The Allure of Matter and Contemporary Chinese Art at LACMA


When most people think of material for sculptures, marble, bronze, clay and other traditional materials come to mind. However, a new exhibit of Chinese contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) shows the allure of using other matter in unusual artworks. Pieces constructed using human hair, cigarettes, melted plastic, and other unusual elements are featured in the LACMA showcase.

The “Allure of Matter: Material Art from China” LACMA exhibit features 35 works created by influential Chinese artists from the late-1980s to now. Works included are by 21 artists, including Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Lin Tianmiao, Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhan Wang and Zhang Huan.

Living in the Material World

Material Art is conceptually related to “materiality.” Additionally, it refers to artworks that make “matter” the primary vehicle of expression. Material art emerged in China 40 years ago, but flourished during the 1990s and early 2000s. Defiant artists were initially attracted to its radicalism.

Chinese contemporary artists eventually fostered relationships with their chosLACMAen materials as a framework for their creativity. More recent works tend to express the strains of the tremendous growth in China in recent years.

LACMA Exhibit Highlights

Examples of pieces using interesting material to allure visitors in the LACMA exhibition include:

  • “1st Class (1999–2011)” – One of several pieces in Xu Bing’s “Tobacco Project” that are included here, this piece is a larger-than-life tiger skin carpet made entirely of cigarettes. Viewed from the front, the filters add the orange to the tiger skin. From the back, the tips present a different picture. Xu did a residency at Duke University in 2000, and took interest in the Duke family and the fortune they made manufacturing cigarettes that have impacted China, socially and economically.
  • “Day–Dreamer (2000)” – Lin Tianmiao became fascinated with the white cotton thread her mother would tediously unravel during her childhood. She incorporated it in her work. “Day Dreamer” consists of cotton threads stitched through a self-portrait of the artist suspended from the ceiling then fixed to a mattress on the floor. The threads in the mattress create a mirror image of the body shape above.
  • “Transformation (1997)” – This piece incorporates 108 cement roof tiles Yin Xiuzhen gathered at demolition sites in Beijing. The demolition of traditional houses or siheyuan in favor of high-rises was displacing countless families. The artist took black-and-white photos at the sites to memorialize the destruction of the historical neighborhoods in favor of progress.
  • “United Nations: American Code (1995-2019)” – gu wenda’s work focuses on creating harmony by mixing different cultures in an unusual way – the artist incorporates hair from all over into the piece. Hair is a primary material in gu’s monumental installations. This one features a structure with a center flag, representing the U.S. as a nation of immigrants and countless ethnic identities by using hair.

LACMAMany artists featured in LACMA’s “The Allure of Matter” exhibition are well known in the Chinese art world, but not so stateside. To introduce them broader, the exhibit will be at LACMA until Jan. 5, 2020. It will then travel to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

By Dyanne Weiss


LACMA Exhibit Visit
LACMA Exhibition Advisory: The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China

Photos of “1stClass,” Xu Bing’s cigarette tiger, front and back, by Dyanne Weiss
Photo of one of Yin Xiuzhen’s “Transformation” roof tiles by Dyanne Weiss