Museum  July 3, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

How Chinese Contemporary Artists Use Materials with Meaning

© Gu Wenda, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring a detail of Gu Wenda's United Nations: American Code (2018-2019), 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.

You’ll find works from some of the most influential contemporary Chinese artists, such as Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Xu Bing, and Yin Xiuzhen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) this summer. Although well-known in China, most of these artists are still little-known in the United States. Thanks to curators Wu Hung, Orianna Cacchione, Stephen Little and Susanna Ferrell, this is the first exhibition of this size and scope to document Chinese contemporary art on American soil. The 35 pieces in The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China—paintings, sculptures, installations and performances—are themed around the concept of “material art.” The term underlines the importance of matter as a medium through which artists can express their political, social, and aesthetic views. All the materials that were used to create the pieces in this exhibition—from cigarettes and human hair, to ashes and fabrics—were chosen by the artists based on their personal value and relevance in the Chinese cultural and historical environment.

© Xu Bing, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring Xu Bing's First Class (2011), 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.

For the Tobacco Project (2011) series, Xu Bing (b. 1955) uses cigarettes that are glued together to create a tiger skin-like rug that occupies the entire room. Cigarettes are a huge part of the daily lives of Chinese people and of Xu’s life. While on residency at Duke University in 2000, Xu became interested in the history of the Duke family, who became wealthy in the 19th century by entering the tobacco industry and manufacturing cigarettes that were then exported all around the world. With a series of art pieces made of tobacco leaves, cigarette packaging and advertising, and cigarettes themselves, Xu Bing wanted to reflect on the economic and social impact that tobacco and its derivatives had in the lives of Chinese people.  

Yin Xiuxhen (b. 1963) repurposed another common material for Transformation (2007) by collecting old tiles from Beijing’s traditional courtyard houses, the siheyuan. On top of each tile, she positioned a black-and-white photograph of the location where she had collected the tiles. The aim of Yin’s artwork is to raise awareness of the destruction and displacement that Beijing’s construction policies have brought to the city. Because of the government’s projects to destroy the old Beijing’s neighborhood buildings in order to replace them with modern constructions, many residents of the siheyuan have been displaced. Yin’s art can be seen as a testament to the traditional way of life of the Beijingers and as an attempt to use discarded, yet sentimentally and culturally powerful materials, to transform them into art. 

Installation photograph, Zhu Jinshi, Wave of Materials, 2007/2019, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
© Zhu Jinshi, courtesy of Zhu Jinshi and Pearl Lam Galleries, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation photograph, Zhu Jinshi, Wave of Materials, 2007/2019, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation photograph, featuring Song Dong’s Traceless Stele (2016) and Water Records (2010)
© Song Dong, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring Song Dong’s Traceless Stele (2016) and Water Records (2010), 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.

Installation photograph, featuring Ai Weiwei’s Untitled, Divine Proportion (2006)
© Ai Weiwei, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring Ai Weiwei’s Untitled, Divine Proportion (2006), 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.

Installation photograph, featuring Liu Jianhua's Black Flame (detail) (2017)
© Liu Jianhua, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring Liu Jianhua's Black Flame (detail) (2017), 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.

Installation photograph, featuring Liang Shaoji's Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Nature Series No. 79 (2002-2007) and Wang Jin's A Chinese Dream (2006), The Dream of China: Dragon Robe(1997) and Chinese Dream(2005)
© Liang Shaoji, © Wang Jin, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA

Installation photograph, featuring Liang Shaoji's Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Nature Series No. 79 (2002-2007) and Wang Jin's A Chinese Dream (2006), The Dream of China: Dragon Robe (1997) and Chinese Dream (2005), 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.

These two works exemplify how matter can be part of the message while simultaneously being at the core of artistic creation. Rooting themselves in Chinese history, culture, and materiality, these artists re-invented and re-interpreted what material art can be. The Allure of Matter forces viewers to reflect on the significance of matter and materiality in their daily lives as well as in the development and creation of new art forms. 

The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China will be at LACMA in Los Angeles until January 5th, 2020. It will then travel to the SMART Museum in Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Peabody Essex Museum. 

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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