Lin Tianmiao is one of the most powerful female voices to emerge from and endure the vicissitudes of Chinese contemporary art over the past two decades. Since the mid-1990s, she has been making labor-intensive, traditional craft-based sculptures and installations breathtaking in their obsessive and dangerously precise transformation of everyday objects.
Lin’s current exhibition at Galerie Lelong (New York), Protruding Patterns, features two recent works: one that combines linguistics with woven carpets and another that features bones—both human and animal. Prior to the exhibition, Kang Kang spoke with the artist about her formative experiences, her ever-evolving ideas about women in China, obsession with materials, and pursuit of a liminal state of being.
Kang Kang (Rail): As one of the few women of your generation who work in the contemporary art system, your trajectory seems rather singular. You left China in the late 1980s, worked as a textile designer in New York, and didn’t show work until you came back to Beijing in the ‘90s. Can you tell me about these particular decisions?
Lin Tianmiao: In the 1980s, China was just beginning to withdraw from Soviet influences; contemporary art didn’t exist as a way of thinking. Growing up, I was influenced by my father, who was an accomplished Chinese Gongbi painter. I knew I would never surpass him in terms of craft or classical erudition, but I had no idea what kind of artist I wanted to become. That was when I had the opportunity to go to New York and see how artists lived and worked. My husband Wang Gongxin and I were among the first Chinese artists to leave the more insular communities in Queens to move into a Brooklyn loft. We lived in Williamsburg, on Bedford and North 11th, with over fifty artists living in our building. We were lucky to be in New York at the height of experimental art practices and non-profit spaces, and we participated in everything that was happening; from open studios, to dance, music, and performance. Seeing how other artists were living and making work helped us understand how we could live and work with art being our primary, lifelong devotion.
Rail: You decided to become a professional artist in New York?
Rail: Essentially, you were away when the most seminal events in recent Chinese art history, like the infamous ‘89 Avant Garde Art Show, took place. But you were instrumental in shaping the Beijing art world from the 1990s onward. For example, we can’t talk about new media art in the early 2000s without talking about the Loft New Media Art Space, the non-profit art space you co-founded with Wang Gongxin, which filled an important institutional gap at the time.
Lin: When I was in New York, I was reading about Li Xianting and his generation of artists in The New York Times. Chinese contemporary art was beginning to get exhibited overseas, but the majority of the work, including movements like Political Pop and Cynical Realism, was ostensibly preoccupied with some sort of collective consciousness and political resistance. Li Xianting was dubbed the “godfather of Chinese contemporary avant-garde art”—it was still a collective-oriented mindset.
When we got back to Beijing in the mid-’90s, we opened up our family-owned courtyard for open studios and pop-up exhibitions to make up for the lack of exhibition venues. This format, which we took from Williamsburg, proved to be extremely effective in China, as contemporary art infrastructure like galleries and museums were largely nonexistent. Our focus was unapologetically individualist, and that’s why we were important. Our return to Beijing, along with the return of Ai Weiwei and other artists, was key to disrupting the contemporary art monoculture that was centered on the ‘89 avant-garde, on collective resistance, and on Li Xianting. We wanted to talk about art itself.
Rail: Self-organized groups and autonomous artist communities were also proliferating in China in the early ‘90s, like the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village or the Beijing East Village, but these experiments were short-lived. Did you have any affinity with them?
Lin: I’ve always been distant from that ecosystem, including their political engagement—it never amounted to aversion, but I always knew that the artist’s individual experience is paramount when it comes to making art. That’s where I depart the most from locally grown art movements.
Rail: How did you find a point of entry—or should we say puncture and protrusion—when you came back to the Chinese context? Like the poetic violence in your iconic The Proliferation of Thread Winding (1995) with the motions of piercing and winding.
Lin: I started making that work after Wang Gongxin did his first two shows in our home studio. When I first came back, I realized that people were still using these white cotton threads that were so ubiquitous when I was a child, and thought that the material was perfect for representing change and the mutual transformation of materials, like yin and yang. I wanted to visualize my own experience in the most concise way possible. The Proliferation of Thread Winding, the pants, and the moisture cream series were all made in this vein.
Rail: Were the pants woven?
Lin: They were made with xuan paper. I knew the material so well growing up, so I cut out a huge pair of paper pants with many needles pinned on them—pants signify authority and masculinity, the softness and lightness of paper weighed down by steel needles.
Rail: It’s interesting to hear you describe the work in these terms, as you are well-known for your abstention from the feminist label and feminist discourse.
Lin: I was exposed to feminist ideas in the U.S., but because of my limited English, I was never able to engage deeply with the social and cultural history of feminism. Those ideas definitely inspired me in ways that I still can’t fully articulate today, but I had no intention to become a feminist artist or make work about the feminine. I was intuitively interested in the conditions and transformations of the body in a way that wasn’t self-consciously feminist.
Rail: Protruding Patterns at Galerie Lelong is part of a series that directly engages with social discourses of women. Your medium has changed from embroidery and badges to the carpet, but you’re always dealing with language and making palpable the multitude and immensity of changing perceptions and prejudices towards women.
Lin: This work came much later. The country was undergoing massive transformation, and people like you kept pressing me about feminism, which forced me to rethink the whole question. Personally speaking, I’m convinced that feminism doesn’t exist in China because feminism signifies a spontaneous, self-organized struggle for women’s rights that takes hold of society as a whole. China is not democratic enough for it. Chinese women artists like myself intuitively use women’s experience in our work, but that doesn’t mean we’re feminist in the same way artists are feminists in the Western context. Feminism in America is a much more mature discourse that artists can choose to engage with or not because the possibility of women’s participation in cultural production has already been established. This is not the case in China.
Around 2008, I had a long conversation with the art historian, curator, and critic Huang Zhuan, who commissioned me to make a new work that’s not about women. I thought, why not use this opportunity to research, instead of the feminist question, real living conditions of women today? I read about Post-World War II social change in Japan, Hong Kong, and China and discovered many similarities in the ways in which the languages have evolved and borrowed from one another to invent and accommodate new ideas about women. For Badges, the first iteration of this series in 2009, I had dozens of words sewed onto huge, hanging embroidery hoops, like “Biao” [bitch, whore], “Three-high Woman” [higher education, high professional standing, high income, but single], etc. For another show, I made words into pins that visitors could take away. Interestingly, the women who came to my opening mostly favored the “good” words over the “dirty” or “bad” ones.
I’ve been researching for five or six years, and it’s interesting to observe that the Chinese lexicon of labels for women has remained largely static over thousands of years of feudalism. It was not until the Republican era that a large number of new words emerged to reflect the changing status of women, like the “Modern Girl” or “New Woman.” After 1949, the language became much more political, like Mao’s famous proclamation: “Women hold up half the sky.” The 1980s and ‘90s saw more loan words coming from Japan, Hong Kong, and America. I collected over 2,000 words, most of which would never make it into a dictionary because they’re politically incorrect.
Rail: Do you select words that reflect, to some extent, what you consider the mainstream consciousness of the feminine? Or is it an all-inclusive pool that prioritizes marginal identities?
Lin: I don’t categorize words in this way. I do as much research as I can and reproduce all my findings. I spend a lot of time reading gossip magazines, blogs, and Chinese Internet literature. The vocabulary opens up from outwardly identifying—often discriminatorily—women’s biological and social roles, to representing their interiority and psychological experience. 2008 to 2009 was a peak moment online, where new words were constantly being coined and even more quickly forgotten. In my parent’s time, a woman’s entire life could’ve been summed up by a single word. The diversity and complexity of female identities today reflects the evolution from acknowledging social roles to a kind of performative self-fashioning that’s often ironic and self-deprecating.
Since finishing this work three or four years ago, I haven’t made any new work on this topic because I believe I’ve done a thorough job presenting a woman’s perspective on broader cultural shifts in women’s identities. I feel very much liberated now that this label has been removed, so I could finally participate in the making of culture as much as men.
Rail: Patterns, whether textual or textile, are ways of organizing and making sense of the world. The most common gestures in your work—binding, winding, sewing—are repetitive, prescriptive, restrained. The act of weaving, too, is a sort of programming, a formula for the production of meaning. And yet, your material and form show a kind of flexibility and adaptability that seems so essential to what we identify with women’s work. This seems to be an important tension in the work.
Lin: I’m attracted to the feeling of awkwardness, of discomfort, of tenderness, and of self-deprecation.
Rail: The carpet represents a kind of labor-intensive handicraft traditionally in the realm of the feminine; on the other hand, your machine-made bones have all the sleek, exacting sheen of industrial reproducibility without asserting a sense of authority. Where do you find the balance between these sensibilities?
Lin: I first started working with bones after my mother’s passing, wanting to use the form as a channel between the living and the dead. Then I became so enchanted by the beauty of bones that it elevated me from grief into a state of elation—not only human bones, but animal too, even birds and insects. There’s a sense of universality in that everything is the same after “losing” what we call “life.” I slowly realized, after years of experimentation, that these assemblages of bones with manmade tools give form to life after death.
Rail: Is it through manual work that you attempt to transcend these hierarchies and divisions of life/death, human/non-human, subject/object? How does it transpire when you work with so many workers and craftspeople?
Lin: It’s a kind of touch—a continuous touch. To really touch and be in touch with the material as myself—this is my work. I no longer hire workers because I find it confining to work with many people. Now I collaborate with factories and production companies on different projects—they offer an extremely logical, pragmatic perspective that I find very helpful.
Rail: Do you work on multiple series simultaneously, with radically different materials and processes? Or do you focus on one project at a given time, sometimes revisiting old projects?
Lin: I do one thing at a time. I work in different stages, and each new stage always negates the previous one. That’s why I’m always changing, always trying to counteract, cover up, or re-excavate what I’ve already done.
Rail: Do you tend to think serially when you make an exhibition, or do you treat it as a cross section of a particular stage of your work, or perhaps an assemblage of multiple stages?
Lin: Maybe all of the above. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate, and sometimes differentiation makes work impossible. For example, I would spend a year or two to familiarize myself with the material, to the point where I’m able to work intuitively rather than merely conceptually. It takes a long time for me to make work and it takes time to find my conceptual framework in retrospection, because there would be no point in making something if you could already articulate it through language. The liminal state provides many points of entry, and I’ve now started to make written notes of all my thought processes until an idea emerges and is put to the test. Of course, the end form often has nothing to do with the idea.
Rail: But isn’t there a sense of conceptual direction, moving from the expression of human cultural experience to a kind of breaking down of the human?
Lin: Directionality, perhaps, but I’m more interested in the in-between places, switching between different states of being. It’s a very precise and dangerous point that could feel confrontational. Also—this might be a weakness of mine, having worked as a designer for many years—each of my works must be totally complete. For example, the set of sculptures I’m exhibiting now has over one hundred bone pieces in white marble. With their exquisiteness and extremely fine craft, even the bones become lovable, no longer eliciting our fear of mortality.
Rail: Elsewhere you’ve talked about wanting to reach the breaking point between exquisiteness and luxury. But it’s easy to get carried away by the latter.
Lin: I like to take things to the extreme and find out where their thresholds are. I’m always asking: What is possible? How far can I go with this? What can I say with it? It’s really fun to go against the usual order of things and attempt what’s otherwise impossible through craft. Working with white marble this time, there was no way I could recreate teeth and bone structures that are so thin and delicate. My experiments kept failing, but I knew that I had to make it happen, because without uncompromising precision the entire work would be a failure. People say it’s dangerous to get too caught up in your materials, but I think that’s a freedom art can afford.
Kang Kang is a writer and dramaturg. Her writings appear in the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum China, LEAP, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, among others.