Transformation was completed around 1998 using tile and black-and-white photos. At that time, Beijing was undergoing a massive reconstruction, and I was going to work from Pingan Avenue. So every day I would pass through these ruins. Maybe when I’d leave for work a house would be there and by the time I came back, it would be gone. I’d pass through the cement dust and smoke, so at that time I had very deep impressions of Beijing. I collected some tiles from these demolition sites. But the photos are not only about the demolition sites, [they’re] also about the life of people in Beijing.
The [roof] tiles were connected, so it’s like a whole. But when it’s taken down, its support is gone, so it’s me, I’m the one giving it a new support. And because I’ve changed its location, its meaning also changes. So this is also a material shift. I had also tried putting this tile on cement powder, trying to make a Pingan Avenue, a street—in fact, this was all done during the period when Transformation was made, placing the black-and-white photos on the tile, then putting them on the street, the street of cement powder. So I think this material is something that we were all used to at the time. Everyone had to deal with it, but having it in an art gallery or in a special site allows you to look at it in a different way and have a different interpretation.
I really liked cement. People even called me the “Cement Guanyin” because so many of my works had cement. There was so much demolition in those days, which brought my attention to cement. From its state as cement powder, soft and light, to its state as stone, concrete, I felt this kind of material was especially interesting. Its transformation was so strong. When I’m working with cement, its dust rises, and in the end, my hair is all covered and gray. When I wash my hair it turns the water gray. But I was excited because every time I used [cement], I felt it had infinite possibilities. It’s very malleable. Furthermore, I think it’s similar to my personality. It agrees with the era, and it also suits me.
In fact, I think a lot of materials have a life, like cement or clothes—the materials I often use. I often use them because of their plasticity, and I also think they have life. Like this cement, when it’s floating, it’s light, but it also has a heaviness, and where it floats, is where it falls, and where it grows.
From the earliest point, for me, cement has had a very strong social quality, that is, its relationship to society, because of what I saw at that time, these vast changes. But now, when I look at cement again, and I work with it again, I begin more from the inherent characteristics of cement itself; I am more drawn to its changing material qualities.
Yin Xiuzhen 尹秀珍
Chinese, born 1963
Born and raised in Beijing, Yin Xiuzhen grew up in one of the city’s many siheyuan, or courtyard houses, that were demolished during the urban reconstruction efforts conducted in the 1990s. Many traditional houses were removed to make room for gleaming high-rises and new infrastructures. Sensitively reflecting on the transformations around her, Yin produced a number of installations that incorporated the forgotten remnants of such destruction.
For Transformation, Yin collected 128 cement roof tiles from the thousands that were discarded after the demolition of these siheyuan in her Beijing neighborhood. On each tile, she affixed a photograph documenting the vibrancy of the neighborhood and its changing character. For Yin, these unconventional materials embodied the memories of a place and time period that was rapidly disappearing. She has explained this process, stating:
When you take the rubble directly into the works, these materials, with their experiences and histories, speak for themselves. They have individual and collective memories, as well as many traces of life. When these materials emerge in a different environment, a vein between true reality and the artwork forms. It formalizes real life and allows objects to speak, to have their own voice.1
“Originally, the tiles were connected together, so it looks like a whole, but after demolishing it, its support is gone. Now I am the one who gives it a new support, and because the location has changed, some of its meanings will change, too.”