Liu Jianhua, “Black Flame” (2017), 8,000 flame-shaped black porcelain pieces, (image courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA)

CHICAGO — Some contemporary Chinese artists alive today lived during the chaotic years of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), while others later endured the pressures of the one-child policy. Some artists prospered within the expanding international art market, while others worked in obscurity. Many artists mined Chinese tradition or Western literature, but others rebelled from such well-springs. Chinese art is often framed as uniformly defined by select historical events, but such frameworks uphold erroneous presumptions and impose a cause-effect relationship that rejects multicultural sensitivities and personal reflections.  It is not often a new category of art historical research is proposed as a solution to these persistent problems, but The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China makes a compelling case for the usefulness of a new analytical structure around Chinese art.

The discourse of Chinese art after the death of Chairman Mao is fraught with macro-narratives, especially since “contemporary Chinese art” is a term that can refer to any point from the last 40 years. Art historian and curator Wu Hung proposes Material Art (caizhi yishu) as a retroactive designation of art that has existed in China since the 1980s and one that continues today. Material Art has no coordinated agenda among individuals, but it is distinguished from events or other movements that have historically enveloped it. This approach to research and criticism is a complex, but clear perspective through which to navigate history, commerce, politics, and labor.

In Chicago, The Allure of Matter recently opened the largest iteration of its national tour with 26 artists born in Mainland China and 48 art works across two institutions: the Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659. In many ways Wu has been preparing this bold claim for decades, publishing extensively on Chinese experimental art and material trends, always anchoring his research in lengthy investigations of individual artists. In his words, material functions as “super-agents” in the work.

Xu Bing, “1st Class” (2011) 500,000 “1st Class” brand cigarettes, spray adhesive, and carpet. Installation view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (photo: © Museum Associates/LACMA)

Material Art emerged simultaneously with the unofficial art (produced outside governmental institutions) of more than a hundred art collectives around the country and the ’85 New Wave movement. The movement embraced Western literature and art which had been banned before China’s Opening and Reform (gaige kaifang) policy. Art by Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, and Robert Rauschenberg, for example, arrived all at once after China’s reopening instead of chronologically as they had outside of China. Exuberance for these new materials and manners of expression was almost immediately witnessed in Chinese art-making, but this excitement was often a formalist appreciation. When international observers saw the West’s reflection in the new work of the East, it was misread as an imitation, but actually was closer to a deconstruction. Sometimes artists cherry-picked elements of these new international artworks to meet the local conversation, but sometimes the performative annihilation of an outside authority was the purpose.

Artist Huang Yong Ping sees language as a tool curators, art historians, and critics use to produce borders between geographies and artistic philosophies. As an attack on terms like “avant-garde” he began his seminal series of “book washing” projects in 1987. “The History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes”(1987) rendered two books into a mound of illegible paper pulp: respectively, the widely read text by Chinese art historian Wang Bomin, and the first Western modern art book translated into Chinese. Huang’s grey pile of matter defiantly transcended codified artforms, existing between old and new, here and there, translated and illegible. If labeled a “readymade,” assemblage or conceptual art, would that not credit the West for the artwork’s existence? If the art is political, will the arena be local or global?

Huang exhibited an iteration of his “wet method” in Paris in 1989 with “Should We Construct Another Cathedral” (1989) in which the pulp is positioned as both banquet and guest at a kitchen table. Now on view at the Smart Museum, the Western books used as source material for the installation indicate that art history’s framework has maintained quite an aftertaste in the study of Huang and his peers, but don’t provide adequate means to understand the artwork’s position or contribution. Wu’s idea of Material Art is a strategy through which to assert cultural identity and reorient Western expectations.

The original presentation of “Should We Construct Another Cathedral” occurred when the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrations resulted in the suspension of pro-modern art journals and avant-garde exhibitions. Most Chinese artists abroad at the time remained abroad, not knowing how past protests or criticism of the government might return to haunt them.

Ai Weiwei, “Tables at Right Angles” (1998), Tables from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) (image courtesy Stockamp Tsai Collection, New York)

By the 1990s, economic factors redefined Material Art: Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reshaped major cities like Beijing, and many artists who had emigrated in the ‘80s, such as Ai Weiwei and Lin Tianmiao, returned to China. The styles of Political Pop and Cynical Realism which challenged political authority, such as Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series, became desirable in the international art market, helping to shape the conversation about Chinese art. Material Art, by contrast was site-specific or performative, diminishing its commercial value, and minimizing its circulation among those outside of China.

Since 2000, the borders between officially sanctioned “government” art, commercial, and independent efforts have become ambiguous, while affirming the singular identity evoked with the term “contemporary Chinese art.” Wu notes in his introductory essay to the exhibition catalog that the use of unconventional materials by celebrated artists like Xu Bing, Song Dong or Yin Xiuzhen have not gone unnoticed, but they have been treated as isolated events. I would argue that in some cases nuanced and nimble manifestations of material choices have been undermined. “Savvy, and commercially viable, Zhang Huang has ridden the wave of the Chinese art boom.” In an interview published in The Guardian, the writer compares Zhang’s earlier “angst-ridden” performance work to the recently producedSydney Buddha” (2015) as a sign of Zhang’s personal maturity and financial success rather than as unique interventions based on context, material, and the labor to make the humble ash powerful.

Zhang Huang,”Seeds” (2007), ash on linen (image courtesy Pace Gallery and the artist) on view at Wrightwood 659

The smells and colors born from countless burned incense sticks in Zhang’s ash paintings and sculptures are actually dramatic collective acts materialized as fragile expressions. In the essay “What’s the Matter with Matter” (1998), author Hope Mauzerall notes art history privileges form and image over material, “matter here is recognized but then cancelled out.”

Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting (image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery)

Artist gu wenda’s  “united nations”(2000) series utilizes enormous amounts of hair from unidentified individuals to weave banners of nationhood presented like ethereal temples or epitaphs. Both translucent and durable, the material demands acknowledgment of the individual story and the communities they collectively comprise. In the early 2000s, the “floating” migratory population that built the mega-cities of China were inspiring new work for many of gu’s peers. However, gu’s reference to an intergovernmental organization and the diverse ethnicity of hair types considers “floating” communities regionally and internationally. And Trevor Smith’s catalog essay “Transformative Labors” proposes material as an effective approach to articulating a contemporary art phenomenon that increasingly encompasses both “global dynamics and local conditions.”

The artist gu wenda, “united nations: american code” (2019), Human and synthetic hair. Commissioned by the Smart Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, and Peabody Essex Museum; detail of installation view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (image courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA)

Even in this review, material battles for the spotlight against images that betray its process and narratives that infuse meaning where it is not visible. This is strange given that Western art history professes to always start its analysis with the object before anything else. The hierarchical approach to material that minimizes its agency in art history is due to its Western roots, therefore The Allure of Matter challenges how non-Western art is researched, promoted, and understood.

Allure of Matter: Material Art from China is on view until May 3, 2020 at the Smart Museum of Art (5550 S. Greenwood Avenue, Chicago, IL) along with Wrightwood 659 (659 W. Wrightwood, Chicago, IL). The exhibition is curated by Wu Hung with Orianna Cacchione.

Kealey Boyd is a writer and art critic. Her writing appears in the LATimes, Art Papers, College Art Association, The Belladonna Comedy, Artillery Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches journalism at University...