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Installation view of GU WENDA’s united nations: american code, 2018–19, human hair, 459 × 701 × 854 cm, at “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2019–20. Courtesy the artist and LACMA

The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China

Also available in:  Chinese

There was a lofty goal behind “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Positioning the exhibition’s works by 21 artists as their examples, co-curators Wu Hung and Orianna Cacchione attempted to coin the phrase “Material Art,” or caizhi yishu, with the hopes that it would enter the art historical lexicon as a new lens through which to understand contemporary Chinese art against a global (or perhaps more specifically, Western) landscape. According to Wu’s accompanying catalogue essay, the term Material Art more aptly describes the practices of artists who gravitate toward specific materials, but who have been wrongly and awkwardly categorized under Western art labels such as “Conceptual Art, assemblage, readymades or object-based art.” In Wu’s estimation, these artists rely on materials to convey socio-political or personal messages. 

However, one could argue that the foundational meanings of many of the pieces on view lay not within their chosen materials, but in the eradication, effacement, and dissipation of a source material. This was evidenced by the ethereal displays that introduced the show, such as Wang Jin’s translucent longpao (Emperor’s dragon robes). Instead of the traditional silk and embroidery, these were fashioned from PVC and fishing line, and floated like ghosts across the gallery. Liang Shaoji’s dramatic ceiling-to-floor chain link sculptures are shrouded by gauzy raw-silk-like mummified relics. Paintings by Zhang Huan, made from burnt incense ash taken from Buddhist temples, are the detritus of prayers. Such gestures of concealment and erasure are perhaps indicative of the tenuous relationship that many Chinese citizens have to history, specifically its censure. 

Ghostly qualities pervaded other works in the show. Gu Wenda’s room-sized shelter made from rainbow-hued human hair, united nations: american code (2018–19), was specifically created for the exhibition, and floated above the floor like a colorful apparition. Another room contained Song Dong’s Traceless Stele (2016), in which visitors were invited to dip Chinese calligraphy brushes in a water trough and write upon a stone slab. The marks disappear almost immediately after they are inscribed. At the outset, Liu Jinhua’s Blank Paper (2009–12) appears to be simply that: three sheets of white paper adhered to the wall. But, in fact, these pieces are sheets of hand-hewn porcelain, sculpted in a trompe-l’oeil manner. Beyond the uncanny optical effect, the work is redolent of the metaphorical blank pages and chapters that have been omitted in Chinese historical records (such as the sanitized version of the Tiananmen Square protests in high school history books). 

Other works toyed with unraveling or dismantling. Lin Tianmiao’s Day-Dreamer (2000) comes from Lin’s childhood memories of her mother unraveling white gloves to use as thread for mending more important, utilitarian garments. From an augmented apparition-like self-portrait suspended from the ceiling, singular white threads pierce a white bed-like piece of furniture for a powerful meditation on female social roles. For Transformation (1997), Yin Xiuzhen laid out discarded roof tiles from demolished traditional homes in Beijing, evoking a burial site. On top of each tile, a poignant black-and-white photo commemorates the site from which the tile was taken. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000) by Chen Zhen comprises crystal fabrications of 11 internal organs, placed on a glass table, and was created the very year that he died from cancer. The exhibition also included Ai Weiwei’s Tables at Right Angles (1998), in which two Qing-dynasty tables were irreverently cut and jointed back together at an illogical angle. 

With works that emphasized the immaterial, or the breakdown of matter, the exhibition begged the question: how applicable is the term Material Art? It seems that at this early stage, the label may conjure more questions than answers. Does classifying Chinese artists—historically associated with or even stereotyped by silk, porcelain, and ink painting—by way of these same materials bring them into the global conversation or does it further sequester these artists into a China milieu? Regardless of nomenclature, which art history has always shown to be more limiting than illuminating, the exhibition was an accomplished feat—a feast for the eyes and soul. 

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