After seeing Bound Unbound, the major retrospective show of Lin Tianmiao’s work at the Asia Society Museum in New York I was so intrigued by how such work could emerge from the testosterone-fuelled Chinese artworld in the late 90s that I decided to seek her out in Beijing to ask her what it’s like to be pretty much the only female artist in China to wear the ‘feminist’ label.On a bitterly cold Beijing day, I drove out to Songzhuang Artist Village to meet the artist. Waiting for her to arrive, I noted the books and DVDs on the shelves and the artworks on the walls. Books are everywhere in tranquil rooms filled with the sounds of finches fluttering in an enormous bamboo birdcage among ficus trees and potted plants.
Her studio is a white calm space filled with works in progress. Twenty studio assistants work in silence at long tables. Women wind colourful silk thread around the bones which her assistant told me several times are synthetic (perhaps this has been a contentious issue) or stitch the ‘badges’ similar to those currently showing at Galerie Lelong New York. I ask her if, in the years she worked as a textile designer in New York before her return to China and her emergence as an artist to be reckoned with, she could have imagined all this. She shakes her head. The New York years, were hard, she says. Although she loved the energy of that city, she herself was not left with the energy to think about making art. Returning to China was also hard, but, she says, despite all the social problems of corruption, pollution, food safety and the increasing gap between rich and poor, she thinks China now has the creative energy that New York had back then.
We talk over tiny, delicate cups of tea about the use of thread, hair, felt and other textiles in her work. She tells me that in her childhood, her mother was ‘sent to the countryside’ for three years, and it was there that she remembers her mother learning how to spin and sew. The basic, physical nature of the materials which connect us to the natural world and to bodily realities is what interests her.
She resists the feminist label, although she agrees that in China things are particularly difficult for female artists and for women more generally. The expected role of the ‘good woman’ still applies. Her work, however, provides a commentary on post-Tiananmen China and challenges traditional notions of femininity. Her fascination with the body in relation both to social transformations and the inevitable transformations of aging and decay is present in all her work, most particularly in the recent figurative installations which feature fleshy female figures or lean, stooped males. She spoke to me about the way that women change after giving birth, and the strength that emerges at that time as well as a greater vulnerability and fragility. Her work is autobiographical in that sense, and her practice is informed by her own gendered experience of the world. Her signature technique of ‘thread winding’, in which found or made objects are transformed by being bound with silk thread, creates installations that delight and intrigue.
In a recent work, ‘More or Less the Same’ synthetic bones are fused with hand tools such as pliers, tin snips, spray guns and trowels and wrapped in grey silk thread. In ‘All the Same’ tiny synthetic bones placed high on the wall in a single line from smallest to largest are wrapped in a rainbow of silk, with the long threads falling to the floor. ‘Bound and Unbound’, first shown in Beijing in 1997, consists of thread wound around household objects with the projection of a threateningly large pair of scissors endlessly snipping thread. Like all her work, despite its strange beauty, this engenders a sense of unease.
In ‘Chatting’ a group of fleshy pink women stand in a circle, reminiscent of communal bathhouse scenes in a rural China of the past. Their heads are replaced with strange box-like objects and a disquieting soundtrack combines women’s soft voices with louder laughter, noises either of sex or of pain, and vomiting. They speak a non-language which cannot be understood by any audience members, increasing the sense of disquiet. A video of hands feeding fabric through, stitching endlessly is projected onto an old treadle sewing machine bound in white thread.
The ‘badges’ currently showing at Gallery Lelong in New York are far more overt, with the text recalling all the ways that women are ‘named’ and labelled by men, both in Chinese and English. ‘Slut’, ‘Whore’, ‘Tramp’, ‘Floozy’ : when Lin Tianmiao says that she is not a feminist I wonder what definition of feminism she is referring to. She told me, “I don’t think there is any feminism in China – feminism is a western thing.” She believes that if she is considered to be a feminist, then it is a different kind of feminism which comes from a basic instinct to be as strong as possible, to survive against all the odds. She has declined to be involved in women only group shows, believing that to be a regressive step. The work must stand alone, she says. And stand alone it most certainly does.