Since the 1980s, Chinese contemporary artists have cultivated intimate relationships with their materials, establishing a framework of interpretation revolving around materiality. Artists continue to explore and develop this creative mode, using a range of materials, from plastic, water, and wood to hair, gunpowder, and Coca-Cola.
The current exhibition at LACMA explores the practice of Chinese artists of experimenting with a single material. Coining the term “material art” to denote this trend in contemporary Chinese art-making, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China brings together 35 works from the past four decades, in which conscious material choice has become a symbol of the artists’ expression. The exhibition features some of the most influential Chinese artists working today, such as Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Lin Tianmiao, Song Dong, Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhan Wang, Zhang Huan, and more.
The showcase presents a unique opportunity to see works of some of the leading Chinese artists, of which some are still little-known in the U.S. Part of LACMA’s growing effort to become a center of Chinese contemporary art, The Allure of Matter will be on view at BCAM, Level 2, and the Resnick Pavilion until January 5th, 2020. After premiering at LACMA, the exhibition will travel to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and Wrightwood 659, Chicago, Illinois (February 4th – May 3rd, 2020); the Seattle Art Museum, Washington (June 25th – September 13th, 2020); and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts (November 14th, 2020 – February 21st, 2021).
We bring you five highlights from this amazing show.
Featured images: Installation photograph, featuring Gu Wenda’s United Nations: American Code (2018–19) as seen in the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2, 2019–January 5, 2020, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA; Installation photograph, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2, 2019–January 5, 2020, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA; Installation photograph, featuring Liu Jianhua’s Black Flame (2017) as seen in the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2, 2019–January 5, 2020, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Xu Bing's long-term project titled Tobacco Project is a personal and historic multi-part exploration of tobacco. Using tobacco as both material and subject, the artist examines the history and production of the cigarette, global trade, and marketing.
The project first began during a residency at Duke University, where Bing dived into the history of the Duke family, which made its fortunes by manufacturing and marketing cigarettes in the late 19th century. By transforming different aspects of raw tobacco leaves, cigarettes, cigarette packaging, and other marketing materials, Bing tackled the interwoven histories of the global economy, commodities, and Chinese art history.
The exhibition presents four elements of this project - Tobacco Book (2011), Traveling Down the River (2004), a series of sketches (all completed between 1999 and 2000), and a larger-than-life tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes, 1st Class (1999–2011). The last presents cigarettes as a lifestyle product that is both glamorous and dangerous to people’s health, configuring it in the shape of a luxury rug.
Featured image: Xu Bing - 1st Class, 2011. 500,000 1st class cigarettes, adhesive, carpet, 480 × 180 in., installation view in Xu Bing: Phoenix, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), North Adams, Massachusetts, 2012–13, © Xu Bing Studio, photo courtesy MASS MoCA.
In conceiving Untitled, Divine Proportion, Ai Weiwei was inspired by one of his cats’ play toys.
The artist created a truncated icosahedron from valuable huanghuali (yellow rosewood) using traditional Chinese nailless joinery techniques, following more than a year of deliberation and planning. Its title is drawn from Leonardo Da Vinci's illustrations of this form for mathematician Luca Pacioli’s 1509 treatise The Divine Proportion.
Enlarged to a larger-than-human scale, the ball lacks any conventional function, highlighting the exquisite detail of its craftsmanship.
Featured image: Ai Weiwei - Untitled, Divine Proportion, 2006. Huanghuali wood, diameter 109 7/16 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2011 Collectors Committee, © Ai Weiwei, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
In the piece Day-Dreamer from 2000, Lin Tianmiao stitched hundreds of cotton threads through her self-portrait, suspended from the ceiling. The cotton thread has served as a source of fascination since her childhood when the artist's mother would unravel the thread of her old white cotton gloves, given to workers in state-owned factories, and give it to Lin to wind the thread into skeins to be used in future domestic projects.
Transitioning this process into her art, Tianmiao traced the shape of a nude figure staring down at the mattress, which is wrapped with a piece of white cloth and placed on the floor. The repeated punctures through her haunting silhouette suggest the impact of domestic labor on her body.
Featured image: Lin Tianmiao - Day-Dreamer, 2000. White cotton threads, white fabric, digital photograph, height adjustable on actual site- 196 13:16 × 86 5:8 × 59 in. Courtesy of the artist, © Lin Tianmiao
Using 108 cement roof tiles collected from the demolition sites of traditional houses in her hometown of Beijing, Yin Xiuzhen created an installation titled Transformation which reflects on the displacement of countless local families. These historical neighborhoods were torn down in order for new modern buildings to come in their place. Each tile is accompanied by a black-and-white photograph taken at its collection site. The artist explained that rubble, with its experience and history, speaks for itself:
They have individual and collective memories, as well as many traces of life. When these materials emerge in a different environment, a vein between true reality and the artwork forms. It formalizes real life and allows objects to speak, to have their own voice.
Featured image: Installation photograph, featuring Yin Xiuzhen’s Transformation (1997) as seen in the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2, 2019–January 5, 2020, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
In his work Wave of Materials, Zhu Jinshi employed xuan paper as a sculptural material and symbol of Chinese art history. Traditionally made from a mixture of hemp, mulberry, and other natural plant fibers, xuan paper continues to be used by many Chinese artists today.
Comprised of eight thousand individual crumpled sheets, the work is suspended in the air, sheltering viewers from the surrounding gallery, isolating them within the work and establishing the overwhelming presence of Eastern art within a Western space.
Featured image: Installation photograph, Zhu Jinshi, Wave of Materials, 2007/2019. Xuan paper, cotton, bamboo, thread, stones, 275 9/16 × 472 7/16 × 137 13/16 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Zhu Jinshi, courtesy of Zhu Jinshi and Pearl Lam Galleries