Sunday, 20 January 2013

Lin Tianmiao, Bound Unbound, Asia Society

Several reviewers seem to think the work of Chinese artist Lin Tianmiao is derivative and it got me to wondering exactly how much that matters. To be derivative seems to me to mean that an artist blindly and without thought copies the medium, style, or subject of other artists, or imitates an entire artistic style, perhaps adding  changes that make the work more accessible. When an artist's work seems to show the influence of another artist, it can mean many things. Some of Lin Tianmiao's creations in the exhibition at Asia Society did not inspire much interest from me, but others were beautiful, beautifully crafted, and made me think about what it means to be human and to be a woman, in quite different ways than the artists who influenced her - Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Ann Hamilton - do. That's a lot more than I got from the Richard Artschwager show at the Whitney, an artist I had always understood to be wildly creative and original, but whose work seems to be primarily about art.

Coming off the Asia Society elevator, I was charmed by All the Same, 2011, a row of bones considerably above eye level, each completely wound in a different rainbow color of silk thread, each bone's strand dropping down to puddle on the floor. The wall curved, and the colored, covered bones made a rainbow around it. Only from the label did I learn that these are replicas of all the bones in the human body. The colors are beautiful and I walked around it trying to identify which bones were which, engaging with my own substructure while I looked. Now that I write this, I imagine that I'm responding to a Bourgeois, Smith, or Hamilton "lite," colorful and ordered images of body parts that those artists would make more disturbing and less accessible. But I was transfixed and delighted, and it made me think and feel. No images I can find do this work justice.

In another installation Lin combined bones with tools and again wound them in silk thread, this time all grey, so the wrapped objects became neither bone nor tool, or both. There were more than 75 of these; the largest included a human scull or a pickaxe. I started thinking there's something of a miniature Christo in this work. The idea was reinforced by the larger installation, Bound and Unbound, 1997, in which she wound white thread around 548 everyday household objects, making an installation at a time when installations were often prohibited in post-Tianamen Beijing. By gathering this huge nuuber of objects used by women in their daily lives and carefully winding them in white, she gives dignity to the objects, calls attention to the daily work of a Chinese household, and perhaps makes some reference to just how many objects the Chinese economy makes it possible to have. It's a lot of stuff.

One installation is made up of a group of plump women, who seem to be partly made of patchwork white silk with balls of thread and bits of cloth hanging from them, and whose heads are audio speakers. The speakers play the sounds of laughter and perhaps talking, as if the women are telling jokes. I watched it for quite a while and could only sense the camaraderie of women. A nearby installation had three old men facing each other, covered similarly in pink silk skin. They were anatomically right for old men and their poses and anatomy suggested hardships suffered and past. It was around here in the installation I felt how strongly the connection to the artist's life and the life experience of women infuses all this work. It's derivative in the same way my life is derivative of yours.

I spent a long time in Here? or there? a large video and costume installation Lin made with her husband Wang Gongxin, where the six oval videos showed a woman wearing each of the nine odd costumes intercut with images of landscape, a teahouse, a Chinese garden, and old and new buildings and ruins, sometimes broken up by a rushing image and a sound like a train zooming by. It's impossible to 'get a hold' of what's going on, with the erratic changes of scene, perhaps like the changes in China today. or just  the changes and rush of life. The costumes are fascinating, oddly revealing, constrictive, strange, impossible.

In several works the artist uses her own body as the model, hanging threads from it, connecting two images with threads, or partially obscured by clustered threads. The label, which explains that in the 1960s and 70s only portraits of Mao Zedong were allowed in China and families could not have personal portraits at all, gives these images a poignancy that they could hardly have in a Western context.

Doing research on contemporary art in China a couple of years ago I came upon Lin Tianmiao's The Proliferation of Thread Winding, 1995, consisting of a bed with 20,000 needles in its center, a video monitor on the pillow, and hundreds of silk threads unwound out from the bed and in balls on the floor. For some reason Asian Society's installation had a table rather than a bed, which seemed to negate the concept. Regardless, the object in person is far more intriguing than the black-and-white illustration I knew from the past.

The most recent work in the show hangs in the front stairway, prominent, but also a bit difficult to see. It's a gold silk picture, kind of like a Julian Schnabel plate painting, except far more elegant and thought-provoking, with gold-wound human bones and scissors and thread attached to the surface instead of plates. Sculls and bones are woven or embroidered into the abstract rectangles of various shades of gold and a few bright blue embroidered flowers touch the embroidered bones. It's elegant and eerie, sewing luxury and mortality. Knowing a bit of the history of 20th-century China, I'm almost afraid to think of what it represents.

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