In the first room of the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, three jade-coloured Peking Opera costumes are suspended from the ceiling in a sentry-like manner. Lined up one after another, they have been rendered in a stiff, translucent PVC that make them appear as apparitions. Draped behind them are oversized chains entombed in silk FIG. 1. The juxtaposition of these two works, by artists Wang Jin and Liang Shaoji respectively, promises museumgoers an image of traditional China revisited with a sense of play, drama and surprise in its use of unconventional materials. Drifting from room to room, visitors are rewarded by works that function similarly, in that none of them are as they appear: Liu Jianhua’s thin slabs of porcelain resembling blank sheets of paper; what presents itself as an abstract painting by Ma Qiusha, made from pantyhose stretched over concrete shards FIG. 2; and Gu Wenda’s rainbow tent fabricated entirely out of human hair FIG. 3.
Prior attempts to introduce contemporary Chinese art to Western audiences have often adhered to the narrow framework of the Western canon, as was done with Cynical Realism and Political Pop.1 In this case, however, the curators Wu Hung and Orianna Cacchione place their focus on the idea of material and with it, the cultural, historical, political and personal specificity that each material carries. Because of this, material operates as the perfect vehicle to dispel conventional notions of China within the East/West dichotomy and expand how contemporary Chinese art can be understood. In using material as its underlying conceit, the exhibition refuses a tight definition of contemporary Chinese art, revealing the impossibility of containing cultural production under one unifying ideology.
At the heart of the curators’ argument lies the idea of ‘Material Art’, or ‘caizhi yishu’. Rather than proposing a new art movement, the term denotes a general art-historical approach to understanding works that share similar characteristics. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Wu writes that this ‘type of art entails an artist’s consistent use of unconventional materials to produce works in which material, rather than image or style, is paramount in manifesting the artist’s aesthetic judgment or social critique’ (p.15). In other words, material is the key element in deciphering the meaning of a work of art, over image, object or concept. Indeed, Wu deliberately makes a distinction between Material art and Conceptual art, arguing that contemporary Chinese artworks had previously ‘been vaguely – and often inaccurately – labeled as Conceptual Art, assemblage, readymades, or object-based art’.
This positioning against Conceptual art is framed as a way to understand contemporary Chinese art outside of the Western canon, and therefore outside of the East/West binary. However, it also suggests that Conceptual art is completely divorced from material and negates the presence of material throughout art histories. Contemporary conceptual practices often incorporate material for both its physical qualities and its conceptual contents. Furthermore, discussion around materiality has always been present in art making, particularly within marginalised practices such as feminist, queer, craft, indigenous, and outsider art, often playing a central role in art histories outside of the Western canon.
The term ‘Material Art’ prompts further questions. What qualifies as unconventional material? Why is it culturally specific to China, and to which artists does the term apply? How are the parameters of Material Art defined? In spite of the fact that Wu is careful not to define a coordinated artistic movement, he nevertheless seems to treat Material art as one, located in time and place (post-1980s China), with identifiable artists and characteristics and a unified approach. In her catalogue essay, Cacchione explains that that the emphasis is not necessarily on the materials themselves, but rather, on the new relationships between artwork, artist and viewer activated by those materials. Material Art, she writes, is characterised by its ability to index the body, rupture the distinction between work of art and the commodity, and spark a direct response in the viewer. Cacchione also narrows the timeframe of Material Art to post-Mao China to examine how it influenced the artistic landscape. According to her, ‘the use of these new materials characterizes a break with past art practices and styles in China, and can be used to identify the emergence of the ’85 New Wave Movement and contemporary art in China’ (p.44).
However, for those visitors who have not read the catalogue, the exhibition reads as a presentation of a cohesive movement under the vague theme of material. Almost all of the heavy hitters in the world of contemporary Chinese art, from Ai Weiwei FIG. 4 to Lin Tianmiao FIG. 5, are represented here, but without the acknowledgment that these artists are often working across different generations, continents, politics, practices and themes. Without this crucial information about the specific contexts that led these artists to investigate certain materials, the exhibition easily slips into flattening the works of these diverse artists into one simplistic narrative.
As difficult as it is to represent the nuance in the landscape of Chinese art, it is perhaps even more difficult to convey the complexity of the entirety of China. In some cases, the exhibition would benefit from more information on the traditional forms of Chinese art that are referenced by the contemporary artists, for example, or translations of Chinese characters into English and vice versa. One example is He Xiangyu’s A Barrel of Dregs of Coca-Cola FIG. 6, in which the artist boils the soft drink until it is reduced to nothing more than a pile of ashes. The piece is accompanied by his notes, written in Chinese, referencing ideas of transformation and impermanence from the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. Thus, while some viewers could interpret his act as a nihilistic comment on capitalism, others fluent in Chinese might instead see a reflection on the nature of metamorphosis. Without a translation of the Chinese notes, though, audiences are left with only half of the information for understanding He’s work.
Other works do however present a compelling opportunity for audiences to learn about the realities of China. Yin Xiuzhen’s installation Transformation (1997) features over one hundred roof tiles collected from various demolition sites of traditional siheyuan houses in Beijing, carefully laid out to fill the room FIG. 7. On top of each tile is a photograph of the site from which it was taken, each one showing the particularities of differing courtyards. By offering visitors a direct glimpse into the spaces from which each tile came from, Transformation allows visitors to draw their own insights into the tensions between tradition and modernity within the context of urban development in China.
Moments of cross-cultural insight like this are rare, particularly in a time when China and the United States are often pitted against one another. With a planned partnership with the Yuz Museum Shanghai, the exhibition signals LACMA’s position at the forefront in introducing contemporary Chinese artwork to Los Angeles, which, despite its massive Chinese and Chinese-American population, has seen few comprehensive exhibitions of art from China, or indeed Asia. For now, unusual materials such as hair, gunpowder and Coca-Cola are certain to entice new audiences to enter its discourse.