Wrapped Up: An Interview with Lin Tianmiao

Lin Tianmiao was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi in 1961 to an artistic family. Her father was a traditional painter and her mother a dancer. In the 1980s, she married video artist Wang Gongxin, moved to New York, and became a textile designer. It wasn’t until the couple moved back to Beijing in the mid-90s that Lin began her career as an artist. Her installation works are known for using images of herself and a laborious thread winding technique to direct attention to feminist issues of the body and women's domestic labor. The subtle social commentary that permeates her large body of work is easy to miss if one is unfamiliar with its cultural and historical context.

White cotton thread has a special connotation for the generation of people who lived in China during the 1960s and ’70s, when Chinese economic central planning was at its height. One of the benefits that state-owned “work units,” or danwei, offered their employees was to periodically supply workers’ uniforms and white cotton work gloves. In a society of extreme homogeneity and poverty, the old uniforms and gloves were valuable commodities that could be exchanged with relatives and friends. The white cotton gloves were especially valuable because in the hands of a skillful wife, the threads from a pair of socialist worker’s gloves could be unwound, washed, and knitted into charming xiaozi, “petit bourgeoisie,” things: sweaters, hats, doilies and table cloths, sofa throws, or curtains.

As a child, Lin Tianmiao dreaded being ordered by her mother to help unwind and rewind white cotton threads. But the transformative quality of the threads stayed with her. One of her first important installations Bound Unbound (also the title of her first museum retrospective in the U.S., currently on exhibit at the Asia Society through January 27, 2013) consists of 548 household utensils tightly wrapped with white cotton threads and arranged in a setting similar to an archeological site. In front, a video projects onto a screen of hanging threads showing a pair of scissors cutting the threads.

Lin created this installation in 1997, shortly after she moved back to China after living in New York for eight years and had recently become a mother. It was also a time when China had begun to take on the role of the “world’s factory” and urbanization and the lifestyle that came with it were on the rise. Many of the 548 household objects in the installation—the hot water bottle, the sewing machine, the iron wok, the Chinese herbal medicine pot, and the coal briquette stove—belonged to a class of once-coveted domestic necessities that were rapidly becoming obsolete.

By wrapping them in the white cotton thread (which was itself a relic of a bygone way of life), Lin poetically transformed them, making them into aesthetic objects like Georgio Morandi’s bottles. The wrapping has the effect of gently dignifying the thrift, self-reliance, and domestic skills the objects embodied, even as these virtues were under assault in China’s aggressively commercial, rapidly modernizing cities. It would be a decade later before a similar sentiment would be articulated by another contemporary Chinese artist, Song Dong, in his more straightforward installation Waste Not.

In her most recent series, The Same, Lin uses luxurious silk threads in gray as well as kitsch colors like pink, gold, vibrant violet, and green to wrap synthetic human bones or bones fused with tools including a screwdriver, a wrench, and a shovel. The tension, in this piece, between the decorative and the grotesque can be interpreted as a critique of the increasingly materialistic and fiercely competitive nature of contemporary Chinese society, which values extreme displays of opulence (for example, in the form of a couture gown celebrated as evidence of China’s economic ascent) far more highly than individual human lives.

Sun Yunfan: A list of words one might choose to describe your work would probably include: thread, fabric, eggs, body, winding, and extension, etc. There isn’t anything specifically Chinese on this list. What is your take on the element of “Chineseness” or “Otherness” that Western viewers often expect to find when they look at contemporary Chinese art?

Lin Tianmiao: I feel that the “Chineseness” is something very natural. It’s in my blood. I don’t need to express it through special or iconic symbols. I do believe that I embody many Chinese traditions and philosophies and my work reflects them naturally. But they don’t need to be deliberately pronounced.

Sun: So you are not denying that China is different?

Lin: From an empirical standpoint, we are different. Our value system, the way we eat, our interpersonal etiquette are all very different from those of the West. But, we all live on an earth that is getting smaller and smaller. We have many things in common but we also have our own locality.

Sun: What made you decide to move back to China in the mid-90s after living in New York for almost a decade?

Lin: Several reasons combined. The first was my body. Originally I only planned to go back to China for a short period. But I was pregnant and had some complications. By the time I wanted to leave it was too dangerous. So I had to give birth in China. The second reason is that my life in the U.S. was rather strenuous. I felt that I was only capable of playing one role: I could either be a mom, a designer, or a wife, but not at the same time. But once I moved back to China, I had my family’s support and could afford a nanny. Another important reason is that I did not have the courage or confidence to be a “tide player” in America. I always felt like a follower. I didn’t have the sensibility to capture the most intricate feelings in this culture.

Sun: Your work often reflects an impulse to reconstruct, reorganize, or rearrange. Can you talk about this impulse?

Lin: I think to reconstruct is to present my interpretation. I am not trying to demolish things and build something new. I am just showing my understanding of or reaction to things.

Sun: Though your work has often struck viewers as powerfully instinctive or even primitive, there is always a thread of technology woven into it. A viewer is always reminded of the now, either by a C-print self-portrait, a projection screen, or a fabric that looks unmistakably contemporary. Why do you choose to make these threads of technology visible in your work?

Lin: First of all, I have to have a physical response to an external influence to be able to create something about it. It is very instinctive. I have to have a bodily reaction before I want to express something. But on the other hand, like Lu Xun once wrote, “One can’t grab one’s own hair and break away from earth.” Although in my daily life I still try to avoid the influence of high tech, it is simply unavoidable. Every day I see new technologies and possibilities, and they find their way into my work, sometimes as an accent, sometimes as a base, sometimes just as an effective tool.

Sun: Your work “Gazing Back” consists of a female body in a squatting position, with a head in the shape of a computer monitor. There is one eye showing on the computer screen and eggs lie behind her on the lawn. I find the squatting posture of the figure very intriguing. What does this posture signify?

Lin: I probably wouldn’t have made this work had I not become a mother. I decided to have a child rather late in my life. Still the decision felt very heavy. Giving birth and raising a child is a very stressful and onerous process to me. For many years I did not have the courage to take on this responsibility. When I finally did, it still felt very difficult. Sometimes I would fantasize of having an easy solution. I would fantasize that I was a frog or a fish, I could just lay the eggs and leave them; without having to raise and educate them, I could just get on with my life. But of course this is purely a fantasy. I hope in this work to unify my primitive impulses and contemporary emotions.

Sun: Your work Constructive Dimension (Badges) consists of many hanging round embroidery frames with newly coined Chinese phrases color embroidered on white silk. The phrases include: suonǚ (foxy woman), jinǚ (technical girl), yafengnǚ (beauty with a gap between the front teeth), sangaonǚ (“three high” woman—highly educated, high income, and high age), and jiyounǚ (female stamp collector), etc., all of which enrich the social perception of the female. Yet they are so new that people rarely see them in print. You seem to be using a traditional form of women’s handiwork to commend and welcome new definitions of womanhood. What prompted you to make this work?

In China feminism is an imported idea. We never had the self-awareness to start a feminist movement. And we cannot simply borrow from America, because we do not share the same history with American women.

Lin: My work has always been very intuitive. But this one is an exception. Many reporters ask me about feminism. And their questions forced me to think in terms of female artists vs. male artists. Growing up, females were in the dominant position in my family. My dad was always in a subordinate position. In my own marriage, my husband and I are equals. So I have always been quite confident about my gender, both in my personal and professional life. It was at a rather vulnerable point in my life that I started to seriously think about the issue of feminism. And I did not know where to start. Because in China feminism is an imported idea. We never had the self-awareness to start a feminist movement. And we cannot simply borrow from America, because we do not share the same history with American women.

So I started from dictionaries. I researched many traditional Chinese dictionaries, including the Kangxi dictionary. And I found out that in our thousands of years of Chinese history, there have been only a few words invented for the roles a woman could play in society. In fact, no more than 200 to 300 words, the majority of which are obsolete today because a lot of them described the different levels of an emperor’s wives, or different categories of prostitutes. But in the past twenty years, there has been an accelerating explosion of new words to describe the roles of women. In recent years you have almost been able to learn a new word every week. Many came from the pop culture in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and from Chinese Internet culture. I had three or four assistants at the time, each of whom is at least ten years younger than I am. My team did research for more than a year. We had frequent discussions and were all pleasantly surprised by what we found. The way women participate in society has changed dramatically. So in this work, I was mocking myself a little bit and also trying to show my encouragement. But I was not trying to answer any questions. This is the first time that I made a piece of work to address a concept. It is rather counter intuitive for me. And I probably wouldn’t do it again.

Sun: It is rather different from your other work; in this piece you are more like an observer gazing outward.

Lin: The embroidery frames are just one part of this larger project. We have another interactive part, where we posted many colorful round flyers in public toilets in the form of prostitution advertisements—“Want to meet a ‘three high woman’? Call this number.” And people would call the number. An answering machine would say: “If you are interested in meeting me, please come to this address on this date.” They were the date and address for our gallery opening at Qianchang.

Sun: Did people call?

Lin: Yes, many people called. But we didn’t know who they were. The trick we used to invite people to our gallery was the same way people used to find sex. And when we exhibited at the Platform gallery, we made almost 900 round pins, each of which contained a printed phrase describing a certain type of woman. We piled up the pins in the gallery for people to take with them. But some were left unclaimed.

Sun: Which ones?

Lin: The ones printed “prostitute” or “mistress.”

Sun: I’m curious. Which artists do you admire?

Lin: It has varied through time. I have admired many artists in different stages of my life. When I was young and first started to paint, I was obsessed with Cezanne's paintings. But I think in today’s fast-changing society, you can’t just like one thing forever. Someone might inspire you today, but he or she shouldn’t inspire you forever. If you are inspired by someone for a lifetime, you should be that artist’s assistant instead of trying to be an artist yourself.

Sun: Do you keep in close communication with other artists in Beijing?

Lin: Yes, very much so. If I like an artist, I won’t miss a single opening of his or her exhibitions.

Sun: What do you think of the creative atmosphere in Beijing in recent years?

Lin: I think it is quite fabulous. The atmosphere in Beijing now reminds me of New York in the ’80s. The political environment and living conditions are both quite bad in Beijing. But it is good for artists. Many artists in Beijing can afford to hire assistants to do the foundational labor for their projects. The system is also a mess. But people like the messiness. When a system is clearly defined and established, it is hard for an individual to get away from the system. It would be hard for one person to challenge and deconstruct the system. And this is the situation that confronts young artists in America today. New York in the ’80s was also a mess, but the creative energy then was very strong.

Sun: Do you and your husband Wang Gongxin discuss your work with one another?

Lin: I am very cautious about discussing my work with him.

Sun: It is rare to see a couple working in the same field, yet so independently.

Lin: Because we know each other too well. I am wary of telling him about my ideas if they are not yet fully developed, because his casual reactions might very well kill the initial ideas I had. I think he feels the same way about discussing his work with me. Sometimes when he is telling me an idea, I’m doing housework, though listening to him attentively, and he feels frustrated because I haven’t stopped everything, even though I might very well be seriously listening to him. But all in all, he likes to discuss more than I do. My works are mostly intuitive. I am not strongly influenced by any theory or discourse in art history. Perhaps male artists tend to be more logical.

Sun: Why do you host your websites together?

Lin: For practical reasons. Often times, people interested in one of us is also curious about the other. That’s why we decided to host our websites together. But our projects are completely unrelated. We have a very big [shared] studio, but we seldom work at the same time. The vibe is just not right when both of us are working. One of us has to stop and make space for the other. This year there was one time when both of us were working in the studio at the same time, and it was completely chaotic.

Sun: What is your best advice for young artists?

Lin: Be persistent. Just keep on making art no matter how difficult it is. If you are not sure that you want to be an artist, quit now. It is much easier to gain confidence and achievement doing other things.