There are certain very specific types of art I cling to, like Eva Hesse’s fiberglass and latex work and Lynda Benglis’s wax sculptures. Their choice to work with carnal, fleshy, and corporeal materials makes their pieces evoke the fragility and vulnerability of the body. The Smart Museum of Art’s “Allure of Matter” taps into those characteristics that scratch my creative itch and takes to a whole new scale.
As a regular at the Smart Museum, I was thrilled to hear that they teamed up with Wrightwood to tackle the expansive exhibition of Chinese artists making material art. And I was even more thrilled to find that the works at the Smart were made up of those materials I am personally drawn to—hair, human fat, cigarettes, plastics, and 127 tons of boiled-down Coca-Cola, just to name a few.
Much of the work in the show is made of materials related to the body. One of the first pieces is Lin Tianmiao’s Day-Dreamer, made in 2000 from cotton threads, fabric, and a self-portrait on a mattress. Hundreds of threads are strung around the outline of the photograph, which obliterates any clear image of the body’s details. This work comments on the labor that is projected onto a woman, especially in housework, and the idea of corporeal punishment.
The immense Tobacco Project by Xu Bing looks at the production of cigarettes. As someone who grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where most of my family and friends work at the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Factory, I practically ran to the large-scale installation 1st Class, which is a tiger-inspired “rug” made from 500,000 cigarettes. Xu attended a residency at Duke University where he studied tobacco consumption and created several works made from tobacco leaves, cigarettes, and drawings inspired by cigarette packaging. 1st Class looks at the luxury of cigarettes and displays this opulence with the rug, which takes up the majority of the front gallery-space. Tobacco Book is a bound book made entirely by tobacco leaves. When it was originally exhibited, this work included tobacco beetles, which slowly chewed away at the leaves and the book as a whole. The book sits inside a glass-covered case with barely legible words from A True Discourse on the Present State of Virginia, a 17th-century manual discussing Virginia’s tobacco business expansion to China.
The Smart-commissioned piece Civilization Pillar is something that you can smell when you enter the exhibition space. Its tall, yellow shape appears soft and touchable. Looking closely at the piece isn’t for the faint of heart. The process and material utilized in this work are particularly fascinating to me because of how the material is concealed. Made from wax, petroleum jelly, and stearic acid, the core of the piece is created from human fat collected from plastic surgery clinics. After being chemically purified, altered to wax, and cast into a column, the two artists—Sun Yuan and Peng Yu—see the work as a monument to our gluttonous society. And Civilization Pillar is indeed monumental. (These two aren’t strangers to working with unusual materials—live animals, human flesh, bone, and oil have all been a part of their practice. )
Presented next to Civilization Pillar is Gu Wenda’s large-scale installation, United Nations: american code, made entirely of human hair. Gu began experimenting with hair in 1993. The human hair is only noticeable when closely examined, from further away the piece looks like it’s made of string, thread, or some other material of similar quality. The colorful aspects of the installation are made of braids, which Gu uses to resemble immigrants in America. Gu’s piece is similar to Civilization Pillar as it serves as a national monument, but instead of being critical, american code represents utopic ideas of a world existing in harmony. Gu has said of his work, “One can’t combine every living person into a single work, but one can use DNA as a representation. So in reality, if you want to realize a united nation, it’s not quite possible. But this dream can be achieved through art by bringing parts of humanity together.”
The exhibition zeroes in on the power of material in these particular artworks and in the world through political and social landscapes. The joint exhibition has propelled Chinese artists who work with specifically intricate and singular materials into a global conversation. v