Ceramics as Spiritual Instruments: Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen at Pace Hong Kong

Yin Xiuzhen’s solo exhibition “The Instrument of Spirit” explores social experience through the artist’s newest series of ceramic works.

“The Instrument of Spirit”, a continuation of the artist’s previous exhibitions at Pace Beijing in 2010 and 2013, reflects sociopolitical, economical and historical changes through the lens of the subtle and real circumstances of individuals.

Yin Xiuzhen, “The Instrument of Spirit”, 25 November 2016 - 12 January 2017, Pace Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, “The Instrument of Spirit”, 25 November 2016 – 12 January 2017, installation view at Pace Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Recognised as one of China’s most important contemporary female artists, Yin Xiuzhen is best known for her works that incorporate second-hand objects in order to explore modern issues of globalisation and homogenisation. In the current exhibition “The Instrument of Spirit” on view at Pace Hong Kong until 12 January 2017, she focuses on social experience and manipulates everyday materials in her ceramic works. While ceramics are also quite commonplace, their exquisite nature gives form to a subtle sense of distance.

Ceramics themselves have been transformed from common earth to exquisite instruments through the complicated process of heating in a kiln; this property doubtlessly carries with it even greater symbolic significance. Thus, the ceramics that appear in the form of “instruments” in this body of work may be viewed as “spiritual instruments”, which are vessels for complex and vivid lives, even souls.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Lachrymal Instrument No.1’, 2016, porcelain, gold, 3-15.8 cm x 2.5-6.5 cm. Total 108 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Lachrymal Instrument No.1’, 2016, porcelain, gold, 3-15.8 cm x 2.5-6.5 cm, total 108 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

A unique ceramic art practice

Born in China in 1963, Yin Xiuzhen began her career in the early 1990s following her graduation from Capital Normal University in Beijing where she received a BA in Oil Painting from the Fine Arts Department in 1989. Her artworks have since been shown extensively in various international exhibitions. Yin’s works have been included in the collections of major museums and art institutes such as the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, the Mori Art Museum in Japan, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in China.

In 2014, Phaidon Press published an album for Yin Xiuzhen in their well-known Contemporary Artists series. This marked the second occasion a female artist from Asia was selected for this honour, following Yayoi Kusama.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Blending Instrument – Knife No.6’, 2016, porcelain, shaving razor, 35.2 x 30 x 4.2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Blending Instrument – Knife No.6’, 2016, porcelain, shaving razor, 35.2 x 30 x 4.2 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, “The Instrument of Spirit”, 25 November 2016 - 12 January 2017, Pace Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, “The Instrument of Spirit”, 25 November 2016 – 12 January 2017, installation view at Pace Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

By utilising recycled materials such as sculptural documents of memory, she seeks to personalise objects and allude to the lives of specific individuals, which are often neglected in the drive towards excessive urbanisation, rapid modern development and the growing global economy.

Referring to the transformation of individual’s social experience, Yin explains that

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, ‘Blending Instrument – Knife No.1’, 2016, porcelain, knife, 35.6 x 29 x 4 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Blending Instrument – Knife No.1’, 2016, porcelain, knife, 35.6 x 29 x 4 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

“Instrument” series

The “Instruments” series, featured in this exhibition, is comprised of four parts: “ceremony instruments”, “wall instruments”, “lachrymal instruments” and “blending instruments”. Of these four, the oldest, “ceremony instruments”, is a clear successor to the artist’s 2010 piece entitled Temperature. The shreds of old clothing peeking valiantly through the cracks in ruined ceramic pieces symbolise the strength of life surging forth from decay, while the ruined debris itself becomes a monument to this age of constant destruction and rebirth.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Wall Instrument No.3’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 82 x 50 x 4.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Wall Instrument No.3’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 82 x 50 x 4.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Old clothing as humanity’s second layer of skin

In Yin’s “wall instruments” and “ceremonial instruments” series, the artist chooses used clothing incorporated in ceramics as the medium. This serves as a radical departure point from the characteristic materials seen in her past works, indicating that the artist’s “bodily” understanding of creative materials is currently probing a spiritual world focused on form. Since the mid-1990s, Yin has been addressing the social, cultural and physical issues brought by China’s massive urban expansion programmes through her environmental artworks. “Portable Cities”, the series she is known for, showcases miniature city models in suitcases, made from discarded clothes once worn by the citizens of each place. In Yin’s new “Instrument” series, old clothing, soft and warm, is inextricably tied to memories and experiences of human senses such as touch, smell and vision.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 8’, 2015-16, porcelain, used clothes, 31 x 24 x 49 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 8’, 2015-16, porcelain, used clothes, 31 x 24 x 49 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Spirituality, history and rituals

The topic of “ceremonial instruments” stems from ancient objects used in sacrificial rituals, especially those of ancient China. The series highlights the sense of history and ritual embedded within. In the process of creating these ceremonial instruments used for sacrifice, application of intense heat is required. The process seemingly points directly to an ideal place that transcends conflict and change as opposed to reality’s impermanent nature with an eternal spiritual force.

During the creation of this series of works, the artist repeatedly experimented with materials inside a kiln. Again and again the artist watched as ceramics were birthed from fire. Yin regards this process as having strong symbolic parallels to nirvana. The objects that exist as “instruments” first and foremost signify the forsaking of one’s own independence, thereby reducing oneself to a vessel for something else. This kind of dedication is undoubtedly religious.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 9’, 2015-16, porcelain, used clothes, 23.5 x 24 x 9.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 9’, 2015-16, porcelain, used clothes, 23.5 x 24 x 9.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Experimentation and challenges to traditional notion of perfection

The fourth part of this series, “blending instruments”, appears to be the final segment of a ritual. Here the artist intentionally challenges the very material of ceramics, which have been viewed as a perfect material since ancient times. By inserting iron blades into unfired earth, she creates large cracks that, according to the conventions of traditional handicraft, are seen as absolute flaws.

In comparison to traditional visual standards, the beauty of the cracks in these “blending instruments” is of a literary and spiritual nature. Furthermore, just like the power that flourishes from within the ruined ceramic of the “ceremonial instrument” series, the existence of cracks is the best display of strength. As the ceramic struggles against the blades, its perfection and fragility are destroyed and dispelled, thereby allowing the ceramic to complete its ultimate transformation.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 28’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 31 x 24 x 63.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 28’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 31 x 24 x 63.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Seeking individuality within the global economy

Yin’s works focus on living individuals’ subtle perception of the changes in their objective external environments. These works organically convey their feminine sensitivity and exquisiteness to their audiences through an experience that transcends gender. Her series of representative works, created through the use of recycled materials, forms a type of sculpted memory text. Among the rapid changes of high-level urbanisation, modernisation, as well as the growth of the global economy, she attempts to individualise those things that are commonly ignored in order to hint at the individual character of life.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 30’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 33.5 x 31 x 92 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Ceremonial Instruments No. 30’, 2016, porcelain, used clothes, 33.5 x 31 x 92 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Lachrymal Instrument No.1’ (detail), 2016, porcelain, gold, 3-15.8 cm x 2.5-6.5 cm. Total 108 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Lachrymal Instrument No.1’ (detail), 2016, porcelain, gold, 3-15.8 cm x 2.5-6.5 cm. Total 108 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong.

Cultural Revolution upbringing and the search for individuality

In an interview with Phaidon, Yin mentioned how her childhood during China’s Cultural Revolution influenced her working method:

Both at school and at home the concept of ‘collectivity’ dominated, which fostered a strong sense of kinship and corporation during my upbringing, yet it also brought about a fierce desire for individuality. My Cultural Revolution experiences directly shaped my working method, which was to draft from one’s own experiences; and they have formed my interest in the interplay between the group and the individual.

Valencia Tong

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, gallery shows, sculpture, social, events in Hong Kong

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