Crafting China : textiles as strategy in the works of Gao Rong, Yin Xiuzhen and Lin Tianmiao

Yin Xiuzhen, Collective Subconscious, 2007, minibus, stainless steel, used clothes, stools and music, 1150 cm long. Collection of the artist. (Photo: courtesy of the artist.)

Yin Xiuzhen, Collective Subconscious, 2007, minibus, stainless steel, used clothes, stools and music, 1150 cm long. Collection of the artist. (Photo: courtesy of the artist.)

The following introduction is taken from my Masters dissertation, submitted in partial requirement for the degree of  Masters in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London in 2014 for which I received a Distinction. The full text is available as a physical copy in the Courtauld Library. It is not currently available online. 

An embroidered picture, a hand-stitched patchwork, and bobbins of wound thread; these are not only objects one might find in a sewing kit, but are also at the heart of the practices of three Chinese contemporary artists. Their works, which use combinations of fabric and thread to create sculptures and installations, demonstrate the manner by which discrete definitions of craft and art are being challenged and contested in the current ‘post-disciplinary’ era.[1] As craft historian Glenn Adamson states, the boundaries that traditionally distinguished between these fields are being eroded, because in an ‘undifferentiated field of practice’ no single ‘activity has any more right to be called art than another.’[2] That is not to say, however, that there is no longer any distinction between these terms, because of course craft continues to be ‘involved in an enormous range of cultural practices’ that have little do with the fields of art.[3] Rather, what should be emphasised, and what will form the key focus of this dissertation, is the manner by which contemporary Chinese artists have translated craft-based methods and materials into the theoretical framework of art to derive meaning by virtue of the craft itself. In particular, it is the qualities that are contained or embedded in the materiality of craft-mediums, which can offer artists a rich vocabulary through which to explore broader issues.

This cross-pollination of craft and art in contemporary practice did not occur on its own accord, but can be understood within broader conceptual and aesthetic circumstances. Craft has historically been positioned as an antithesis to the ‘modern conception of art itself’ due to the distinction between craftsmanship and conceptualism.[4] That is, whereas one of the central claims of modern art was its autonomy, craft was viewed as a supplementary practice as its ‘material specificity is oppositional to the ambition of modern art to achieve a purely visual effect.’[5] Craft was regarded as utilitarian, linked to traditional methods, materials and techniques that stressed its physicality, while art increasingly relied on conceptual or intellectual ends to create an experience.[6] Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century the marginality of craft was gradually challenged by artists in the West; from the Arts and Craft Movement espoused by William Morris and John Ruskin at the turn of the nineteenth century, to the 1970s feminist art movement that contested the gendered connotations of craft, to its present day legacy of ‘craftivism’ as political action,[7] craft has increasingly been used by artists as a creative process charged with an active potential. The increasing prevalence of the craft medium in contemporary art in recent years can be understood in terms of what critic Roberta Smith describes as a ‘rematerialisation of art,’ which is partly ‘in recovery from Conceptual Art and partly in its debt.’[8] That is, if the ‘dematerialisation’ of art, a quality that was recognised and defined by art theorist Lucy Lippard as a key characteristic of Conceptualism post 1970s,[9] led to an emphasis of ideas over physical forms, did this also open to the doors to materials and mediums that were previously considered ‘non-artistic’?

Given the literature on the conflation of art and craft in recent art historical analysis, this dissertation will differ from existing scholarship in its specific socio-cultural focus on contemporary China.[10] In doing so, I will not reiterate an argument for the artistic merit of craft in terms of aesthetic theory, and how its marginalisation may be located against broader discourses of gender and social politics, but rather aim to consider the significance of craft in its own right in the works of three artists who use embroidery, sewing and winding as fundamental processes in their work. As China has its own legacy of textile production, particularly in its rich silk tradition, the use of the material in contemporary Chinese art can be interpreted both in terms of its engagement with art practices from the West, as well as the country’s own history and cultural heritage. The works of emerging artist Gao Rong will be considered alongside the more established Yin Xiuzhen and Lin Tianmiao as three distinct, yet closely related, case studies of artists from China today who use the thread and fabric in their art practice; although all three are united in their choice of medium, which is translated from their various childhood experiences, their works demonstrate very different techniques and approaches that provoke distinct responses and meanings. What they share in common, however, and what will be traced throughout this paper, is the manner in which each artist considers the relationship between textiles and corporeal experiences by engaging with the social and bodily connotations of cloth. Each chapter will explore a different perspective on this relationship through the study of one artist, whether that be through Gao’s embroidered memorials to her past, Yin’s use of discarded clothing as emblems of social narrative and community, or Lin’s use of thread to cover bodies and objects.

In particular, my dissertation will argue that the use of textiles in these works can be interpreted as a form of ‘body art,’ not necessarily in their explicit or direct representation of the body, but rather in the manner that they can evoke a corporeal understanding through the materiality of the medium itself. This strategy situates the craft-based art of Gao, Yin and Lin against a wider trajectory in contemporary Chinese art and theory that has located the primacy of the body in the ‘wake of historical change’ as a ‘means, a material, and a medium of criticism, polemics and protest.’[11] Since craft is often understood as an ‘embodied practice’ in its direct relationship to the body and physical senses, its use in artworks can be analysed in the manner that they similarly provide an ‘embodied’ expression of life in contemporary China. [12] The very ordinariness of textiles is an important strategy that can articulate a direct or authentic vision of everyday life and culture, an experience that has undergone tremendous change and redefinition in the wake of China’s post-Mao modernisation following its Open Door policy of 1978.[13] This dissertation will argue that the notion of the body is always grounded in the expression of craft, whether this be seen in the physical labour involved in its making as shown in Chapter’s 1 focus on Gao, or in the manner that craft as a form of social practice may appeal to notions of interactivity through Chapter 2’s study of Yin’s, or finally in the manner that thread and fabric may delineate broader codes and ideologies as explored through Lin in Chapter 3. By locating this corporeal aspect of textiles, it can be claimed that the works discussed, while not always explicitly political, do possess broader socio-political implications in the manner that they draw on issues of memory, community and identity that are evoked, or furthered, through the materiality of textiles itself. More than simply using fabric and thread as aesthetic properties, Gao, Yin and Lin engage with these forms and techniques as a means to build, or craft, a vision of China in terms of the experience of its people. At a time when state control and restriction, as well as broader influences of globalisation and consumerism continue to shape the daily lives of its citizens, this emphasis on the body is a significant point that demonstrates the ongoing negotiation between self and society.

[1] Glenn Adamson (ed), The Craft Reader (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2010), 586.[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (London: V&A Museum; New York: Berg, 2007), 2.

[5] Ibid, 9. In particular, see Chapter 1 of Adamson’s text for an analysis of this distinction between craft as supplementary and art as autonomous.

[6] Sandra Corse, Craft Objects, Aesthetic Contexts: Kant, Heidegger and Adorno on Craft (Lanham, MD.; Plymouth: University Press of America, 2009), vi.

[7] This notion of ‘craftivism’ will be further discussed in Chapter 2 of this dissertation.

[8] Roberta Smith, ‘Conceptual Art: Over, And Yet Everywhere,’ New York Times, April 25, 1999. Accessed May 12, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/04/25/arts/art-architecture-conceptual-art-over-and-yet-everywhere.html.

[9] Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973).

[10] Examples include Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, Maria Elena Buszek (ed), Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011) as well Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro (eds), By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007).

[11] Jörg Huber and Chuan Zhao (eds), The Body at Stake: Experiments in Chinese Contemporary Art and Theatre (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2013), 8.

[12] Polly Ullrich, ‘Workmanship: The Hand and Body as Perceptual Tools,’ in Objects and Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft, edited by M. Anna Fariello and Paula Owen (Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow, 2005), 198.

[13] The Open Door policy refers to the economic policy set in place by Deng Xiaoping following the end of the Cultural Revolution. It allowed for foreign investors and businesses, and opened up the way for China’s ‘socialist market economy.’ This subsequently set into motion the economic transformation of modern-day China.

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