World Chambers

A Forum for the Arts of Contemporary Chinese Women

The 1970s – mid 1990s and Lin Tianmiao

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The period from the end of 1970s to the mid-1990s is said to represent a retrogression of art made by women, as its content returned to the parlor painting days of the pre-twentieth century. After half of a century of striving to realize the principle of egalitarianism and holding up half the sky, women now were told to work toward the “restoration of human nature,” which meant they had to tackle the “daunting task of restoring womanhood on [their] own, without the benefit of slogans or movements” (Clark, 2000, 70).

In the backlash against the socialist realism model of painting stringently popularized under Mao, China’s artists experimented with “almost every form of art in classical Western and Chinese tradition, as well as practically every form and school of thought in Western modernism” (Clark, 2000, 70), using them for increasingly bold social commentary. However, women’s artwork of the time seemed “wary of societal topics” and firmly rooted in traditional female art, “nothing more than a modern version of parlor painting” that was not linked to either Chinese contemporary culture or feminist culture (ibid, 71). Using flowers and floral patterns as primary tools in self-examination, for example.

In the mid-nineties art critics credit female artists with expressing a consciousness of their own inner workings and an understanding of life. From this point on into the present day, female artists have been less willing to allow an oppositional male-female relationship to define their artwork. This generation of artists has created a feminine artistic discourse based on their experience that has developed along with a “greater sense of independence and stronger female consciousness” (Gu & Yang, 2003, 44). They incorporate materials and techniques that are inherent in the female experience, such as those used in household activities and embroidery, manipulating these traditional materials to represent their modern reading of the female condition. Lin Tianmiao, for example uses wound thread and cloth-wrapped objects in an effort to explore the “processes of individualization within the given social structures” (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 195). Lin has become one of the better known female artists to exhibit her work internationally. One of her earlier and often cited works illustrates the divergence between interpretation and artistic intent that is an especially dangerous pitfall in the critique of modern female artists. Proliferation of Thread-winding (1995) illustrates the Chinese gender-related concept of yin and yang through sharp needles that deceive the senses to evoke a soft bed, thus blending rigid male yang with pliable female yin. Despite highlighting this elusion to gender differences and choosing items of daily and domestic life “as well as actions like winding, weaving and binding (which) are often interpreted as female, Lin refuses the gender specific interpretations as too short sighted” (Ibid.).

Still, Lin does not object to being showcased as a feminist artist in the west. Her series Bound-Unbound was featured at Brooklyn’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This work “consists of over 100 household items wound with white yarn” that are put in front of a canvas made of threads hanging next to one another (Ibid, 198). The canvas backdrop represents the action of cutting the threads that bind the objects. The item’s form remains recognizable through the tightly wrapped shrouds however it is stripped of its context and former use. This active symbolism and Lin’s choice of title bring to mind the tradition of foot binding, which also lent women’s feet a new aesthetic dimension while taking away their former use (as such deformed feet made for precarious and often painful walking). But this is not the primary message that Lin intends—for her, the new identity given these objects brings the item’s “stored experiences, time and energy” to the fore (Ibid.). Its focus is on the opportunity for new experience that the altered conception of the object carries.

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Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

May 11, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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