During my grad school years at the Art Institute of Chicago, I voraciously read every volume put out by Wu Hung—an art history professor at the University of Chicago and a curator at the affiliate Smart Museum. Wu Hung’s ideas on contemporary art were profound, but, also, his was a singular voice in a barren landscape. Critical scholarship on Chinese art is not a robust field, and, therefore, the newly opened exhibition at LACMA, “The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China” from curators Wu Hung and Orianna Cachionne, also of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, offers an important lens on this rich but still little understood segment of art and art making.
The premise of this exhibition is that Chinese artists—who, due to Mao’s hermetic leadership, were only introduced to modern and contemporary art in the 1970s—have been wrongly and awkwardly categorized under Western art labels such as conceptual art. Wu and Cachionne have put together a group of artists that they feel use specific materials such as plastic, silk, burnt incense ash, human hair and more to convey socio-political or personal messages. Along with an accompanying catalogue, the exhibition seeks to introduce a bold new term to apply to Chinese art and artists: Material Art, or caizhi yishu.
The sheer scale and audacity of some of the works in this show will make your jaw drop—Xu Bing’s Goliath sized “tiger-skin rug” made from individual cigarettes; Gu Wenda’s room-sized shelter made from rainbow-hued human hair; Zhu Jinshi’s 39- foot long paper wave made up of 8,000 sheets of crumpled Chinese paper—but some of my favorites in the show are the quiet, delicate works that may go unnoticed amidst the fanfare. Liu Jin Hua’s Blank Paper (2012) at outset appears to be simply that: three sheets of white paper adhered to the wall. If stared at for long enough, their blankness may even implore the viewer’s eyes project their own invented image in a reverse Rorschach test. But, in fact, these pieces are sheets of hand-hewn porcelain, treated in a trompe-l’oeil manner so as to fool the eye. Beyond the uncanny optical effect, the work makes me think of history, of blank pages and chapters that have been omitted in the historical record (such as the sanitized version of the Tiananmen Square protests in Hong Kong’s high school history books).
Another favorite is Chen Zhen’s Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body (2000), created the very year that the artist died from cancer. The artist fabricated eleven internal organs out of the clearest crystal and splayed them upon a glass table, creating a display that toggles between impersonal medical didactics and a deeply personal vulnerability. A small glass step stool metaphorically invites (not literally, since the entirety of the work is made from delicate glass!) the viewer to inspect the delicate body parts. Though the work deals with death, illness and suffering, there is something hopeful about the glimmer of the glass and the clarity of the material.
Beginning in the 1980s, many Chinese artists turned to the mediums of photography, video or even their own bodies in order to extricate themselves from the complicated history of painting, considered a Western medium. “The Allure of Matter” at LACMA makes clear that in the decades since, Chinese artists have had no trouble making their own way through a plethora of innovative methods and materials. It will be exciting to see where this show will lead, and how the term “Material Art” or caizhi yishu will catch on.