Recap: Meet the Artist: Lin Tianmiao, 1.12.21
China Institute’s “Meet the Artist” Series brings contemporary Chinese artists in conversation with leading art experts about their work, process, and perspectives.
Lin Tianmiao, perhaps China’s most famous woman artist, and art writer Barbara Pollock discuss Lin’s new post-feminist work and the rapid rise of large-scale public art projects in China. Lin, who is best known for thread-bound objects that evoke gender roles in contemporary society, is now exploring such themes as time, loss, and individualism in the face of modernization.
Full Video of Meet the Artist: Lin Tianmiao
Selected Quotes and Screenshots:
BP: There are a number of reasons to be interested in Lin Tianmiao’s work: She was the first Chinese female artist who emerged at the level of the boys’ club. She was the one female artist allowed to show in that group—and it was because of the power of the work. One thing that has been a thread throughout her work is the meticulousness with which it was made. So it lead to curators in China and the U.S. to classify it as feminist art. She is interested in identity: what are the things we use to reinforce some notion of identity? And now she has expanded that to mass consciousness. But this theme of identity has run through it the whole time. While the boys were concentrated on Chinese identity, she was starting much further along, thinking about transcendental identity.
DE: What was it like trying to break into the boys club?
LT: In contemporary Chinese art, the issue of gender discrimination is very serious. I didn’t realize this at the very beginning, but now I am becoming more aware as I look back after 20-30 years. In the big cities, it is a big problem. In terms of an exhibition and the way it is presented and talked about, gender discrimination is very bad.
BP: In the center of that bed, is 20-30,000 needles. On each needle is a thread spooling out with a tiny ball of thread. At the top, you see a video of [Tianmiao] spooling the thread with her bare hands.
LT: In this work, I didn’t have a concept or an awareness of female identity at the time. It wasn’t resistant or counter to anything. But in the last 20 years the perspective has become more clear. Thread and weaving was a natural thing [for me]. The female seamstress, doing this kind of domestic work could be seen as a way of escaping, or even healing. Understanding healing from stress – or patriarchy or oppression- the state of healing is very important. For those who did not experience it they would not understand. In contemporary society, if women are doing the same type of work as men are doing, this sort of healing is disappearing.
BP: This is a self-portrait with her head shaved bald. She did 16 of them [the models were also her family and friends] presented in an androgynous look, with the thread adding another layer of obscurity to the image.
LT: Up until I graduated High School, portraits of Mao were everywhere. Even though they were familiar, they gave a sense of alienation or helplessness. Replacing Mao’s portrait with a portrait of myself, I am magnifying it and stripping the signifiers of the time and returning the hair back to its original state and stripping it of time and its political qualities. Adding the thread and balls reinterprets the portrait to change the focal point.
BP: When “Mother’s!!!” was shown in New York, it was received as very dystopian and scary. It resembled disembodied bodies. What inspired you to make this? Was it your experience as a mother?
LT: This work, when compared to previous work, my female identity was very directly pointed out and placed onto me. Many curators and collectors pushed for that. Now it feels like a barrier to my growth. But at the time I accepted it and tried to understand social constructs through my own body.
In the environment that I was producing, I wanted visitors to retreat into a more internal space. I made the spaces more conducive to an introspective [mindset].
In Chinese, the swear word “mada” like “your mother,” are always directed to the mother and not the father.
BP: In this work, Tianmiao embroidered swear words against women in Chinese and English on top of Chinese carpets. You have to interact with this artwork. It is interesting because it is like when the words trip us up in language.
LT: This work took me 5-6 years to collect the insult vocabulary. In the 90’s and 2000s, this vocabulary was hard to find. It represents aspects of popular culture and women’s intervention in society and their constantly changing role. I collected over 2,000 words. My favorite way to present these is the carpet, which means you have to interact with it. It is uncomfortable to walk through.
LT: This Rotation-Revolution project on an island in Japan was unique because I was chosen as an artist to make work. All of the objects belonged to the household, but the community had been abandoned decades earlier. The owner of the house came to the opening, and he was so moved at seeing all of these objects, he cried because it evoked so many memories. These objects include the medical records of the owner’s father. It was like the island had been frozen in time for 50 years.
Now the art triennial that they hold in that place brings the youth back and brings growth and life back to the island. It is a cultural renaissance.
From the objects themselves you can witness a shift in lifestyle from a more Asian way of life to a more Western way of life and culture. The addition of colors and shapes and adding rotation, is my way of reinjecting life into the house.
BP: This installation, My Garden, was exhibited at a museum in Shanghai. She created this in collaboration with the Shanghai Museum of Glass. You are looking at tubes of glass where fluorescent liquid is being pumped through. It is about fluids as a metaphor for the consciousness that connects us. It took up the fourth story and climbed to the fifth story. On the tubes were names of plants, first in Chinese, then Latin, then English, so it is all about translation and mistranslation. I see this as a bridge to [her] new public art projects.
LT: That was a good summary! As an artist, sometimes it is hard to see themselves clearly so that is why we need curators and critics for an external perspective. Yes, it is a huge step forward. I put in a lot of effort to escape the feminist label. The direction has been broadened a lot.
Gardens are very important in representing and depicting what is important in culture. Gardens use real materials to simulate something else. And the simulation would be turned into something else.
This work borrows the word “public” to depict an internal feeling. I wanted to immerse the audience in an environment.
LT: This [work] “FBlooding,” an installation planned for Hainan Island, allowed me to exercise my imagination about public art. It intentionally breaks the white walls of the gallery and breaks through the confines in my head. The idea is to contrast a natural body of water with art.
DE: Talk about the rise in public art in China. Who is paying for it? Where is it being exhibited?
LT: The organizers of this project just signed contracts with the government. I am working with Weng Ling [an important curator], and she has a project in Hainan involving many world-renowned artists. The government wants to transform Hainan into a Free Trade Zone and use public art as a way to elevate it and turn it very quickly into an international zone. For this project, it could be by the sea or in the forest- very unconventional sites—not tourist sites either. So the [public’s] experience with them would be similar to discovering themselves.
As artists we must be ready to set up these scenarios to make possible the excavation of the inner self. This also was interesting because it has been an opportunity to expose government officials to this art and to educate them.
Explain the title “Fblooding”: The Chinese word for “flooding” is the same as the word for “red” so it is like bringing in a political and cultural experience. So, the red water is tumbling and unable to be stopped. And it is taking place in a very sterile glass container.
This planned project in Fujian province—Xiamen and Quanzhou—has been going on for five years. Part of this involves convincing local officials to pay out of pocket to help the project. A lot of these old buildings are about to disappear so many people are involved, working to protect and preserve them.
What does it feel like now being a successful woman artist?
LT: As an artist you have to embrace change. You can not only deal with your own individual issues—you should take a broader perspective. If you see yourself as equal to men, then you have access to the same subject matters that they are dealing with.
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