My name is Wu Hung I am a professor in Art History at the University of Chicago.
Welcome to this part of The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China exhibition in Wrightwood 659. There are quite a few artists who really find that material is a very powerful agent to express their ideas and their observations of society. So here we have this show which includes many artists who spent years to work with certain materials to express their view about society, about culture, and their personal experience.
So there are a lot of things you can explore and I hope you will enjoy the show. Thank you.
I’m Orianna Cacchione, Curator of Global Contemporary Art at the Smart Museum.
Merely a Mistake is made from door and window frames taken from houses demolished throughout Beijing’s central hutong neighborhoods to make way for new urban developments. Later, the scrap is discarded on the outskirts of the city and used by migrant workers to construct their own dwellings
Mirroring these reconstructions, Liu Wei cuts apart demolition debris with a chainsaw and bolts the fragmented pieces into this monumental sculpture. His work responds to the transformation of Chinese society and its economy. This sculpture in particular shows the rapid impact of urbanization.Yet, the towering cathedral reveals how the previous lives of the materials he uses are embedded on their surfaces—the thick paint, and chipped corners and small markings
Float hovers above Merely a Mistake – filling the upper part of the atrium.Trained at the Institute of Art Tapestry in Hangzhou, Shi Hui is perhaps one of the first practioners of “material art.” After experimenting with multiple materials, she began working with xuan or rice paper. In order to emphasize the fibrous characteristics of the paper, she transformed the pulp to make delicate sculptures. For Float, Shi Hui gently coated wire mesh forms with xuan paper pulp to highlight its texture. They weightlessly float out of the viewer’s reach
Documenting a performance, Exile captures the artist, Peng Yu, pouring liquified fat into a polluted river, as it floats down the river reflecting the surroundings. For Peng Yu, “fat demonstrated the nature of its existence,” the fat becoming an index of our lives.
On the second-floor balcony, thousands of individually molded black flames spread across the floor. The work demonstrates the command Liu Jianhua has over his chosen material – porcelain – one of the most challenging materials to work with. Trained in China’s porcelain capital, Jingdezhen, Liu Jianhua sought to find the limits of this material and emphasize its unique characteristics. He has explained that he aspired to make “something pure and simple, but exceedingly challenging at the same time.” Here, as each flame recedes into a mass, he constructs the impossible – a fire frozen in time.
The second-floor gallery explores the dualities of materials – hard and soft – heavy and weightless – transient and permanent – by pitting two contradictory forces together in a single work, these artists combine different materials to draw out the tensions between them.
Chains is made by thousands of silk worms who have spun silk directly on the rusty-looking chains. Here, Liang Shaoji plays with the tension of the weightlessness of the silk and the seemingly heaviness of the chains that hang down from the ceiling. Looking closely, traces of the silkworms’ lives are embedded within the silk threads – cocoons attach in different areas. The close collaboration with the silkworms has led Liang Shaoji to declare “I am a silkworm,” obscuring the separation between the role of the artist and that of his workers.
In Mistaken, Jin Shan renders the iconic bust of a Maoist worker in wood and plastic. The jagged points of the broken wooden pieces with the malleability of the plastic – suggests the fragmentation of the self and the writing of Chinese history.
Working with a friend, Sui Jianguo methodically pounded hundreds of thousands of nails into a rubber strip. The pliability of the rubber is contrasted by the sharp, piercing nails, as it stretches to hold more and more of them. For Sui Jianguo, Kill demonstrated the “endurance” of the rubber – it reminds him of the transformations China underwent as a nation in the 20th century.
The rubber bears more and more nails without losing its shape, just as the Chinese people show their own strength and vitality through massive social, economic, and political upheavals
Ant Bone IV and V are made with long silk cloths that have been gently stretched over wooden frames. On each silk sheet, Hu Xiaoyuan carefully traces the wood grain in light paint onto the silk as if it is paper or canvas. She has intentionally chosen to work with wood and silk because of the contradictions both materials hold. The silk may seem delicate or fragile but it’s actually very sturdy – furthermore, it has an animal quality because it was made by silkworms. After the worms spin their silk, they die. While wood seems warm, Hu Xiaoyuan thinks of it as the corpse of a tree. For Hu, these contradictions are intended to create a sense of discomfort.
At the end of the gallery, we approach three long scrolls hanging from the ceiling. From afar, the appear to be bland white paper, but as you get closer, smaller indentations proliferate across each. These are made by Zhang Yu’s fingerprints – each wetted with Longjin water and gently applied to the paper. Known for his radical experimental ink painting, this work deconstructs the tradition of shuimohua – literally water and ink painting – to ask, what is ink painting without using ink?
Three robes made with PVC plastic are lined up along the second-floor corridor. Made by Wang Jin, each robe is a careful copy of Peking Opera costumes – historically made with silk, satin, and colorful embroidery. Wang Jin renders his robes in translucent PVC plastic and clear fishing line.
Originally created for one of the first auctions of contemporary art in China, the title, Zhongguo meng (Chinese Dream), plays at the rapid commercialism of Chinese art and culture for foreign audiences, coyly asking, whose dream do these robes represent?
From the third-floor balcony, the full scope of works in the atrium are finally revealed to the viewer.
Using stainless steel, Zhan Wang meticulously copies scholar’s rocks, gently pounding thin steel sheets against the rock’s surface until its natural imprint is welded into the metal. Originally, Zhan Wang placed his manufactured rocks in a new housing developments in Beijing – updating the historic display of scholar rocks in traditional Chinese gardens. For Zhan, the stainless steel – characterized by the glittering reflective surface – made it an ideal medium to convey new dreams of the China of the 1990s.
From the balcony, we enter into the third-floor gallery. The works in this space continue the exploration of new materials and urban transformation.
Covering almost the entire floor in the gallery is Yin Xiuzhen’s Transformation – 128 cement roof tiles that the artist collected from buildings that were demolished in her central Beijing neighborhood. On each tile, Yin Xiuzhen affixed a photograph that documents the vibrancy of the neighborhood in transition. Vendors hawk their goods, people sit for haircuts, watch Peking Opera performances. In some, houses are demolished and in others new buildings are quickly constructed.
At the end of the gallery, a larger photograph hangs on the wall – it documents the first time this work was exhibited in Beijing in 1997. Each of the tiles was placed inside Yin Xiuzhen’s courtyard home, as neighbors and passers-by could walk through the temporary installation.
Two works from Liu Wei’s Exotic Lands series hang on the wall next to Transformation. Like Merely a Mistake in the atrium, these works are made with found doors and window frames. The physical construction and surfaces of these unconventional materials is highlighted – along the edges, the internal support of the hollow doors in revealed, adding to geometric shapes that Liu Wei assembles.
Facing Transformation is Ash Painting No. 5 – the abstract work is made from incense ash collected from temples throughout China. For the artist, Zhang Huan, the ash represents the collective dreams, hopes, and blessings – the collective spirit of so many people who burned the joss sticks in prayer. Here collective memory is signaled in the small found photographs that are embedded within the ash – blurred and faded from time. While the material itself is ephemeral, Zhang Huan transforms it into a solid, cement like mass.
The exhibition at Wrightwood ends with Zhu Jinshi’s site-specific installation of Wave of Materials. The work invites you inside and consumes your field of vision with a mass of paper, creating a contemplative space. Yet it is the work’s materiality that drives this experience of a conceptual void. From the thousands of hand crumpled sheets of “xuan” paper, to the hidden bamboo rods from which the paper is suspend, to the long strings and found rocks that secure the paper sheets, the work emphasizes simple materials. As the wave passes over you, you are left with a sense of the sublime.
Thank you for joining me on a tour of The Allure of Matter at Wrightwood 659. Please join us at the Smart Museum for the other half of the exhibition.