves, cigarettes, cigarette packaging and other marketing materials documenting the global economy and Chinese art history. 1st Class (1999-2011) is an installation consuming an entire large gallery room floor in the shape and color patterns of a tiger rug – all made of thousands of actual cigarettes, systematically arranged and glued into a “rug”. There is a pervading scent of cigarette tobacco as viewers circle the room to view this work.
Zhang Huan’s Seeds (2007) is a painting on canvas created from incense ash, charcoal, and resin. Huan has worked with ash since visiting the Longhua Temple in Shanghai, where he saw ash from burned joss sticks or incense used in ritual prayers. He sees the ash as connected to the spiritual process and the” hopes, dreams and blessings” of those who visited the temple. Studio assistants helped sort the ash by shade and coarseness before Huan applied it to the canvas.
Chen Zhen, He Xiangyu, Hu Xiaoyuan, Peng Yu, Sui Jianguo, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhan Wang, and Zhu Jinshi are the balance of artists whose works are included in this show. The Allure of Matte: Material Art From China is the first exhibition of its size and scope documenting Chinese contemporary art on the west coast. The artists use a myriad of meaningful materials to discuss the complex history and current themes that document life for people in contemporary China.