The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues
NOV 2012 Issue

LIN TIANMIAO Bound Unbound

On View
Asia Society
September 7, 2012 – January 27, 2013
New York

In the exhibition catalogue for Lin Tianmiao’s Bound Unbound, a grainy photograph from 1995 shows the installation work “Proliferation of Thread Winding” in its original context, a bare cement-walled apartment. A twin bed occupies most of the cramped and dimly lit room. The center of the bed is weighed down by an imploding mass of dark sewing needles, from which flow countless white silk threads gathered in balls on the floor. Nearby a pair of traditional pajama pants hangs from the ceiling, its unnaturally long legs pooling in folds on the floor. As a whole, the scene evokes a painful exorcism of childhood memories undoubtedly tinged by poverty and hard work.

“The Proliferation of Thread Winding,” 1995. White cotton thread, rice paper, 20,000 needles (12-15 cm in length), bed, video player, television monitor. Dimensions variable. Open Studio, Baofang Hutong 12#, Beijing, 1995. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Galerie Lelong.

Fast-forward to today and one can experience the same piece, reinstalled in the sleek Park Avenue galleries of the Asia Society as part of a retrospective of Lin’s work. the original context of worn cement walls, which linked the work to a specific time and place, the impact of “Proliferation” is diminished.  In this new context the piece again seems crowded, but this time by gallery walls and other works. Video footage on display nearby of a hand rolling thread into balls seems didactic and uninspired, and the whole installation reads as pat and almost dated.

Yet this body of work undoubtedly merits contemporary attention. A member of the Apartment Art movement in 1990s Beijing that broke new ground by openly exploring the personal and the internal, Lin has successfully evaded the reductive effects of the Female Chinese Artist label, in part by refusing to engage in heavy-handed treatment of overtly “feminist” issues. Furthermore, Lin avoids grappling with the legacy of Maoist-era propagandistic visual language or with the rigid historical traditions of Chinese art, thus escaping the burden of the particular cultural artistic identity that weighs upon many of her contemporaries in China. It is therefore ironic that her early works read most powerfully in their original Chinese context—and are bled of impact within the sanitized environment of the Western museum.

When judged within the rigorous space of the white cube, many elements of Lin’s often-masterly work hold up well. In “Bound and Unbound(1997) hundreds of household objects wrapped in silk thread successfully summon childhood memories while commenting on the simplicity of pre-boom domestic Chinese life.  Here, video footage—in which a hand cuts thread identical to the warp threads onto which the video is projected—provides a delightfully thought-provoking sleight of hand.  Lin’s use of cast life-sized naked figures as a method of exploring the human condition is examined in works such as “Chatting” (2004), “Mothers” (2008), and “Endless” (2004).  In the latter work, male figures shrunken with age evoke suffering on the scale of Rodin’s 19th-century“Burghers of Calais.” 

Lin frequently pairs unlikely objects, as in the unsettling melding of synthetic bones and domestic tools in “More or Less the Same”(2011) or in her recent foray into the two-dimensional surface, “The Golden Mean” (2012).A huge frame stretched with lavishly embroidered gold silk, this work magnificently references the decorative world of Imperial China. But Lin sharply and successfully subverts and complicates this association by introducing wrapped human bones applied to the surface.

However, occasional formal missteps throughout the exhibition cannot be ignored. The clunky, open rectangular boxes standing in for heads in “Chatting” (2004) detract from the graphic honesty of the naked female bodies. Elsewhere in the exhibition, silk threads hang needlessly from figures or walls, trailing neither long enough to make a particular statement, nor short enough to be overlooked. Also, Lin’s use of color is sometimes unimaginative, as in the case of the rainbow-clad bones in “All the Same” (2011), or off-key, as with the Pepto-Bismol pink mannequins of naked elderly men.

Lin’s evident fascination with her materials can also distract. In “Here? Or There?” (2002), she installed a number of costumes-cum-sculptures on mannequins in front of a series of round video screens. Any resemblance to Kiki Smith’s work aside, Lin’s pieces read as extravagant extensions of the artist’s thread-winding process rather than integral elements of the installation. Women clad in the costumes seen here float through video footage of contemporary Beijing, seeming more like Photoshopped characters in a cheesy Chinese ghost tale than relevant components of the film. 

Throughout the exhibition, there is an unresolved sensuality that Lin has not fully mastered. This is apparent in “Chatting”(2004), in which silk-clad figures carry weighty clusters of silk thread, dripping through their fingers or from between their legs like the most elegant effluent a woman will ever produce.  Her refined sensuality is also visible in Lin’s most deeply psychological work, “Mothers” (2008). Inside a white silk-walled room, small silk-covered figures of lean hunting dogs attack a headless corpse. While the juxtaposition of the sumptuous material with the vicious animals creates a provocative duality, the nature of the material still has a distracting life of its own. Lin’s work successfully avoids the literal—but it doesn’t quite transcend it either. Sometimes strange and beautiful objects are not enough.

725 Park Ave. // New York, NY


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues