This story was published on East by Southeast.
It’s a microcosm of how rapid consumer-driven development has taken root in modern China: 798 Art District, once an esoteric artists’ enclave on the fringes of the city, has emerged as a prime tourist destination in Beijing, replete with international galleries. Fashioned from a former military factory complex from the Mao era, industrial Bauhaus-inspired spaces serve as stark galleries for an array of contemporary Chinese artists.
Among these, the name of Pace Gallery may ring a familiar bell – earlier this summer, their sister gallery in NYC made a splash when Jay-Z rapped for six hours as part of a performance art piece.
In slightly more subdued fashion – but no less telling for the times – the irregular arches of Pace Gallery Beijing make a striking backdrop for Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen’s current exhibition. In evoking the human aspects of globalization, Nowhere to Land is especially timely in the dynamic Chinese context, and Yin’s work gives a compelling account of what the view from inside the seismic changes of the country might look like.
Yin (b. 1963), a true Beijing native, presumably bears the perfect vantage point from which to witness the massive Chinese economic transformation. Since graduating from Capital Normal University in Beijing in 1989 with a B.A. in oil painting, the artist’s work has been featured internationally. Recent exhibitions include solo showings at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands (2012) and New York’s MoMA (2010), as well as a smattering of group exhibitions in cities across the world, including Moscow, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Sao Paolo and San Francisco.
Yin’s work is all about the art of looking and deciphering. Incorporating homely, intimate and personal items into larger constructions, she emphasizes the superficial qualities of what seem at first impression to be straightforward sculptures. And in doing so, she problematizes the underlying assumptions behind glossy Chinese narratives of progress and globalization.
Yin Xiuzhen. Nowhere to Land. 2012. Mixed media.
Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
The current exhibition’s eponymous work takes the shape of an airplane landing gear, with two large wheels upturned in the air. Yin’s work invites a deeper, more lingering gaze, rewarded here with the sudden realization that what seemed so certain and concrete at first sight is actually is nothing more than a clever amalgam of bits and pieces: prosaic everyday items like metal plates, bowls and pots are joined together to give the illusion of factory-produced machinery. Characteristically, the piece was covered with Yin’s signature covering of used clothing and shirts, with sleeves puffed out to create crater-like circles dotting the surface. According to Chris Chen (for Pace Beijing PR), the body of the airplane (merely hinted at but never explicitly shown) is a conceptual stand-in for the country of China, which has launched on a soaring and energized trajectory of development. But no one knows where the plane will land – or if it will be destroyed when it does.
Yin’s works invoke an underlying feeling of thing not being quite what they seem. The installations invite greater scrutiny – and a simultaneous visual skepticism, upon the sudden realization that the industrial and glitzy constructions being offered are built from the discarded pieces of everyday life. That unsettled feeling is the same one that she deploys to question conventional modes of development.
For one, clothing is emotionally loaded – you cannot divorce them from the people who are meant to wear them. But in these artworks, the absence of people becomes conspicuous, and discarded clothing pieces remain as ghostly referents to anonymous human lives that retreat from view. Indeed, Yin has been quoted as saying, “In a rapidly changing China, ‘memory’ seems to vanish more quickly than everything else. That’s why preserving memory has become an alternative way of life.”
Yin Xiuzhen. Black Hole. 2013. Multi-layer board, used clothes, LED light.
Image courtesy of Pace Gallery.
The newest works on display, like Black Hole (from 2013, a smaller version of a 2010 piece), build on this cynicism: in a darkened room, a large diamond covered with black clothes emanates a multi-colored glow. The piece is a commentary about modern Chinese society’s incessant focus on the ceaseless drive towards consumption. One’s first instinct may be to draw towards the light and surface glitter of the sculpture. But the machinery underneath the cracks is easily glimpsed, showing itself to be a bare hookup of lights and wires. Instantly, the magic is lost. Nearby, the new painting series Fireworks (2013) captures the aftermath of firework displays on irregularly shaped canvases. With ghostly auras of color, Yin concretizes the dissipation, dissolution and darkness that are experienced after the brilliance fades.
What does this say about the current experience of living in China as a Chinese artist? Clearly there are overarching concerns about rampant and unbridled development in the country. But Yin’s sensibility is to examine the personal costs of these changes: how do large, grandiose projects in the name of globalization and development translate for individual lives? Each piece of clothing has a story to tell, from creator to wearer to discarder. But here, they remain mere pieces of the whole, stitched together like so many numberless lives. It’s all part of the same story, the same uncertain future that we all, whether as individuals or the collective, are hurtling towards.