Lin Tianmiao is an internationally known contemporary Chinese artist based in Beijing, where she lives with her husband, video artist Wang Gongxin, and their child. She was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi province in 1961, where her father was a traditional Chinese painter, and her mother a dancer. Growing up in the social tumult and economic hardship of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, it was necessary for her to help her mother with the household sewing, which involved the laborious winding and unwinding of thread from white cotton workers’ gloves distributed by the government. These precious threads could be recycled into clothing and household items such as curtains, tablecloths, etc. (Women have been winding, knitting and weaving for thousands of years, in the past using decorated hand tools. Nowadays the thread-winding process is done by industrial thread-winding machines.) This ancient relationship of women and textiles would later form a basis for Lin’s art. Her pieces use white cotton thread and silk thread. (Silk fabric was first developed by the Chinese circa 2000-3000 B.C., using thread made by silkworm pupae.)
Lin graduated from the Fine Art Department of Capital Normal University in 1984, and exhibited her paintings in youth art exhibitions at the National Gallery of China in Beijing in 1984 and 1985. She married Wang Gongxin in the 80’s, and in 1988 they came to New York, joining other Chinese artists seeking professional opportunities there, including the politically outspoken Ai Weiwei. Their time in New York proved to be financially difficult; Lin took a job as a textile designer. She also visited art museums and galleries, absorbing the current scene, which included the feminist-inspired work of Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. In 1989 she graduated from the well-known Art Student League, and was in group exhibitions in both New York and Los Angeles, in 1988 and 1993 respectively.
In 1995 she and her husband returned to China for a temporary visit that became permanent when her pregnancy developed complications, making a return trip impossible. She also has stated that in New York she deemed it very difficult to balance her designer job and role as wife with the anticipated role of mother, whereas in China she had the support of her family and could now afford a nanny. She also said that in New York she didn’t have the courage or confidence to be a ‘tide player,’ a Chinese expression referring to those who ride the tide of opportunity; as an outsider she was unable to translate the new cultural sensibility into her own artistic vision, although she appreciated the creative energy of the 80’s New York art scene. (She said in 2012 that the same vibrant creativity now exists in Beijing, in spite of the current Chinese social problems of pollution, economic inequity, and daily living brought about by the enormous change from a rural to urban, industrial economy.)
In the beginning, they lived in a Beijing apartment with limited means, so when she began making art, she used inexpensive and available materials. Her vivid memory of winding the white cotton thread became the first art technique she employed, wrapping ordinary objects. Her first installation work, The Proliferation of Thread Winding, shown in Beijing in 1995, launched her art career, making her one of the few female Chinese artists to gain prominence. This work showed a bed with a carved-out cavity from which needles and balls of string were stretched. In the 1990’s the Beijing art market began to boom, and her work grew larger and more ambitious. Her large-scale photo self-portraits, tied to braids of yarn, have been included in many international shows, and her installations have become more elaborate. She and Wang now live in more comfortable surroundings, and she employs assistants to perform the labor-intensive tasks for her installations.
In the 1970’s, art in China had begun a major evolution as it changed from the state-dominated to the more individual artist-driven, although the new artistic voices often faced government opposition. At first, their art was heavily influenced by new (to them) European and American art movements, such as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, taking them away from the former state-sponsored socialist realism, and sometimes toward political protest. Artists began forming collectives to support each other and create exhibition opportunities. In 1989 some of these artists were invited to show their work in Paris, and exhibitions around the globe soon followed. In the early years, the dominant form used was painting, but in the late 1980’s many artists began exploring newer art forms such as installation, video and performance, using Chinese mythology and traditions as their source, often to comment on current social issues and changes, for example the modernization and commercialization of the country. Eventually artists’ visions became more personal, as they matured and took their place in the contemporary international scene.
Lin’s work was included in this wave of international acclaim for Chinese artists, including the 2008 exhibition Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection at the Berkeley Museum of Art, University of California at Berkeley, which showcased much of the new Chinese art. Her work has continued to be shown in major venues around the world, and is in the collections of such U.S. institutions as the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She has had solo and group exhibitions in Europe, Beijing and elsewhere. She had a major retrospective of her work since 1995 (Bound Unbound) at the Asia Society in New York from the end of 2012 to January 2013, where a number of her atmospheric installations were shown. (See video of her show)
Her signature technique of thread-winding of objects and human and animal figures has continued in her work, whether in humble white cotton or fine silk colored thread. Her work reflects an interest in ‘feminist’ issues (the female body and women’s domestic labor), although she states that the idea of feminism doesn’t exist in China the same way it does in the U.S. Nor does her work have overtly ‘Eastern’ content, although there may be references that Western audiences aren’t aware of, such as Lin’s reasons for using thread-winding in her work, or how she comments in her work on the great changes in Chinese social priorities, with materialism becoming more important than people (not an unknown issue in the West). Her work also deals in larger human issues than gender and race, categories which can marginalize the art of women and minorities. Her sculpture to me appears more timeless, universal and classical; and even though it is often beautiful, it has a complex, disturbing quality as well. She has stated that her first priority is the formal (visual) aspect of the work, and has spoken about the dynamic linear quality of the thread she uses. She is familiar with Western art history, and said that when she was a young painter she was “obsessed” with Cezanne’s work. She also states that her approach to her work is primarily intuitive or instinctual, rather than conceptual, and that she is concerned with natural materials and their connection to nature, including our bodies. (Silk threads are created by silkworm pupae to spin their cocoons like Lin’s thread-wound pieces. Silk threads are woven to create silk fabric.)
Her first major installation work, Bound and Unbound, (scroll down) shown in 1997 in Beijing, is an archaeological landscape of 548 still life objects (small- to medium-sized household items), all tightly wrapped with white cotton thread. It consists of bottles, dishes, baskets, teapots, pots, etc., which when wrapped leave their former modest function to become objects of contemplation. On a “screen” of threads, a video with sound shows a hand using scissors to cut hanging threads. The objects’ white covers appear as pristine and unified as new snow, a George Segal group of figures, or a Malevich white-on-white painting from the early 20th century. A work from 1998, Tree, (scroll down, click on Tree link) shows leafless, wrapped white branches suspended from a hole in the ceiling to a few inches above the floor, where there is a pile of string. A recording of bird chirps can be heard.
Here? Or There?, (scroll down the page) an installation/video/performance work created in 2002, contains a number of elaborately costumed female figures resembling fashion mannequins, ornaments, brides or dolls, behind which are circular projections of Wang Gongxin’s video work, showing scenes of Chinese rural and urban life. An indigo light envelops the installation, which adds drama to the gauzed, high-end-veiled group of figures, formed from fiberglass and mostly covered with various textile elements. A large all-white, two-framed work called Boy and Girl (scroll down) from 2004 is a relief sculpture created by attaching large and small toys to each wall. On one wall, the thread-wrapped objects include trains, trucks, planes and dinosaurs; on the other wall are dolls, stuffed animals, teapots, etc. – a reference to the divergence of masculine and feminine toys. Again, the work is unified by its solid white (non)color, exemplifying the history of white as used in art, particularly since the early 20th century, by artists from Malevich to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. (Does it express purity and unity?)
Also from 2004 is a series of figural works called Non-Zero, plus a specific descriptive title, such as Initiator, Endless and Chatting. Some of the female fiberglass figures don’t have heads in the usual sense. Initiator consists of a white female figure looking down on a large white frog that is holding threads that come from her. Endless ((scroll down) and Chatting (scroll down) are both made with three male figures, and six female figures respectively. All (naked body cast) figures are covered with satiny, bright-colored silk threads and fabric – the females are pink and the males are a fuschia-like color. The males are very thin and appear aged, and the females are middle-aged, corpulent forms. In both sculptures, the figures stand in a circle; the males stand close together and look down on a pile of threads of the same material as their flesh. The females are further apart, with monitor-like heads, and are communicating with each other by means of threads. There is also an audio component consisting of their unintelligible “chatter,” with laughter and other human noises. There is something very expressive about the satin fabric on the figures – it clings tightly to them, following every contour, and its highly reflective surface somehow accentuates their three-dimensional humanness.
Another figural series from 2009, Gazing Back, Nos. 1 through 6, plus Procreating and Badges, which was created especially for the Shanghai Pujiang OCT 10-year public art project, is very striking. All of the large sculptures hang on the museum’s outside walls. NOTE: The links for Lin's works from No.1 thru No. 6 below can be found on her website, www.lintianmiao.com - click on her name, then on Selected Works, click on '2009 Gazing Back, No.'s 1 thru 6 to view the site-specific works individually.) No. 1 consists of a white fiberglass female form in front of a large circular mirror; she is gazing into the mirror with a head that is half-monitor, half-anteater in shape. No. 2 consists of a white female who is squatting and laying eggs that trail behind her, an allusion to Lin’s ambivalent feelings regarding her own pregnancy. No. 3 is a headless female seated figure with her back to the wall, holding a long gold belt. No. 4 is two reclining female figures who appear to be coming out of the wall from the front and back on opposing walls. No. 5 is two stylized, animal-like white figures facing each other, one with the wide monitor/anteater head, and the other with a large monitor/receptacle-like head. The figures are suspended away from the wall, with their feet standing on “nothing.” No. 6 is a large headless white vertical female form parallel to the wall, who is holding a gold skull. Behind and above her are large stainless steel insect-like wings. This figure reminds me of the Greek statue Nike of Samothrace (goddess of Winged Victory), in the form itself, as well as the expression of triumph. In the commentaries I researched for this profile, the idea of gazing back was mentioned as being the female gazing back at herself, rather than the traditional male gaze at the female. Also, the new female gaze could be a mutual gaze, one of equality, rather than the traditional dominance/subservience correlation.
More recent works (2011) are the series The Same, which includes forms of combined synthetic bones and hand tools, such as hammers, hung in a straight line high on the wall. They are wrapped in brightly colored silks in a prism progression. A 2012 wall relief sculpture, Golden Mean, (scroll down) contains scattered “bones” arranged pictorially, wrapped in bright gold silk thread on a geometrically divided plane of gold silk. In art, the term golden mean refers to an ancient method of dividing up pictorial space into harmonious compositional areas, that is mathematically based. The presence of bones, as well as the references to aging in some of the figurative installations, invite an interpretation of the process of decay.
When I look at some of her figures, I think of past figural sculptures (though I’m not suggesting a conscious derivation). One is the Chinese Terracotta Army, (scroll down for photos) part of the first emperor’s burial tomb that was created around 200 B.C. Despite many differences, there are commonalities. The figures in Here? or There? have the dignified, motionless stance of the emperor’s soldiers. Seven hundred thousand laborers were used to create the army of 8000 and the horses; as many as 20 workers completed Lin’s tediously wrapped sculptures. Tianmiao and the army both came from neighboring interior Chinese provinces. The terracotta army was discovered in 1974, when Lin was about 13 years old; she would perhaps have heard about the discovery. Both of the sculpture types are in a burial-like setting, with artifacts, bones, funerary costume, etc. associated with decay – one literally, and one by artistic expression. Both sculptures were brightly colored (the paint on the warriors had mostly flaked off by the time they were discovered). Both forms of sculpture took a very long time to complete – the thread winding could take months for each piece, and the army and horses took over 30 years to create (with ceramics). Finally, there is the sumptuous silk fabric of some of Lin’s figures, that is reminiscent of the splendor of the emperors’ courts. Are her figures a female (buried) army?
Some of Lin’s figures also remind me of classical Greek sculptures, especially the Nike of Samothrace. I see this ideal beauty of Greek sculpture in Gazing Back No. 6, (go to www.lintianmiao.com, click on her name, click on Selected Works, click on 2009 Gazing Back No. 6) as well as the restrained expression of lofty ideals. Also, some of Lin’s female heads are absent, or distorted; many Greek sculptures are headless – not deliberately of course, but still I think we’ve become accustomed to seeing them this way, and the absence of their heads makes them seem more timeless.
Lin has spoken of her need to feel a physical reaction in herself to an external stimulus before she can create art from it. An example would be her sculptures referring to her pregnancy. Her use of materials commonly used by women is an example of how feminist ideas live in her work, as well as her interest in the historical vocabulary (in Chinese and English) used to describe women and their roles in the world. (The number of words pertaining to female occupations has increased in the last 50 years, reflecting the increased options available to women.) But Lin has said that she is more interested in the psychoanalytical than in (women’s) social issues, which places her close to Louise Bourgeois. Her work has been compared to Kiki Smith’s feminist work, which opens up questions about the Eastern versus the Western experience. Certainly in the last 40 or so years, China has come closer to the materialistic and democratic culture of the West, but the political, philosophical, religious, economic and social histories are still far apart. It is easier for an artist in the U.S. to speak out on political or social issues, for example (they are not risking their freedom by doing so). Although the U.S. economy has currently worsened, our historical position has been that of higher standard of living; our deprivation and lack of modern conveniences for the most part has not been severe for hundreds of years. Having been relatively free for centuries, and mostly free of domestic warfare, it would be hard for us to comprehend the realities of many other, less powerful countries.
I can see similarities between Tianmiao’s work and Smith’s early work in a formal sense – that is, many of their sculptural forms have the inventive quality of traditional South American ceramics and African sculptures, (scroll down the page) such as organic forms emerging from manmade geometric forms, their use of natural elements such as bones, shells and feathers, and the changing nature of their forms. (Also, in traditional art, including Chinese, artists deliberately avoided exact realism in order to expand their formal options, and to express the inner truth, rather than the outward truth, of their subjects.) But when I look at Tianmiao's and Smith's sculptures, I think of Lin’s as being environmental, rather than one or two figures. And of course their work deals with female issues, Smith perhaps in a more socially engaged or polemic way, from a tradition of worldly Western artistic upbringing (her father was the modernist sculptor Tony Smith), whereas Lin’s view sees women as half of the human condition. There is a specificity in Smith’s religious concerns as well, whereas Lin’s work has a strong universality. Tianmiao feels that Western and Eastern viewers view her work differently; Western viewers see it more globally, and Eastern viewers see it with a more regional identity.
Generally, reviewers of her Asia Society exhibition have wondered about the meanings in Lin’s work, and speculate that there is a deliberate ambiguity. As an artist myself, I know that even artists don’t always know all the meanings in their work. Maybe we don’t need to know. Did anyone ask Picasso or Donald Judd about the meanings in their work? The formal qualities of art come first, ever since the advent of modernism in the early 20th century (the work has to stand on its own). Artists are always evolving. Lin has stated that she has already moved on from the work shown at the Asia Society (work from 1995-2012).
Her work contains the cycle of raveling and unraveling, and the modest to monumental passage that has occupied artists for centuries (as in Van Gogh’s Boots). (scroll down the page) Her mysterious anthropological explorations have been made courageously but quietly. I look forward to her coming evolution.