On a bitterly cold day in December I visited Lin Tianmiao at the enormous 2,800 square metre studio underneath her beautiful villa in Songzhuang, on the eastern outskirts of Beijing. I had read the articles and interviews; seen the comprehensive show of her work, ‘Bound Unbound’, at the Asia Society Museum in New York; and found myself confused about whether the artist intended her work to be viewed as ‘feminist’ – or if this reading was a western misinterpretation of her practice. Looking at her most recent installations, which use pink satiny fabrics to represent fleshy, earthy, aging sculptural bodies both male and female, I had been reminded of works by artists such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. Way back in the mists of time (the 1970s) these American artists sought to apply previously humble and domestic textile techniques in order to elevate ‘women’s work’ to the rarefied plane of ‘high art’. More recently Tracey Emin did something similar with her appliqued blankets, that infamous tent and her embroidered chairs.
At Galerie Lelong in New York late last year, Lin Tianmiao showed an installation of ‘badges’ – giant embroidery hoops on which are embroidered all the names that women may be called, in English and in Chinese, from ‘cougar’ to ‘slut’ to ‘floozy’. I wanted to ask about the perception of her in the West as the only Chinese ‘feminist artist’. In the past she has firmly rejected any such notion, so I was not at all sure how she would respond to the label, or to my questions.
As I sit in her studio, I become increasingly nervous as I wait for her to emerge from her private apartments. On the table of her beautiful book-filled room, a stack of books includes Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays, a Fotofolio series of portraits of artworld luminaries from New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a book on Georgia O’Keeffe and her houses, and ‘Keys to Good Cooking’. I study the books and DVDs in the bookshelves lining the walls. Films by Zhang Yimou jostle with Disney movies, and novels in Chinese and English sit next to books about art, architecture, design and photography. The artworks on the wall are by Lin Tianmiao herself, her husband Wang Gongxin and many other luminaries both Chinese and Western. A sideboard is covered with family photographs, some dating back to the Cultural Revolution period. A loud clicking noise is mysterious until I realise that a huge tortoise is ambling towards me. Finches flutter in a bamboo cage, their soft sounds punctuating the silence. When the artist arrives she pours tea into delicate cups and begins to speak with great intensity about the background to her signature technique of ‘thread winding’.
‘Thread winding’ is a practice in which thread is wound tightly around found and manufactured objects, transforming them into strange and wonderful forms. The materials she uses, including silk, hair, cotton and felt, contain within them the power to express her thoughts and feelings; they can also evoke childhood memories. ‘Nowadays life is so complex we don’t even know how to sew buttons, so working with fabrics is a return to a simpler past.’ These basic materials connect us with the physical world and with our own bodily realities. Now, she says, there is a new awareness in the artworld of the significance and meaning of the ‘raw materials’ of art: ‘Artists look back to tradition and want to experiment with the physical nature of their materials.”
Lin Tianmiao’s mother was ‘sent to the countryside’ for three years during the Cultural Revolution in China, and during this time, she learned how to make cotton fabric and to sew. In the process she discovered the relationship between labour and the natural world, that important but partly forgotten process of material transformation, and she passed this awareness on to her daughter. As a child and young woman Lin Tianmiao found this domestic labour boring, but when she returned to China in the mid-1990s after many years in New York, she realised that this was how she wanted to express her ideas. She had powerful memories of her mother sewing, no doubt also bound up with that tumultuous period in China’s recent history, and much of her work has in turn centred upon her own experience of motherhood. ‘Becoming a wife and mother changes you dramatically, both emotionally and physically. Motherhood makes you strong, and also very, very sensitive. You have to become stronger and also enlarge your whole approach to life. You’re influenced by traditional social values in which women are secondary – you can be knocked down by that.’
“How do you feel about being called a feminist artist?” I am emboldened to ask. Lin thinks for a moment, then says, “I don’t think there is any feminism in China. Mao said that women hold up half the sky but we have not reached that level.” She denies making her own works in any kind of a conscious response to her reading of feminist theory. “In fact I think feminism is from the west,” she says.
“Look at the photos of the party congress – there are no women! My own feminism is from a basic instinct – I believe as women we have to get stronger by ourselves.” I ask whether she sees a role for herself as a mentor for younger women artists and she emphatically says, “No! Being an artist is a very personal and often a lonely thing. Recently we have had group shows for women artists here in Beijing. I declined to be involved; it’s a winding back, a regressive step.” The word “personal” recurs often in our conversation. Her practice is at once intensely subjective – based on deep feelings about her relationships, her past and her world – and at the same time (she is a voracious reader) it is grounded in her knowledge of Chinese history and aesthetics, and of western art history.
Her particular sensibility is evident in all her work, from the early Proliferation of Thread Winding to more recent works which are large scale installations including figures. In More or Less the Same synthetic bones are fused with hand tools such as pliers, tin snips, spray guns, hammers and trowels wrapped in grey silk thread. ‘Bound and Unbound’ consists of thread wound around household objects with the projection of a threateningly large pair of scissors endlessly snipping, creating a nightmarish sense of foreboding. I think of Rapunzel in her tower, and of sinister shadows becoming monstrous in a child’s bedroom at night.
In ‘Chatting’ a group of fleshy pink naked women stand in a circle. Their heads are replaced with strange box-like objects fronted by screens, and a disturbing soundtrack combines women’s soft voices and light laughter with vomiting sounds and other grunts and moans. They speak a non-language which cannot be understood by any audience members, increasing the sense of disquiet in order to convey the purely primal and elemental communication between women, suggesting the intimacy but also the claustrophobia of female friendships, all the confidences and personal conversations endlessly repeated.
The colour pink has appeared in her work since 2004. In an interview with ‘Yishu’ magazine’s Peggy Wang she described it as a very hard colour to use, but also very interesting, as “Men see it one way, women see it another way”. Certainly there are references to a kind of branded femininity – inescapable in these days of toys and clothing designed for small girls, which create a nauseous confection of bright lolly pinks. Lin says, however, that this is not necessarily her intention, but she is aware that it is disturbing. At once fleshy and artificial, it evokes childhood and also chemical toxicity. The conjunction of pink silk thread with bones and other relics such as dead tree branches sets up an uncomfortable dissonance which forces us to confront our own feelings about difficult subjects. These works evoke death and the Vanitas tradition, leading some writers to compare her with Damien Hirst. It is the suggestion of transformation and metamorphosis that is more important, I believe. The works are not in the least morbid, even when they stem from meditations about ageing or illness. Despite the shiny pink or white satin in some works, or the ethereal threads and gauze-like veils of thread and fabric in others, there is an apparent earthiness and a sense of the bodily realities of life in all her work. It is not a surprise to me when she nominates Louise Bourgeois as her favourite artist and strongest influence.
“Why use silk?” I ask. She tells me that she has always had an interest in textiles, and when she returned to China from New York she began to experiment with all kinds of soft materials, including hair, felt and cashmere. All of these materials contain within them a kind of elemental power, she believes. “The materials take on a life of their own.” At several points in our conversation Lin Tianmiao returns to memories of her youth and childhood, of her mother sewing and knitting. “Life was so much simpler in the past” she says. In June 2011 the artist’s mother died of cancer. She has since revealed that at that time she started to see some of the motifs of her work – the balls connected by threads to each other, or the matted webs of silk threads and felt – as representing the growth of cancerous cells in the body.
Silk, of course, has a special resonance in Chinese culture and that was the reason she came to work primarily with this material. A measure of wealth and opulence, a sign of social status, a bargaining chip with western nations, a symbol of China’s imperial past rejected during the revolutionary era: silk has represented many things at different times. Silk remains firmly bound to nature and to the lifecycle of the silkworm and the mulberry leaves upon which they feed. It is also smooth, shiny and possesses extraordinary tensile strength. It is an organic material appropriate to this artist’s immersion in the physicality of our beings, in bodily realities both pleasant and unpleasant, and the processes of nature with which her mother was confronted when she learned to spin, weave and sew.
Lin Tianmiao watched the farmers in what was then the rural village of Songzhuang when she and her husband first moved there in the 1990s, and was impressed by their stoicism and their acceptance of the inevitable cycles of nature. She is disturbed by many aspects of contemporary China – the food scares, the pollution, the politics. However she told me that she could not become an artist until she had returned to China. “It is my country, and it creates such strong feelings in me.” She likens the experience of returning to China as feeling an “intangible force” that pushed her to find her own artistic vocabulary. Ultimately her work is about processes of transformation. Through the artist’s alchemy, unpromising materials such as real or synthetic bones, balls of thread, tree branches, or plastic tools become mysterious, evanescent and suggestive of the deepest mysteries of life.
2: Lin Tianmiao, Badges, 2012. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.
3: Assistants at work, Lin Tianmiao’s studio, December 2012/Photograph by Luise Guest.
4: Here or There, Mixed media, 2002, Galerie Lelong.
5: Lin Tianmiao, Chatting (detail), Fibreglass, silk threads, sound, 2004, Galerie Lelong.
6: Lin Tianmiao, thread-winding work (detail), Fibreglass, silk thread/Photographed in the artist’s studio by Luise Guest.
8: Lin Tianmiao, Endless, Mixed Media, 2004, Galerie Lelong.