Installation photograph, featuring gu wenda’s “united nations: american code” (1995-2019), in the exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© gu wenda, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

LOS ANGELES — The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is ambitious in its scope, exhibiting 26 artists and work that spans four decades and myriad methodologies. Showcasing a range of prominent contemporary Chinese artists, including Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing and Lin Tianmiao, The Allure of Matter introduces the Los Angeles community to late-20th- and 21st-century art practice in China by focusing on the subversive uses of natural and commercially produced materials — cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and in one spectacular case, human hair.

Through this exhibition, the curators, Wu Hung and Orianna Cacchione, attempt to forge an interpretation of Chinese art that extends beyond the Western canon. In the exhibition catalogue, Wu writes, “Although [the artists’] use of unconventional materials has not gone unnoticed, their ‘material works’ have been… vaguely — and often inaccurately — labeled as Conceptual Art, assemblage, readymades, or object-based art.” Against these Westernizing categories, Wu and Cachionne seek to embrace a new, distinctly Chinese approach that they term caizhi yishu, or “Material Art.” The exhibition itself is a masterful accomplishment, bringing together a powerful and affecting group of works.

The term identifies similarities among Chinese artists who made work between the 1980s to early 2000s that foregrounds unconventional materials. Yet framing this multigenerational and diverse group of artworks under the blanket term “Material Art” may confound more than it clarifies. Viewers may mistakenly view the works in the exhibition as belonging to an integrated movement. It also remains unclear what makes Material Art specifically Chinese in character, and what kinds of materials and artists qualify for the new label.

Installation photograph, featuring Song Dong’s “Traceless Stele” (2016) and “Water Records” (2010), in The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, LACMA (© Song Dong, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

The term “Material Art” is a curiously paradoxical label given the remarkable immateriality of many of the works. The disappearance or dissolution of materials, rather than an insistence on their presence, is one of the most salient, unifying themes across the works. One example is Song Dong’s “Traceless Stele” (2016), in which visitors are invited to use Chinese calligraphy brushes to inscribe fleeting marks with water onto a stone slab. The painted shapes and phrases quickly fade, leaving no trace of material expression. The wall text notes that “when this work was shown in China, visitors were encouraged to write freely, since their words would immediately disappear.” In a similar vein, Wu writes in his catalogue essay that “water features frequently in experimental Chinese art to negotiate between representation and disappearing.”

These statements foreground China’s sociopolitical context of limited freedoms, revealing the urgency with which the contemporary Chinese experience lends itself to the exploration of the immaterial. Inherently traceless and hidden, “immaterial” art forges a space beyond the surveilling powers of the state. The famous Bruce Lee dictum, “be water,” has become a slogan for the ongoing Hong Kong protest movement, whose embodiment of fluidity has been a key factor in eluding the police. Song’s use of water as a form of invisible ink allows viewers to speak in imaginary codes, even if only fleetingly inscribed on the inanimate surface of a stone. Song has commented that over the 33 (and counting) years of the project, the stone “has become thicker day by day with my own thoughts.”

Installation photograph, featuring Lin Tianmiao’s “Day-Dreamer” (2000) in The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, LACMA (© Lin Tianmiao, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

There are other ethereal works that similarly evoke the cultural and political censorship that has marked Chinese history since the Cultural Revolution. In Lin Tianmiao’s “Day-Dreamer” (2000), thin cotton strands hang down from the contours of a photographic self-portrait of the artist’s body, effectively obliterating it from view, and in Gu Wenda’s “american code” (2018-2019), a floating, room-sized tent, commissioned for the exhibition, is composed of entirely dangling, braided human hair. In both cases, the absence of the body, with its inherent agency for speech and action, is striking.

Seen through this lens, The Allure of Matter speaks in evocative silences, acknowledging the impermanence of materials, as in Yin Xiuzhen’s tomblike installation in “Transformation” (1997), where photographs of the rubble left behind at demolition sites of traditional houses in the artist’s hometown of Beijing sit atop tiles taken from those sites. Zhan Wang’s video, “Beyond 12 Nautical Miles Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea” (2000) — whose title refers to the distance beyond which any country can claim sovereignty over open waters — follows a hollow, stainless steel rock cast by the artist as it floats freely in international waters, negotiating immaterial borders with spectral grace.

Installation photograph, featuring Zhan Wang’s “Beyond 12 Nautical Miles Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea” (2000) and “Gold Mountain” (2007), in The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, LACMA (© Zhan Wang, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

Installation photograph, featuring Yin Xiuzhen’s “Transformation” (1997), in The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, LACMA (© Yin Xiuzhen, photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA)

As Jennifer S. Li thoughtfully points out in her review of the show for ArtAsiaPacific, “the foundational meanings of many of the pieces on view lay not within their chosen materials, but in the eradication, effacement, and dissipation of a source material.” It is the immateriality of this ostensibly Material Art — the enigmatic silences of the works — that roots the ensemble firmly in its historical specificities, revelations, and stakes. While the curators address at length the artists’ idiosyncratic uses of specific materials, the lack of discussion of immateriality as a particular material choice is an odd omission (noted only in passing, in regard to Song’s use of water). The label of Material Art may require further clarification before being embraced as a new category. For now, viewers may be left wondering what sets it apart from other materially informed practices. From the craft-based to the conceptual, materials make meaning. But material alone may be an inadequate descriptor of the breadth of the contemporary Chinese canon.

Editor’s note: (1/2/20, 6:02 PM) A previous version of this article referred to three of the artists incorrectly: Orianna Cacchione’s surname was mistakenly spelled Cachionne, and Wu Hung and Song Dong were mistakenly referred to by their first names when their surname were intended. We regret the error. 

The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through January 5, 2020. 

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Vanessa Holyoak

Vanessa Holyoak is an interdisciplinary writer and artist based in Los Angeles. Her art writing focuses on installation, sculpture, image-based, and performance practices, forms she takes up in her own...