It’s not every day you see 128 roof tiles displayed on a gallery floor, ash from joss sticks painted on a canvas, and artwork cocreated by trained silkworms. But at Wrightwood 659, it’s possible. The four floors of the museum are filled with “The Allure of Matter: Material Art From China,” a new exhibition that looks at Chinese artists working in the material arts movement, which focuses largely on every-day items like hair, plastic bottles, or found objects. These artists experiment with one material for decades and transform it into something monumental. The Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659 are introducing this movement in two parts with a total of 26 artists who produced work from the 1980s until the present day.
When I walk into the space, the docent reassures me that there is no right or wrong way to view the exhibition. I take the elevator up and am confronted with Zhu Jinshi’s work, Wave of Materials, a large installation made from xuan paper, cotton thread, bamboo, and stones. Xuan paper is a type of material used by calligraphers and painters and has been used as a significant material in Jinshi’s work since the late 1980s. Here, Jinshi crumples, flattens, and hangs the paper from the ceiling to create a monolithic, yet delicate, installation on the top floor.
Traveling down leads viewers towards Transformation, an installation created by Yin Xiuzhen in 1997. Scattered across two gallery floors and down a set of stairs, the piece exhibits black and white photographs on tiles that lie on the floor. I appreciate the experimentation with displaying photographs, as photography can become traditional and less experimental than other mediums, transfixed to frames on white walls. Xiuzhen takes city streets—the rubble, the physical materials that build a city—and conflates them with images of day-to-day life from her Beijing neighborhood.
My favorite piece in the exhibition is Zhan Wang’s Beyond 12 Nautical Miles—Floating Rock Drifts on the Open Sea, made in 2000. The single-channel video documents a performance of a stainless steel “rock” floating in the open sea. The viewer sees a shining silver object with soft edges rocking back and forth slightly on the waves for eight minutes and 36 seconds. The work is meant to reference how any country can claim open water as their own territory, and how the rock simply travels wherever the waves take it. In five different languages, the rock has the following inscribed into its surface: “This is a piece of art created specifically to be exhibited in the open sea. If by chance you pick it up, please put it back into the ocean. The artist thanks you from afar.”
Bringing things back down to earth are Liang Shaoji’s trained silkworms. What started small has resulted in Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Nature Series, No. 79, a large installation of chain-like pieces hanging from the ceiling wrapped in silk and cocoons from Shaoji’s silkworms. The artist—who has said, “I am a silkworm”—has raised them for more than 25 years. In his Nature series, the silkworms spin silk into certain objects, and in this work, it’s hollowed chains. Shaoji and his silkworms create work together as they play the role as the artist and the art.
It’s challenging to take in and absorb the exhibition, especially because the artwork is exhibited in two different parts of the city. Digesting one exhibition takes time to process; the works all range in concept and unconventional material. A personal tip: pick a museum to visit first, bring water, take a breather for a day or two, and tackle the next collection with a new set of eyes. It takes physical and mental time to sit with each piece, to really interpret and analyze the process. But at the end of it all, it’s worth it. v