A Focus on Materiality in Contemporary Chinese Art
What is materiality, and why is it important? How has the materiality of art shifted across time and culture?
All art is made up of materials. To focus on the materiality of an artwork, however, is to emphasise the material qualities that it consists of. In contemporary art, materials are often the foundation of the work; not just used as a tool to convey an idea or emotion but embodying the subject matter of the work itself. Materials can evoke social class and cultural traditions, and can even be intangible and abstract, as is the case with sound—and the removal of it.
Below, Pi Li, Sigg Senior Curator, Visual Art, analyses the materiality of three works in the Sigg Prize 2019 Exhibition: from bamboo scaffolding, to sound, to raw silk.
Artists always begin any new piece by choosing a certain material. Dealing with materials is always a consideration, no matter the work. For many contemporary artists, however, materials are increasingly the actual subject matter of their work, rather than a tool through which to convey ideas.
In his work In the Peak (2019), Liang Shuo deals with material as cultural information. He was inspired by the bamboo scaffolding that’s commonplace throughout Hong Kong, and he used it to build an immersive structure on the terrace of the M+ Pavilion. Bamboo and bamboo scaffolding have been used as materials from the beginning of humankind. It’s a very early technology and, fascinatingly, is still frequently employed, even in a metropolitan city like Hong Kong.
The bamboo scaffolding is inlaid with plastic flowers, which are another important aspect of the work’s materiality. Liang’s work is based on an in-depth understanding of Chinese society. Contemporary art is always regarded as the domain of elite, well-educated, wealthy culture. In Chinese society, though, a considerable portion of people are still part of the lower socio-economic classes. So Liang has picked cheap materials from the daily life of people in these classes: bamboo scaffolding and plastic flowers. The plastic flowers represent a way of trying to reach the perfection of materiality while not being able to, due to lack of money.
In Hong Kong, once repair work is done and scaffolding is no longer needed, it’s dismantled and removed. For Liang, this aspect of the material acquires another cultural meaning: that of the traditional Chinese story of utopia, which partly inspired the work. In the traditional story, people discovered utopia, but when they went back to find it again, it no longer existed. Liang’s use of bamboo scaffolding as a temporary building form that is easy to deconstruct and remove draws on this narrative in an interesting way. When the exhibition closes in May, the whole structure will be dismantled and removed; like utopia, it will no longer exist. For Liang, bamboo scaffolding is a way to focus on the cultural context behind the material.
Liang Shuo’s meditation on the impermanence of materiality sits in dialogue with the materiality of Samson Young's work Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th (2018). For this piece, Young instructed the orchestra to mute their instruments, drawing attention instead to the other sounds musicians make during a performance. This is quite an unusual form of materiality, and one that most people would not regard as a ‘material’ at all. But when watching Young’s work, it becomes clear that sound is the main medium. It’s placed front and centre, is used to investigate the concepts of the work, and is itself produced through an intervention in the materiality of musical instruments: that is, by muting them.
In Young’s work, the material is not just sound, but the removal of it. By silencing the orchestra, people can hear other noises that normally are not supposed to be noticed. Most of this materiality is quite intangible; it has no shape. You can only mentally trace it, following the movement of the musicians.
The medium of sound also serves as a reminder. There is no music, but with the noises and movements of the people, you can still partially reconstruct the real music in your mind. This kind of intangible noise, this ‘wasted’ sound, is somehow like Hu Xiaoyuan’s work, which uses wasted and abandoned materials. Both Young’s and Hu’s pieces highlight and make use of materials that are not supposed to be noticed, never mind centred.
Hu Xiaoyuan’s work Spheres of Doubt (2019) is about the material itself. Hu has created many works using xiao, a kind of semi-transparent raw silk. It is lightweight yet rigid, and, as with Liang Shuo’s bamboo, has a long history in Chinese culture. Hu uses the most traditional method to make the silk, ageing it outdoors for months or even a year. For her, the silk is not merely a fabric; it is a biological, animal-derived substance imbued with the ‘warmth of life’.
Hu used silk to cover every other material in the work. She collected abandoned objects and wrapped them in silk, using it to measure these items and develop their meanings. The other materials include soap, hair, a brick, and even a pomegranate. She also used detritus salvaged from construction sites. The silk transforms the shapes of these components but also keeps their original textures and human touches. The surface details of the objects have been finely traced on the fibre that covers them. As time passes, the materials change, including the slow shrinking of fruit and the gradual deterioration of the xiao. These changes are recorded by the scars, surface markings, and hollow spaces that develop between the objects and the enveloping raw silk.
On this level, you can see that Hu shares some similarities with the other two artists, especially Liang Shuo: The material is not only the material itself, it’s also imbued with social and personal information. Silk, bamboo—their inherent cultural identities are evident from the outset . Both materials are symbolic of traditional Chinese culture.
For a long time, most Chinese artists put more emphasis on their artistic concepts than their choice of materials. They used art as a tool to showcase their ideas about society and politics. But many artists today are not treating the material as just a means to an end. Rather, they develop art from both the physical attributes and the cultural associations of the material itself. Their concepts are attached to materiality and how they manipulate it. For me, this is an outstanding characteristic of this generation of contemporary Chinese artists.
See the Sigg Prize 2019 Exhibition at the M+ Pavilion until 17 May 2020.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the fruit in Hu Xiaoyuan's work Spheres of Doubt is a pomegranate, rather than a passionfruit.
Image at top of post: Hu Xiaoyuan, Spheres of Doubt, 2019. Steel bar, marble, wood, raw silk, wooden stick, sea water–eroded limestone, glass cup, body soap, castiron scale, brick, cement, bird’s nest, and pomegranate. Commissioned by M+, Hong Kong. Installation view, 2019. Image: Winnie Yeung@iMAGE28. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong