Yin Xiuzhen creates sculptures from the detritus of urban living to relate personal narratives with larger commentaries on the march of Chinese civilization and its excesses. Her oeuvre blends materials that are sentimental with those that are coarse, often with a pervasive vein of nostalgia. Parked at the convergence of these ideas is Collective Subconscious (2007), a concertina-like modified minibus taken from a self-titled 2007 solo show at the commercial space Beijing Commune. It was exhibited for the second time in the latest installment of the one-person Projects series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
The work presents a Chinese minibus taxi, known as a xiao mian (“little loaf of bread”) for their oblong shape. Ubiquitous in late-1980s pre-boom Beijing, they have largely disappeared from the city over the past 20 years. Described as “communal” by the wall text, they were more typically employed as inexpensive, albeit questionably secure, alternatives to standard taxicabs. In Collective Subconscious, the “bread” is sliced and extended into a gangling mechanical caterpillar positioned atop dozens of small wheels. The extension, festooned in a skin of secondhand clothing, is divided in vertical stripes by color, recalling a long row of book spines.
On closer inspection, a wealth of details emerge that reveal the past lives of these materials, which were sourced from Yin’s friends and family. Fragments of designs on the swatches poke through, ranging from the broken English of counterfeit labels to Chinese phrases in a collegiate font, even a stylized silkscreen of an intact minibus. These graphics reveal the local apparel’s former glory as status symbols—often usurped today by major international brands—while lending personality to the work and a sense of the passengers who once rode within. The effect recalls a recent but much simpler time in Chinese history—one when a ride in a minibus, even shared with strangers, was a convenience unheard of just over ten years earlier.
In MoMA’s last major exhibition by a Chinese artist, July 2009’s “Waste Not” by Yin’s husband Song Dong, the artist painstakingly arranged thousands of his mother’s possessions around the reconstructed frame of a portion of her tiny Beijing house. The work stood as a portrait of his mother’s entire life, and as a bittersweet exorcism of his father, whose death necessitated his mother’s move to a new home. On a grander scale, these collected possessions represented the generation that survived the depravities of the Great Leap Forward and are now coping with the excesses of pervasive consumer culture. The theme is echoed here as Yin grasps for a sense of history and identity as things that were once a source of contentment and security have become quaint and obsolete.
The extended body of the vehicle serves as a proposal by Yin that this era in Chinese history be lengthened and revisited, while the internal details of the vehicle betray the temptations of the new. The original sliding door has been refashioned to operate like a “gull wing” of a classic sports car. The dimly lit interior contains several humble wooden stools while Beijing Beijing, a wistful ballad by mid-1990s Chinese pop icon Wang Feng, plays from a conspicuously high-end sound system. The song celebrates the overwhelming pace and size of the city while also expressing a sense of longing for one’s identity. By setting a nostalgic atmosphere, Yin intended to create a quiet space for visitors that would stimulate feelings of introspection and reminiscence.
In the austere setting of Beijing Commune there is no doubt that a scene of woolgathering could have taken place. Watching the process unfold in the bustling scrum of a New York museum, however, the experience was more festive than meditative. Visitors lined up behind the gallery’s velvet rope, entering in groups regimented by a security guard. As they clambered inside, the vehicle’s minimal suspension lurched and heaved under patrons’ weight, animating the machine. Photographs were taken, the group marched out and the cycle repeated. This odd minibus, which calls upon the viewer to reflect on the values of a former economic reality, has ironically, in its Western setting, become emblematic of Chinese prosperity. The work betrays the risk an artist takes in having her work placed far from its origins: that people will see it and localize it with their own frames.