Systems, the title of Lin Tianmiao’s first solo exhibition in Shanghai curated by Alexandra Munroe, held at the beautiful Rockbund Museum, is an exemplar of a scientific approach and process applied to creating a work of visual art, one that marries a complex understanding of physical systems with artistic vision.Born in 1961 in Taiyuan, China, Lin is a Beijing artist, credited as the first Chinese woman artist to be accorded international recognition. Her first solo exhibition in the U.S. in 2012 was at The Asia Society, New York(titled Bound Unbound), where the works she showcased were those she’d spent more than a decade exploring, interweaving her practice of thread-winding with her thematic concerns of gender identity and materiality. Lin uses materials such as silk, hair, cotton, and hair as threads to bind found or manufactured objects, a creative act to reclaim her own past of spooling cotton thread for her mother when young. In this exhibition, two of her works show this to great effect – Day Dreamer (Fig. 1) and High (Fig. 2).
Growing up in China as a rambunctious tomboy, Lin had a late start as an artist, according to art writer Karen Smith in the catalogue for Lin’s solo exhibition – Non Zero – in Beijing in 2004. After graduating from Normal University, Beijing where the approach to art was to groom pedagogues, Lin worked as a commercial textile designer for many years, eight years in New York with her artist husband Wang Gongxin (1986-1994). But her affinity for fabrics, her talent in geometry and spatial awareness, her acute sensitivity to colour was nowhere more evident than in the works shown at Non Zero, where unshapely (by that I mean the lumpy, the protuberant, the obese, the concave) nude forms of men and women are covered with silk fabrics, with ornately sewn beading or lace inset, in squatting or standing poses that walk once again the fine line between vulgarity and beauty. For examples, see Images 1-3 (titled differently because these are images from Non Zero, a previous exhibition). She moved back to Beijing in 1994, and together with Wang Gongxin, became active in the Beijing art scene, using their studio as exhibition space, in tune with many other avant-gardists at the time who used their home or studio space to showcase art controversial enough to risk being censored by the government (so called ‘apartment art’).
Contextualising Lin’s work within the female art canon in China is tricky because, ironically, although women are proclaimed as equal in many of the Cultural Revolution slogans, women’s art is anything but. Equality often translated to an eradication of gender references in political and economic fields; the creative field was no exception, allowing for an elision that translated into neglect of women’s art. A new gender awareness crept in during the 1990s, but efforts were crude, often simply attaching Western feminist theory to Chinese women’s art. As Chinese art historian Pi Li described in her essay The Beauty of Radicality,
“Depictions, metamorphosis and abstraction of sexual organs and women were the first topics to find release through new languages and symbols. Then expressions of babies, pregnancy and breast-feeding became a fad.”
What feminist critical analysis in China lacked at the time was a new language and cultural lexicon that understood and nuanced the complexities within the development and artworks of Chinese women artists, an understanding that must take into account both cultural/national influences and hybridised Western experiences.Weaving, sewing, and experimentation with fabrics, have long constituted a specific gendered artistic vernacular, but in Lin Tianmiao’s hands, they become a modular site for new interpretations, because in my opinion, ‘wrapping and binding’ have cultural psychological symbolism within social gender roles in China, and two, because her approach blends the masculine with the feminine not as binary concepts but as an approach towards a systemic whole, in effect binding the logical systemic with the ineffable in gendered craftmaking processes. This stark contrast between hard and soft is evident in her show Systems, a persistent theme for Lin, manifested ever since her earliest works, such as The Temptation of St. Teresa (1995) (Image 4) where she filled to overflowing hard, wooden containers with soft, effluent face cold cream. Particularly noteworthy is the labour intensive nature of producing many of her artworks, from wrapping balls or daily found objects in threads to the architecturally detailed designs (see Fig. 3) for the defining piece in this exhibition, titled simply My Garden (cover photo).
Image 4. The Temptation of St. Teresa, 1995. Seven wooden boxes, several kgs of cold cream.
Fig. 3. Lin TianMiao’s intricate design notes, on display on top floor of Rockbund.
Designed specifically for the Rockbund’s 4th floor balcony gallery, My Garden features differently-sized beakers and glass tubes, within which neon green liquids jetted, frothed and flowed, powered by hydro-pumps regulated at different speeds. The entire floor and the basins holding the glass beakers are carpeted in pink, simulating a multisensorial yet kitschy garden of ‘plants’ and ‘trees’ which Lin has given quixotic names, such as ‘Money Tree’ or ‘Princess of Fragrance’, vernacular terms she’d taken from folk culture. Walking through rather gave the feel of a fake but playful botanic garden, and the whirr of the pumps together with the jetstreams of green created a mesmerising fixation on flux and the grip of language on the imagination.
The two works in this exhibition that paid tribute to her threadwinding practice are Day Dreamer and High!!. In Day Dreamer, the naked prototype of the artist herself, identifiable by her shaven head, is imaged on the ceiling. Multiple threads descend, pulled taut towards a mattress with a raised surface, creating an exquisite tension between surface and stringed motion, matter and air, working as an allegory of the weight of being woman and all the attendant social implications of her bed duties. Lin has said in previous interviews (i.e. with Monica Merlin at the Tate) that she eschews using female models for her work, often using her own image instead as a political statement against the consumerisation of women’s images and bodies.
Day Dreamer, 1999. Cotton thread, white fabric, digital photograph. 200 x 120 x 380 cm.
In High!!, again more than ten thousand cotton threads suspend quiveringly from a canvas video projection of a moving image of the artist towards a back wall swallowed up by darkness, as if pulled towards infinity. Speakers emit a low frequency which causes the strings to vibrate, an invisible system of sound and motion. The artist’s shaven head and fleshy features transform from colour to black and white, creating a conversation between ideas of self, transformation, fragility and hidden systems of thought and imagery.
High!!, 1999-2018. Cotton thread, projection, speakers, amplifier. 1060 x 475 x 300 cm.
Lin’s three other works that seem to migrate the furthest from notions of gender are Warm Currents, Reaction and Loss and Gain.
In Warm Currents (Fig. 4), Lin draws upon scientific principles within the dynamics of mechanics (particularly pertaining to motion, rest, and forces). Lin once again fashioning variable-sized vials, tubes and pipettes and affixed them to a disc that rotates clockwise. A pink liquid then flows counter-clockwise through these scientific-looking glass vessels arranged in a circle, approximately at one full rotation per minute, generating an oppositional current within the movements that act as a metaphor for the function of ‘systems’, be they scientific, logical or social.
Fig. 4. Warm Currents, 2018. Aluminum frame, stainless steel, glass, liquid circulation system. 220 x 65 x2 58 cm.
Reaction (Fig. 5) is an interactive installation that also draws upon different principles: medicine, science, psychology. Entering a white ‘igloo’, one is invited to place one’s palm onto a sensor, which reads one’s pulse and translates it into the drip of a pulsating blue liquid, while a machinic noise is heard from above and a tremor felt from the floor, allowing one to essentially multi-sense one’s circulatory system. Heartbeat, pulse, and blood pressure, as invisible forces within one’s circulatory system, are made external, as yet another dynamic within the subconscious we’re not often aware of.
Fig. 5. Reaction, 2018. Arc panel structure, vibrating floor, dripping device, liquid circulation system, pulse machine, sound speakers, central control system. 344 x 344 x 339 cm.
Finally, Loss and Gain (Fig. 6) is a forensic display of 120 archaic gadgets and implements – from saws, shears and spades to magnets, trombones, and medical instruments – welded to anatomic bones and skulls, creating a sculpture bricolage which wraps around the balcony of the Rockbund; creating for me an interplay of Heidegger’s philosophic concepts of ‘ready-to-hand’and ‘present-to-hand’ with the understandings surrounding the body’s instrumentality and time/mortality. These too are manifestations of social and existential systems, and reveal a rich seam of inner workings – body dynamics, body functions, body interactions.
Fig. 6 Loss and Gain, 2014. Polyuria resin, fund objects, stainless steel bracket. Dimensions variable. Photo above: installation view.
NB: This blogpost is part of the series focusing on Asian women artists, part of the series on art and technology, and also part of a research paper on Asian female diaspora artists.
Systems is still on show, until 28th August, 2018.
My Garden, 2018. Installation View, 4th floor balcony view from Rockbund.