New York

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns, 2014, wool and acrylic yarn, carpets. Installation view, 2017.

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns, 2014, wool and acrylic yarn, carpets. Installation view, 2017.

Lin Tianmiao

Lin Tianmiao, Protruding Patterns, 2014, wool and acrylic yarn, carpets. Installation view, 2017.

This show screamed out loud. Some 120 words in English and Chinese were woven into thick protuberances that rested on an assortment of antique carpets covering the entire floor of the gallery’s main room. These terms were all related to womanhood—expressions of appreciation or derogatory insults—and they reflected the stereotypes, social pressures, and repressive roles imposed for centuries on women all over the world. Over the past six years, Lin Tianmiao has collected approximately two thousand such words from different languages and their slang and local dialects, as well as from books, news sources, and the internet. Her lexical investigation of the evolution of female-related terminology within various cultural and social systems, such as those in China, Europe, and the US, demonstrates that there is little difference between goddess and witch, femme fatale and concubine, or any of their gradations. In every case, whether on a pedestal or on a stake, these words—aimed at objectifying women—embody patriarchal misogyny. The artist shows that language—a particularly insidious vehicle of discrimination—is one of the many territories in which the gap between fighting for gender equality and actually achieving it is far from closing.

Pink and red are the predominant colors in the show, and that choice is significant. Pink has long symbolized femininity—that gleaming, sugarcoated cage in which girl children are imprisoned from a most tender age. Red alludes to menstruation, to passion, to violence, and to pain. The stereotypes exuded by the terms and colors were all clear, and they were uncomfortable, as was the position of the viewer. Looking down at those words made me very uneasy. Their deafening clamor felt personal, and standing before this lexicon of submission I could not be indifferent to my role as a woman: What was my relationship to this semantic panorama, dense with misogynistic nuances, while I observed it from a dominant position? I instinctively sat on the carpets and caressed those plump, soft words, as if seeking some sort of intimate and sympathetic commonality with a condition of vulnerability. There I became aware of the conundrum of this experience: If you don’t stand up you don’t see, but if you don’t bring yourself down, you don’t feel. But walking on these carpets also proved challenging. The viewer risked stumbling on the lumpy protrusions, and I suspect this condition of quite literal instability was intentional; Lin forced us to confront the uncertainty in our movements—she wanted us to feel disempowered. The artist’s message was twofold: When we deal with unresolved women’s issues, we are on shaky ground. We can’t walk on this terrain easily or absentmindedly.

In the smaller of the gallery’s two rooms, four white-marble sculptures rested on black velvet–covered shelves. Human bones were juxtaposed with ordinary but incongruous objects, as in Bulb, a lightbulb screwed into a pelvis, and Iron, a household iron resting against a skull (both 2016). Taking up one of the artist’s favored themes, vanitas, each disrupted quotidian logic with a surrealist technique, playfully implying the difficult translation from the material realities of daily life to interior and spiritual realms. Four panels of black velvet again displayed English and Chinese words in raised relief, embroidered with black and gray silk. The words continued to collide into one another, and their clash almost annulled their meaning. But, however vociferous, these banners were less convincing than the carpet works, as their overdramatic decorativeness diminished their assertiveness. Confined to the wall, the panels lacked the haptic element Lin so effectively employed to make this show a total sensory experience.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.