Materially Speaking
Review: The Allure of Matter at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

You would be forgiven for thinking you were in the company of the Surrealists; Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup would feel right at home here.

Take, for instance, the obscenely large tiger-skin rug — snatched from a Rudyard Kipling fever dream — constructed, astonishingly, out of half a million cigarettes. Or the full-sized “Dragon robes”, ancient symbols of imperial power, arms outstretched in stiff obedience, as if waiting for the Emperor to return. Fashioned out of PVC and suspended by fishing wire, they are somehow just as elegant as those made from silk. And what about the woman’s nude silhouette looking down from the ceiling — she is connected to a cotton-wrapped mattress below by a shower of cotton threads.

These artworks tell stories about the history of the tobacco trade, the peasants’ role in the economy, the effect of repetitive labor on the body, but it is the material used to make them that brings their messages home.

They are all on display at The Allure of Matter, LACMA’s celebration of a newly baptized genre of contemporary Chinese art, one that has profoundly influenced generations of artists since its emergence in the 1980s. This movement, nameless until now, has been branded by lead curator Wu Hung as caizhi yishu or, Material Art. “Material” because its unique feature is the deliberate choice of an unconventional substance mastered by the artists after years of perfecting its use. There are exceptions but you will not find much here usually associated with art and aesthetics in China — silks, inks, precious metals and stones — Material Art bluntly rejects what has come before. Just as the Surrealists rebuked traditional notions of art and embraced bizarre visual experimentation, Material Artists rebuff the establishment and work with materials that could be classified as aggressively anti-art — say rocks, cement, Coca Cola or gunpowder — to convey a deeply personalized aesthetic that expresses their innermost thoughts.

Take the paintings of artist Zhang Huan. Trained as a Buddhist monk, he found beauty in the ash of burnt incense, created as people whispered their most fervent hopes. “[A]shes are not just a physical thing,” he says. ”They are our soul, our spirit.” So he gathered incense ash from temples, sorted it into shades of grey, and used it as paint to give an afterlife to prayers.

In the next room there are no prayers, but a “graveyard”: rows and rows of small headstones decorated with portraits. In actuality they are discarded roof tiles from homes that have been razed to make way for the new. Something has been lost, families dispersed, in the name of urban renewal. Artist Yin Xiuzhen evokes sadness at the thought of neighborhoods torn apart, in service to the booming metropolis. You can almost hear the fading laughter of children.

But there are children here, laughing in the next room. No one appreciates tossing convention to the wind more than they do. Gathered around a seven-foot tall columnar stone, they dip calligraphy brushes in an inkwell surrounding the stone’s perimeter. They write their names, and draw smiling faces. But almost as soon as they sweep their brushes against the surface, their handiwork disappears. The ink is actually water, fading within seconds. Undeterred, the children keep writing, faster and faster, determined to win this race against the nature of H20. Artist Song Dong wants us to consider that water, like so much of the earth, is exhaustible.

Yet we place higher priority on preserving antiques than natural resources. Ai Weiwei, fierce social critic, and perhaps the show’s best-known artist, does not hesitate to challenge this mindset. One of two works in the exhibition, his “Tables at Right Angles” intertwines a pair of antique wooden tables from the Qing Dynasty. It is a mystery what holds the tables together. They are joined at their midpoints without nails or glue, defying gravity. The legs of one table face the wall, while the legs of the other sit firmly on the ground. Weiwei honors classical woodworking techniques but thumbs his nose at function. Dadaism is in his DNA and it shows in his take on the “readymade”: He unmakes antique furniture and puts it back together as a prank and a puzzle. It would make Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel spin with joy…

From durability we move to fragility. Pristine and gleaming white, we have the delicate artwork “Blank Paper” by Liu Jianhua. Three thin sheets adorn the wall, with nothing, nary a stray mark, on them. Incredibly, they are made of material profoundly identified with the beauty of Chinese culture: porcelain. Easily broken, it must be handled with care. He uses the empty, ghostly “pages” to protest censorship. Truth, like porcelain, must be protected — and preserved.

This is a good time to mention that while it might be tempting, Wu Hung discourages viewing Material Art through a political lens, though it took root in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution that routinely destroyed sacred and beautiful things from China’s past. After a longtime government ban on Western art was lifted, he explains, artists explored and deconstructed various modern art movements. Experimentation, and mistrust of convention, ultimately led to artists committing themselves to a single, unique material. Through this form of self-expression, Material Art was born.

Decades ago, gu wenda emerged as a Material Art pioneer, experimenting with materials many would find repellent. He created installations such as “oedipus refound #3”, using placenta, blood and sperm. Ironically he is responsible for an audience favorite, the bright and cheerful little room made of multi-colored yarn called “United Nations.” The yarn turns out to be human hair collected from around the world. Inside, we feel safe and protected, like we’re being sheltered by a rainbow.

The most resplendent artwork in the show, also involving human elements, is the most poignant. Intricately carved crystal sculptures sparkle from atop a table like scattered diamonds. Look closely. They are internal organs: lungs, liver, kidneys, the human heart — a beautiful autopsy, if such a thing were possible. The label reveals that artist Chen Zhen completed these sculptures the same year he left life behind, his way of making peace with cancer; the appreciation of the exquisite nature of the human body, the acceptance of how completely it can be undone.

The vulnerability of things like life, memory, and time is a recurrent theme in these artworks, drawing the artists toward materials transformative in nature, things that have undergone a metamorphosis themselves. Operating on many levels, this show appeals to the intellect as much as the eye. For you, the disappearing water installation might raise questions about the environment. The rainbow-hued little room might inspire meditations on diversity. Paintings made with gunpowder might cause you to reflect that the power to destroy and the power to create can rest in the same pair of hands. Or maybe you’ll find that the sculpture of an angry worker made from construction debris, fists bursting forth from his head, speaks to you about income inequality. For me it was enough to simply wander the galleries, “tasting” everything. Even though I rarely guessed the ingredients correctly, I savored every second of the experience.

The exhibition’s curators are Wu Hung, Smart Museum Adjunct Curator, Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History, and Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago, with Orianna Cacchione, Smart Museum Curator of Global Contemporary Art.

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