Mao Zedong once said that revolution is not a dinner party. Less famously, he said it is not embroidery, either. Interestingly, however, some female contemporary Chinese artists have chosen to work with thread and textiles—and embroidery—in experimental, maybe even revolutionary ways. From Lin Tianmiao’s overt exploration of sexuality, fecundity, and the aging and decay of the body, to Yin Xiuzhen’s use of the embodied memories in old clothing; from Lin Jingjing’s stitched paintings of the recorded details of many lives, to Gao Rong’s embroidered, padded simulacra of quotidian elements of daily life in Beijing, they variously apply stitching, embroidery, felting, padding, binding, and fabric. Artist/alchemists, they transform the everyday materials of “women’s work,” reflecting personal memories and cultural identities.
As a young girl, Lin Jingjing yearned to discover a world beyond the confines of her neighborhood. She rode her bicycle as far as she could in each direction, a little further each week, measuring the time so that she would be sure to return before dark. This is an apt metaphor for her art practice, which has pushed the boundaries of painting, performance art, and installation. In Public Memories, photographic images of events both public and private are reproduced in bright monochrome colors, with selected areas neatly stitched. Rows of stitches erase and hide parts of the painted image, suggesting the unreliability of memory. Lin’s performance, video, and photographic works—in which barely opened long-stemmed roses are stitched/sutured closed—play with the binaries of beauty and cruelty, wounds and healing.
Lin Tianmiao is best known for her technique of “thread winding,” in which silk thread is wound tightly around found and manufactured objects, a Christo-like metamorphosis. She has experimented with materials such as felt and hair, with their Beuysian (and Freudian) associations, and silk, with its connections with Chinese history, in order to explore past and present, masculine and feminine, local and global, birth and death. Bound and Unbound consists of 800 silk-bound household objects, and a threateningly large pair of scissors endlessly snipping thread projected above. There is a dark undercurrent beneath Lin Tianmiao’s work, a realization of the frailty of the corporeal body. Childhood memories of her mother sewing during the Cultural Revolution prompted her to develop this technique in order to express ideas about the feminine, birth, motherhood, sexuality, aging, and death.
Recently she has examined the way that language constructs female identities. Her Badges take words applied to women in Chinese and English—from “witch” to “courtesan,” “whore” to “leftover woman,” “phoenix lady” to “cougar.” Stitched onto silk and hanging from the ceiling in embroidery hoops, they question how women are perceived and defined.
For her 2013 show Est-ce Permis? (Est-ce Possible?) at Galerie Lelong in Paris, she applied three-dimensional objects wrapped in brilliantly colored silk thread to two-dimensional surfaces. The Same for N Times presents a vast explosion, framed by gold-foiled bones. The work was started in 2011, and after Fukushima, Lin began to think about radiation and biological mutations, the development of new and altered lifeforms.
Memory—both personal and collective —informs the work of Yin Xiuzhen, too. At a time when people had new clothing only for Spring Festival, she remembers waiting impatiently beside her mother’s sewing machine as her mother transformed unwanted fabric from the factory where she worked into clothes for her children. One of her earliest exhibited works, Dress Box (1995), consists of her own childhood garments stacked inside a wooden case made by her father. Yin poured cement into the box, petrifying the clothes and all the memories they held, revealing only the top pink dress. Beyond autobiography and nostalgia, there are allusions to women in the past carrying their personal possessions when they went from their parents’ home to their husband’s. “Not just personal experience but the history of a country,” says the artist. The case itself was carried to the countryside by her elder sister when she was sent to do farm labor under Mao’s policy of rustication.
In works such as the 38-foot-long Collective Subconscious, she explores the memories and desires of the individual versus collective memories of China’s recent pasts. A minivan is cut in half and connected by an accordion-like armature wrapped in a quilt made of 400 items of discarded clothing. Often used as communal taxis, these vans were symbols of prosperity in the 1990s, just as the possession of a sewing machine was in her 1960s childhood. The audience can sit inside and listen to popular songs of the day. She is alarmed by the rampant materialism, greed, and environmental destruction of today’s China. Portable Cities, seen most recently in the 2013 Moscow Biennale, are suitcases that open to reveal miniature metropolises made of second-hand clothing, a wry comment on globalization and the increasing homogenization of the planet, as well as a reference to her increasing opportunities for travel outside China from the late 1990s. With wit and poignancy, Yin confronts the way that past and present collide in a society that appears to be on fast-forward.
Gao Rong’s 2013 solo exhibition, I Live In Beijing, reveals the autobiographical nature of her practice and her uncanny ability to immerse the audience in her own experience through the verisimilitude of her embroidered sculptures. From the intimate domestic details of letterboxes, bus stops, and apartment doorways, to the satirical fake designer handbags she showed at the Moscow Biennale, she has turned outward to look at her city and its characteristic imagery. Gao stitches onto fabric that is then wrapped around sponge stiffened by steel frames and wire, creating large-scale hyper-realist sculptural works. Peeling paint, electricity fuse boxes, and bus timetables take the place of the dragons and plum blossoms of the traditional embroidery done by her grandmother. “I am a sculptor who uses embroidery, not an embroiderer,” she says. Works such as her Beijing Taxi are a nostalgic memorialization of vehicles that are rapidly disappearing in the drive for modernization.
Gao reinvents a traditionally female occupation, often assisted on large projects by her mother. Her grandmother, forced to flee from Shaanxi Province to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, embroidered for the village people, exchanging needlework for food for her seven children. “I think this may be a kind of tradition,” Gao says. “Heritage is not just a technique, but a spirit of survival handed down from one Chinese woman to another.” In the work of these four artists, embroidery and textiles might indeed be revolutionary after all.