Art Radar sat down with contemporary Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen in her studio on the outskirts of Beijing to discuss her latest works on the occasion of her solo show at Pace Beijing.
Unabated urbanisation, excessive consumerism, the homogenising effect of globalisation, and the world encompassing environmental crisis: these are some of the challenging and topical issues tackled in the multifaceted works of Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen.
In her attempt to bring awareness to the big questions, she never loses sight of the life of the individual and how it is closely interconnected to that of the society around it. Whether in her monumental works or those with a more intimate scale, one is touched both as a citizen of the planet and as a private individual. Yin Xiuzhen‘s artistic output is expressed in a wide range of media, such as installation, sculpture, performance, porcelain, video and photography. In her multi-decade career, this broad range of work has caught the attention of audiences, collectors and art professionals the world over. A key figure in China’s contemporary art scene, her work has been featured in numerous local and international gallery and museum exhibitions, such as the recent Guggenheim Museum show in New York “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, which will travel to Bilbao and San Francisco in 2018.
Yin is best known for her sculptural installations made out of found or recycled products. Particularly second-hand clothes have become a hallmark of her practice and make a prominent appearance again in the current exhibition, “Back to the end”, in the colossal work entitled Trojan (2016-2017). With these used garments, she hopes to give prominence to countless individuals whose voices get drowned in an age of homogenisation, while at the same time reminding us of the pollution and incessant consumerism associated with the garment industry.
Born in Beijing in 1963 and growing up during the Cultural Revolution, her life was profoundly shaped by the events that transpired in China at the time and the rapid economic transformation that has taken place since. One can find traces of both those early impressions as well as the imprints of her more recent life in her artistic oeuvre.
Art Radar visited Yin Xiuzhen at her Bejing studio to discuss her latest works and her solo exhibition at Pace Beijing.
Let us start with the large-scale work entitled Message Undelivered (2017), where we see a large-size angel, made out of foam, fallen on its face. Stainless steel pipes, car mufflers and exhausts protrude out of its winged body. What where the thoughts that went through your mind as you created this piece?
In our modern society, we often get confused due to the explosion of information. Frequently there is a feeling that there is a message that needs to be conveyed, but a lot of things become distorted and therefore the transmission of information is not very clear. I think this time the angel’s message did not arrive, it may have gone to a multitude of directions and was understood in a variety of ways. Or the message was sent, but it is not the intended message.
The angel is the transmitter of a message from God, but it fell to the ground and there are many reasons for this. I do not want to give the specifics of the story. Think of it as the state of our life today.
You have continued your experimentation with ceramics in this show with the “Blending Instrument” series. Although a violent explosion or chemical reaction took place, one cannot deny the beauty and power of these works. What is the symbolism of combining these seemingly incompatible elements?
I think these works contains a kind of aggressive power. Putting these two together makes the surface look very calm but intrinsically it expresses confrontation. For example, a knife can be used as a tool for cutting vegetables, or function as a weapon.
When you work with ceramics, at the beginning it is in clay form and, like dough, is very soft and pliable. Ceramic powder is also very malleable. This innately soft thing can confine metal, so the knife is imprisoned by the clay. Using the two materials together becomes a contest or battle. During the firing process, the sharpness of the knife slowly disappears. But this struggle leaves a mark – cracked porcelain. I think this kind of contest is pervasive, for example in nature, between people or among animals. There is a struggle to achieve some sort of balance.
Your large-scale sculptural installation Trojan (2016-2017), which is almost six metres high, is made out of recycled clothes stretched over an iron frame, depicting a figure seated on what looks like an airplane seat, in the brace position. Seeing the figure in a protective posture, we are expecting an immediate calamity. However, the hollow interior, where the audience can enter from the rear, exudes a feeling of peacefulness. While looking up into its back, one feels as if in a place of worship. How did you conceive the idea for this work?
This work conveys a kind of mood that exists in today’s society. In this age, interpersonal relationships, the individual’s relationship to society, all have some kind of stress associated with them. So, my work addresses a condition where people are particularly anxious and dissatisfied. I think this is not just the impression of one individual about the conditions in our world, but it is rather a general feeling in the wider society.
In the current show, as the ceiling is higher, the seat became higher and so it looks like an airplane seat. What you see and feel when looking at the outside of this work is very different as to what you see and feel from the inside. When you enter and look up at the chair from the inside, it has a totally different feeling than the exterior – there is quite a contrast.
Recycled products, especially clothes, have for many years dominated your work. You have referred to clothes as “second skin”. When did you start working with recycled clothes and why?
In fact, the first time I used clothes was in 1995, in a solo show where I used my own clothes such as sweaters for a work called Dress Box. I became particularly interested in clothes because my mother worked in the garment factory and we lived in Beijing’s Second Cotton Factory, which was for weaving clothes.
Your work entitled Planting is comprised of a field of dry weeds and grasses “growing” from a large cement block. What is the object of this work? What is its message?
Planting is one of my ongoing works. When I was young, I made this work in the United States during an artist residency programme. There was a row of white windows along the building, and on the ground across from each, I cut out an area mimicking their size and shape. I took out the grass and replaced it with cement and then replanted the grass. It means I changed the soil. It is like a human’s living environment. When you come into contact with another culture, how do you use it? You should graft onto or absorb the other culture. However, we shouldn’t suddenly break off with our own culture and throw it away.
In fact, there are many moral implications in this work. There is a saying in Chinese, “树挪死，人挪活” [shu nuo si, ren nuo huo], that is, people should always move around. You have to open your mind, walk around and look around and you will become a better human being.
I especially like cement because I have a close connection in my life to cement and I have developed the same feeling towards porcelain clay. When we got married we lived in a traditional courtyard house and we would often hear a big “bang” sound and then we would hurry to get away from the smoke and dust. That dust was cement powder from old houses that were being torn down. So, in those days I did lots of works that dealt with demolition, such as Ruined City (1996).
When did you know that you wanted to train as an artist?
In fact, from an early age on, I liked to draw, but I did not know that there is such an occupation called “artist”. My older sister also liked to draw and worked in the propaganda department of a cement brick factory. Many of my works contain tiles, right? There is a relationship with cement through demolished houses but there are also other connections. For example, my mother worked in the textile mill. These all influenced my art making. And my current warehouse used to be a textile mill.
I often went to my sister’s factory where they had special pigments which they used for posters. She would give me some of that paint. That poster colour was similar to today’s gouache. So, from then on, I started to paint but without any formal training. After graduation from high school, I did not go to college. While helping my father doing paint jobs at the Second Construction Company, I saw a notice for admissions to an art class and I enrolled. Many of my classmates talked about going to university to study art. Up until then I didn’t know that there were universities where you could study art. Consequently, I also considered attending art school. I sat the entrance exam to art school three times. It took three years and I was extremely happy when I finally made it. That is also when I met Song Dong, my husband [also a senior contemporary artist, b. 1966]. At that time, I did not think that I was an artist, because that felt like a very abstract concept.
After I graduated [from the oil painting department of the Capital Normal University in 1989], I taught art at a secondary school. My first solo show was in 1995 and then I had more and more shows. Each time I had a show I had to take a leave of absence, so the school asked me to decide between being a teacher and an artist. As my husband is also an artist, our family urged that at least one of us should have a stable job. But I chose to work independently as an artist anyway. I resigned in late 1998, after 10 years of teaching.
What are the greatest challenges you have faced so far in your career as an artist? How have you overcome these challenges?
I think the biggest challenge I have encountered is when I was not able to make a work of art. I think that money or the lack thereof will not affect my art making. Because at the start we had no money and everything we made was from materials that were freely available. Now you can make a large piece of work but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be good. I think the important thing is how to continually maintain your creativity.
Having interests is also very important. Because sometimes you find that you see too many things to a point where you feel sick. There is a sense of disgust. Therefore, I think the challenge I am facing is to be sensitive to art and have a keen eye. Also with age, your understanding of things slowly increases.
“Back to the end” by Yin Xiuzhen is on view from 14 December 2017 to 7 April 2018 at Pace Beijing, 798 Art District, No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015.
Yin Xiuzhen’s work will also be on view in the United Kingdom at Turner Contemporary as part of “NOW: A dialogue on female Chinese contemporary artists” (21 February – 2 September 2018).
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