Lost in this month’s furor about the use of animals in some of the works in the Guggenheim’s exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, which led to the removal of three installations, is another troubling aspect: of more than 70 artists on view in that show, only 10 are women; one of those, Sarah Morris, is not even Chinese. Certainly, the curators could have done more to redress this imbalance, but it’s impossible to entirely erase the history of discrimination in the Chinese art scene during the period under consideration. The fact remains that in the 1990s and early 2000s, due to the influence of the old boys’ networks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, very few women were allowed to emerge as artists. Only now is this beginning to change.
Lin Tianmiao stands out as a woman who gained recognition as an artist early on and remains to this day perhaps the most famous woman artist in China: she has been featured in every major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in the past twenty years (and is included in the Guggenheim show). For more than two decades she has employed labor-intensive needlework — embroidery, thread winding, braiding, and wrapping — to address an array of women’s issues. This strategy has led many western curators to feature Lin in important surveys of “feminist” art, despite her own ambivalence about the term. Regardless of labels, Lin makes works that powerfully communicate the female experience, often by taking a small gesture of domesticity and magnifying it to an epic scale.
In her current installation, Protruding Patterns, Lin takes over the vast floor of the main room of Galerie Lelong and covers it with a massive carpet, which is made up of dozens of vintage carpets sewn together into one field. On top of this patterned plane, the artist had teams of women embroider words, so thickly and with such dimension that they bulge off the surface to a height of three inches. The words are all English and Chinese terms for “woman,”— 120 phrases from “Beauty Queen” to “Cunt” to “Cherry” to “Milf — culled from an initial selection of over 2,000 taken from the internet and stitched in shades of bright pink and red.
This field of vernaculars viscerally engages viewers. If, on the one hand, it can be surprising and humorous to stumble on terms like “Soccer Mom” or “Queen Bee,” it can be downright disturbing on the other to contemplate the origins of phrases like “Buckle Bunny” or “Sea Donkey.” This is not an amalgamation of curse words or slurs—there are as many positive references as there are derogatory terms. Still, it is impossible to navigate this carpet without stepping on words for “woman,” a necessity that may be intended to be empowering but is also a bit demeaning. Truth be told, these phrases all make me equally uncomfortable. Positive or negative, they embody stereotypes about women that are embedded in our psyches. By positioning them beneath our feet, Lin Tianmiao invites us to look at these terms from a different vantage point, perhaps asking us to rub them out once and for all. Navigating this obstacle course is as treacherous ignoring the residual power that these attitudes convey. It is typical of this Lin’s talent that the overall work is beautiful to behold, filling the gallery with a brightly hued spectacle. But her true talent is that she makes us think about the ordinary and commonplace in a new way, creating a site where we can question the pervasiveness of oppressive language and terminology.
It would have been great if Protruding Patterns were the only work in the gallery, filling the floor from the entrance so that you had to step on the carpet to enter the space. Instead, the front of the gallery contained a selection of smaller works whose power could not match the seductiveness of the massive carpet. Of these, the best were discrete sculptures on pedestals which were in themselves a kind of Duchampian play on words. “Taking the Temperature” (2016), for example, was made of a ordinary thermometer protruding from a marble version of a femur. “Iron” (2016), covered the face of a marble skull with an old-fashioned, non-electric ironing device. These works displayed Lin’s sense of the uncanny but not her capacity to evoke a range of emotions. Better to return to the textures and colors of her magnificent carpet, which traps us with its ingenuity and disarms us with its humor.
A walkthrough of the exhibition with the artist and Michelle Yun, Curator of Modern and Contemporary art at the Asia Society Museum, will take place October 7, at 5pm, at Galerie Lelong in Chelsea (528 West 26th Street in Manhattan). Protruding Patterns continues through October 21.