THREADS: Changing Landscapes Contemporary Chinese Fiber Art

April 14th, 2012  |  Published in April 2012, On View

Ah, the creative mind! It changes our vision, our perceptions, our world, using the vastness of the unnoticed, mundane material of our daily lives. Like thread, a single one of which is so ordinary, so small, so inconsequential, that it is seldom acknowledged in any but a practical way: sewing a button on, mending a rip, making a stitch. Yet, it can become part of greatness in the hands of an artist, when transformed into a fine mixture of traditional and contemporary Chinese art as seen in “Changing Landscapes” on view at the Dayton Art Institute through June 17, 2012.

These extraordinary dimensional interpretations of landscape are particularly appropriate in expressing the forward thrust of every part of culture in China today. To wax poetic: like a blossom opening after a winter’s sleep. Those who appreciate the art of this ancient land, have always been aware of its pictorial language throughout its history. Art has been its means of expressing hope, praise, faith, appreciation of nature, and even occasional veiled criticism of alien political views. Landscapes, however, maintain a constant in Chinese art, a country which rivals our own in its diverse scenery. Like all landscapes, China’s is changing; raising skyscrapers, factories, and travel links to its far corners, in spite of which, the core of the nation’s traditional symbols remains: its turbulent waterways, seasons, clouds, flora and fauna can be found here energized through new eyes.

“Changing Landscapes” began in the 1950’s with the International Tapestry Biennale in Lausanne, Switzerland, through the support of two Frenchmen inspired by the hopes of a revival of tapestry art. The Biennale continued through 1992 promoting new ideas in fabric art with each show. When news of its demise reached Professor Lin Lecheng of Tsinghua University, he felt so strongly about continuing this artistic forward movement that he reorganized it, this time as the Beijing International Fiber Art Exhibition. From this “Changing Landscapes” was selected from the international artists featured, focusing on the Chinese contingent. This selection has proven to be a powerful statement in a comprehensive display of innovation.

Today’s China is change, well-illustrated by Ni Yuehong’s “Floating House”, a structure of raised fibers, adrift on your choice of hot, colored clouds or sea. Woven in classic wool Gobelen tapestry, its dark skewed beams rest tenuously on a fiery support: its fate beyond control. Another structure “The Old Dwelling” by Song Ye, is solidly anchored, showing a spacious, dreary dimension but little sign of human inhabitation. Between the two a world of time and changing custom are expressed.

Too many of these pieces are true traffic stoppers to mention them all. A dark-walled room lit strategically by spots of light, make the cradled half-moon shape, “The Memory of August” by Zhao Dandan , glow like a sculpture of diamonds. Its stunning appearance, due largely to the setting by Design Chief and Preparer, Martin Pleiss, denies its common elements of construction: those of translucent thread and stainless steel .

In the sculpture category, the two-piece “Washed Landscape” by Ren Guanghui stands like dwarfed trees, blackened at the square roots, delicately fading into gray, then white as it puts branches out at the top. Wood branches, closely wrapped in wool and formed into squares about 26” high, offer the beholder a variety of possibilities. They may be dead and withered, evil and strongly thrusting upward, or some beautiful flotsam left by tragedy. Whatever they are, their strength is undeniable.

Wrapping again pops up in disguise in “Wuxing (The Five Elements)” by Zhang Yizhuang. Paperboard is wrapped in colored fiber and formed into the Chinese characters for Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void, featuring a circle of the same wrapping colored as the element described above it. “Wuxing” is a dimensional wall hanging referring to traditional subject matter in a highly modern method of rendering.

More tradition hangs in several pieces featuring the wild waters of Chinese rivers and falls,notably “The Origin of the River” by Wang Kai. Two sets of floral pieces, embroidered using factory facilities, are dead ringers for contemporary paintings; “Dance of Rainbow Light” by Wen Lihua and “Aria of Autumn” by Tian Weiping. Just one solidly traditional Gobelen tapestry by Xu Wanru, combining the crane and landscape with fragile woven textures of brush strokes in scroll format, invokes our own Western idea of the old dynastic paintings.

Two three-dimensional works stand out so strongly as pure contemporary exhibits, that this writer felt compelled to set them aside in a class of their own. A set of three fabric chairs called “Role”, a collaboration by Xu Wen and Pang Qi, are arranged in a row. Brilliant plastic orange-y reds flame out from square backs and seats. Black plastic tubing coils beneath and supports them. The thought of actually sitting on them is repellent, for unexpected reasons. The fiery color predicts uncomfortable heat, while the square elements indicate waiting rooms, or other stressful places of seating. The whole effect is far from welcoming, yet fascinating.

The other, “Choice”, is an installation. All rounded shapes, (read: non-threatening) of natural vine and linen fiber, they hang vaguely connected and floating. The breath of visitors in their corner moves them. As people move about them, they move in reply.

The only threat implied is the size of the balls, and possibly some of the frizzy linen protuberances, but in general, this seems to be a friendly place, and much the opposite of “Role”. The picture of the artist in the catalog shows a sweet-faced young woman, Qiu Weili, who fits my personal reaction to “Choice” to a “T”.

Occupying the last two rooms of the exhibit is Maya Lin’s “Flow”. Her interest in exploring every facet of landscape as art is exemplified by her famous VietNam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lin’s vision necessitates entering the landscape as a personal experience and her extensive research into every project makes each a personal sculpture for each participant. “Flow” occupies the room, undulating as any land does. In the next, the last, room are the boxes in which “Flow” was shipped to DAI. A video accompanies the wall of crates showing the steps required to setting it up, nearly more engrossing than, yet, somehow, more connecting to, the wooden landscape itself,

Leave your pre-conceptions behind. “Changing Landscapes” will do much to change views about Chinese art. It’s a lot more than paper fans and teapots.

–Fran Watson

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