New York

Lin Tianmiao, The Golden Mean, 2012, gold silk on panel, synthetic resin bones wrapped in gold thread, 15' 5 3/4“ x 6' 6 3/4”.

Lin Tianmiao, The Golden Mean, 2012, gold silk on panel, synthetic resin bones wrapped in gold thread, 15' 5 3/4“ x 6' 6 3/4”.

Lin Tianmiao

Lin Tianmiao, The Golden Mean, 2012, gold silk on panel, synthetic resin bones wrapped in gold thread, 15' 5 3/4“ x 6' 6 3/4”.

Lin Tianmiao’s works, gathered here in her first retrospective, flesh out her evolving relationship with organic fibers while revealing that the sophisticated and collective processes by which she produces her sculptures and installations has remained a relative constant. Curated by Melissa Chiu, the exhibition of fifteen pieces begins with the China-based artist’s earliest major pieces from the mid-1990s, which feature cotton threads inspired by memories of her childhood, and concludes with newer works in silks connoting luxury and wealth. Her practice revels in the various textures these materials produce: Pale silk fabric may represent her skin, wound balls of cotton suggest a disembodied ego, and embroidery and silk fibrils swathe everything like insect threads.

Lin’s work is carefully produced by hand. This often leads viewers to draw associations with craft and to see in it an exploration of “women’s work”—a feminist reading that is only intensified by her use of images of the body, mostly her own. But feminism is of a different ilk in China, and the artist herself generally eschews such interpretations of her practice.

Indeed, to examine her work solely through the lens of gender is to overlook many of the artist’s intentions. Consider one important aspect of her oeuvre: her tendency to employ semiskilled laborers to realize her sculptures (a practice that is relatively ubiquitous in mainland China). For Lin, the use of outsourced labor means she can maintain a uniformly high level of craftsmanship on a large scale, providing luxurious, nearly haptic visual experiences. Examine, for instance, her earliest piece here, The Proliferation of Thread Winding, 1995, in which hundreds of balled cotton threads seem to have exploded from the gaping wound of an institutional bed. Without the assistance of a labor force, works of this size would be nearly impossible to achieve. Sometimes, however, one wonders whether her emphasis on workmanship comes at the expense of conceptual rigor.

Lin’s interest in materials reflects a designer’s sensibilities. This is most apparent in the nine couturelike wearables in Here? Or There?, 2002, made in collaboration with her husband, artist Wang Gongxin. Displayed on mannequins that stood ominously among a group of video projections, the bulbous, tubular garments read as materializations of psychological states. Again, however, the strength of the work derives from materials and process rather than from iconography. Elsewhere, the importance of craft is underscored by seeing what happens when a work is presented at a smaller scale. Mother’s!!!, 2008, when exhibited for the first time in Beijing, was an immersive tactile environment that overwhelmed viewers with beautifully crafted objects. But in New York it was reduced to a one-room “boutique” installation, and, regrettably, the experience of a silken labyrinth that defined the first viewing was lost.

Lin’s recent work in sumptuous fine silk is meant as a critique of the greed that seems evermore widespread in China’s social and economic development. One such piece, The Golden Mean, 2012, features a synthetic human skeleton, wrapped in gold silk, that seems to have exploded across four large panels. At first glance, the glittering array seems merely decorative. After noting its formal echoes with Buddhist art (bones, skulls, expensive materials), however, we cannot help but contemplate the task of labor (the precise weaving, embroidery, and other details) as we do with a mandala. Still, in the face of such splendor, one gets the sense that Lin is motivated by something other than spirituality. Perhaps making us recognize this is precisely her point.

Lee Ambrozy