Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Chinese Art in NYC -- Exhibition Review (Subtitle: How Curatorial Decisions Affect an Exhibition)

Yesterday, Natalya and I took a few hours out of our respective holiday bustle to go see Bound Unbound: Lin Tianmiao at the Asia Society in New York City.  The exhibition marketing pictures were intriguing and we were very excited to go see works that had never been displayed outside of China.

This isn't a very expansive exhibition -- only fourteen pieces are on display -- but some of the artwork, such as Here? Or There?, are installations that take up a gallery room.   Throughout the entire exhibition, Lin Tianmiao's care with her art is apparent. She is meticulous with her thread wrapping technique (photography wasn't allowed, but go to her website here and select All Same (All the Same,  2011 for an example of one of the pieces we saw).  And, Tian Miao is a master seamstress and sculptor too.  Some of her human forms, particularly those that showed the aging body and all its flaws were breath-taking and perfectly covered in stitched and (somehow) adhered white silk.  Scroll here to see an example in Chatting, 2004.  Almost all her works are done in white which, if I've done my research correctly, is the color of mourning in China.  In interesting contrast, the most recent work in the exhibition was done in gold, with bits of blue.  

But despite all the accolades I've just offered, I have to say the exhibition was a disappointment.  To be clear, it had nothing to do with the artist or the works on display.  Instead, I fault the Asia Society and the exhibition curator. To begin with, the sound quality of the free cell phone audio tour was terrible.  Natalya and I have different phones using different carriers and both of us experienced terrible static on the line.  In addition, the voice on the tour started off speaking in such low tones, it was almost impossible to hear.  Finally, when we could hear the voice, she didn't have particularly helpful things to say.

Second, the signage by the artwork left a great deal to be desired, in my opinion, and the bookstore catalogs were only photo books, without text.  I wanted to know why, for example, the walls and floors of the exhibition room for Mother's! were irregular.  I had to look to the artist's website to discover the answer and guess what, it helped me understand the artwork better.  The artwork within the room has to do with struggles and nightmares within the artist's psyche and it turns out, the room is designed to reference the shape of the body's visceral cavity. Heck, if the artist feels a need to share that tidbit on her website, it's probably important and should be shared in an exhibition. On the other hand why, when all the other artwork in the room is so carefully and cleanly executed, were the panels of silk on the walls so chaotically applied? Regrettably, that question went unanswered.

This was the case throughout the exhibition: lots of questions, no answers.  In addition, some of the signage on the walls just didn't seem relevant to the artwork I was looking at.  For example, the recent piece I reference above that's gold and blue was about buried bones.  The color yellow represents the earth in Chinese culture and blue references immortality (based on research I did at home after the exhibition).  I think that's significant to understanding the piece, but the signage didn't say anything about color at all, comment on the selection of this one of two pieces made with vibrant color, or noted it in relationship to all the white work on display.  Is this a new direction?  Does the artist feel more hopeful?   Pity I'll never know.

In addition, the layout/display of the artwork wasn't ideal and I'm surprised the artist didn't balk at the placement of some of her pieces.  For example, Chatting, 2004 includes a soundtrack as interplay between the bodies of the piece.  Unfortunately, this artwork was set up close to Sewing, 1997.  Sewing, 1997 is a thread-wrapped treadle sewing machine with a video installation that mimics fabric being guided through the machine, replete with the rat-a-tat-tat of the needle mechanism.  The sewing "sound" was so loud as to completely obliterate any hope of hearing the soundtrack of Chatting, 2004. In my opinion, Sewing, 1997 should have been swapped with the artwork hanging from the ceiling in the gallery foyer because it included two of the three elements of many of the artist's techniques: thread-wrapping and video installation. The artwork that was hanging in the lobby was a better partner to the self-portrait pieces that were in the room and the ceiling height there would have made it easier to get underneath the piece to appreciate it better.  I have to add too, that the lighting was so dark in some spaces as to almost obscure the artwork.

And how come the exhibition lists the artist's name as Lin Tianmiao, when on the artist's own website she shows her last name split in two, as in Lin Tian Miao?  How did that pass the copy editor's and curator's notice?  If this isn't a significant change or if it's customary to combine multiple Chinese last names to coincide with Western "ways", I would have appreciated a footnote to that effect.  Right now, it seems sloppy.

All in all, I wish I could have found more information, somewhere, to help me better understand the artist's intent.  I know that art's supposed to stand on its own two feet and this was fabulous work ... but it's hard to ignore that some of her work was in direct response to her life experiences in China, and I'm ignorant of that since I don't live there.  I'm sad that display decisions so negatively affected my appreciation of the art.  (I'm going to keep that lesson in mind if I ever curate an exhibition).  I have to wonder if the curator presumed more familiarity and/or knowledge with Chinese culture and that's why information was lacking. At any rate, I am glad to have gone; I still learned a lot and discovered an artist whose work I find interesting.  Besides, we ended our outing with a trip to a virtual Candy Land -- how could I not leave the city happy?


Lisa Quintana said...

Excellent points, Vivien. Fascinating work. Thanks for sharing an artist whose work is new to me.

norma said...

I saw a segment about this exhibit last night on Art in NY on Channel 13. It looked fascinating. It was nice to get your take on it.

Kristin L said...

Thanks for the review. Exhibitions are so multi-faceted. It's a shame that the impact of skillful, intriguing artwork was marred by seemingly haphazard curation. I've experienced a small bit of less than optimal hanging of my work and just that has caused a shift in my artistic direction. I would gladly let you curate any show of mine though. In fact, have you ever considered curating as a career?

Natalya Aikens said...

yes! curating! a career for you!