Museums

Can Lin Tianmiao Break Free of Gender?

by Alexander Cavaluzzo on November 14, 2012

Lin Tianmiao, “Here or There” (2002) (All images courtesy Asia Society)

The first survey of Chinese installation artist Lin Tianmiao at Asia Society, called Bound Unbound, could not have a more fitting title. The artist’s sartorial sculptures, grotesque bodies, and fibrous compositions illustrate an artist bound by cultural convention creating art unbound in technique and concept.

The artisanal, archetypically “feminine” craft and subject matter of Lin’s pieces complicate the exhibition in terms of making a feminist reading. Feminism certainly exists in different forms in the East and the West, and though it’s not necessary to classify her work in those terms, the rhetoric and manner in which both the museum and artist situate the work makes it nearly impossible to ignore, especially when the presentation is geared toward a Western audience.

Lin, one of the few highly-regarded female Chinese artists, is represented as a quiet revolutionary whose call loudly drowns out unbracingly transgressive themes. Household objects become imbued with a kind of sanctity when bound with thick, alabaster thread. The exhibition includes eerie bedroom vignettes and disproportionate hangers balancing in the ether. There’s a dissonance between her insistence on identifying as an artist unconcerned with feminism in the exhibition catalogue and her appropriation of socially feminized objects and techniques.

Lin Tianmiao, “Here or There” (2002) (Installation shot)

Ultimately, many of the thread-wound objects are restrictive, claustrophobic, and quiet when observed individually, yet they are cacophonous when taken as a whole. The meticulously thread-bound bones of “All the Same” (2011), in particular illustrate more complacency with ontological domesticity than rebellion to it. Subversion does not appear to be a salient theme in these works.

Lin Tianmiao, “Focus” (2001)

The more ambitious, conceptual installation work on display, however, truly showcases Lin’s artistic vision and secures her place as a formidable Chinese creator. Seemingly less concerned with gender, they offer her unique perspective of society and humanity on a larger scale.

“Here? Or there?” (2002) presents a lineup of mannequins decked out in conceptually disproportioned outfits reminiscent of the clothes of Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons fame, but pushed to further extremes. The only light emitted in the room comes from the crepuscular glow of Lin’s husband Wang Gongxin’s video installations behind the mannequins, highlighting the bizarre barbarism melded with haunting romanticism that she has used as a guiding principle in her designs. “Endless” (2004), an installation of a gruesome, oversized troika rendered in candy pink, exhibits an unusual form of physicality as well as a schism between the macabre and mirthful. And “Chatting” (2004) exaggerates the female figure and speaks to new communicative pathways.

Lin Tianmiao, “Chatting” (2004)

Even though my love for Cai Guo-Qiang and Ai Weiwei knows no bounds, it’s a shame there aren’t more celebrated female artists from China. Lin Tianmiao is certainly an impressive force, but I think we’ll have to wait a little longer before we see more diverse work from her that won’t be limited to interpretations based solely upon gender and its representation. As it stands, Lin doesn’t have the advantage of the range of exhibitions that Ai or Cai have, and perhaps our Western eyes haven’t quite caught up to her cultural iconography.

Bound Unbound: Lin Tianmiao runs through January 27, 2013 at Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). 

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