Collective consciousness – China’s foremost female artist Yin Xiuzhen speaks to Glass about collectivism and our disparate modern lives

Collective consciousness – China’s foremost female artist Yin Xiuzhen speaks to Glass about collectivism and our disparate modern lives

The snaking drone of conveyor belts proffering “other people’s” luggage ensures that baggage halls across the globe send passengers into hypnotic states, adding a new dimension to the term “terminal boredom”. However, they serve to be a perfect metaphor for the questions that Yin Xiuzhen, one of China’s most active and acclaimed female artists (married to fellow artist Song Dong, Xiuzhen is also one half of one of China’s most revered artistic duos), poses: If we are constantly moving, where are our roots? Xiuzhen was deep in this contemplation when she was stirred with inspiration.

The resulting project, Portable Cities (2002–2004), a sculptural series of hand-sewn replicated cities contained in suitcases, represents our transient modern lives, our rootlessness, and poses further questions still: is international travel and instant global communication making us more alike and creating a single universal consciousness? Weaving together the detritus of unwanted textiles, Xiuzhen has created several series of works exploring these notions. International Aeroplane (2001–2004), Where is the Brake (2005) and Collective Subconscious (2007) are among her numerous installations exhibited in cities around the world from Tokyo to New York’s prestigious MoMA.

These works, all seemingly about travel, actually address the artist’s views on collectivism and individuality – all triggered by her observations of the globalised world and its contrast to the Maoist, collective era she grew up in. Emerging during a very restricted, but communal time for creatives in China, Xiuzhen and her contemporaries could not exhibit in galleries and so would show their work in underground venues and would work together to support and encourage each other. It seems that this dedication to their craft, undiluted by a desire to become wealthy or famous through one’s art, is the catalytic force behind the work in Xiuzhen’s electrifying oeuvre.

What is the message you want to convey as an artist?
Individuals need to share and exchange information to maintain the vitality of their lives. Human beings, as social animals, need to interact with each other to present and exchange their ideas and values. Acting as a medium between the material world and the spiritual world, artists attempt to create new perspectives and values to commonly seen objects in daily life, thus developing life into multiple spiritual dimensions.

Your childhood and coming of age coincided with significant changes in China’s cultural and political landscape. Are there any particular memories that stand out which have impacted you and your work the most?
We live in an era of drastic changes that continually transform our understanding of this world. Through these continuous changes, contradictory values have broken people’s blind faith in the authorities. Individual demands, which were suppressed, have been amplified with powerful influences. Growing up and living together with different groups of people in factories, farms and in the army has made me appreciate the value of team work and also let me become more involved in other people’s lives. Subconsciously, this is shown in my later works.

Yin Xiuzhen The Material World £yin

It is a far more hospitable atmosphere now for Chinese artists and other creative individuals than it was during China’s Cultural Revolution. However, your career started not too long after the end of that era. In terms of artistic creations and exhibitions, can you tell us a bit more about what the differences were like before and after?
Culture created under any social environment will have distinct time imprints and social characteristics. There is no exception for China’s Cultural Revolution. My art career started in the early ’90s, an era with restrictive policies that came after a short period of openness. At that time, avant-garde exhibitions were only shown in a very small community, which was mostly underground.

There was no support from the art museums, galleries or other creative institutions, not to mention the lack of funds and public recognition. The artists struggled to survive under intense social pressure. However, even though there were only a limited number of artists and the conditions were tougher at the time, it did not hold back our passion or creativity in the slightest.

Support from friends and expressions of independence can greatly liberate one’s spirit. Harsh conditions could be seen as impetus as well as a source of spiritual wealth. Nowadays, though living conditions have improved dramatically, the crazy intervention of economy and drastic loss of spiritual pursuit are quite regrettable.

Your art shows a great deal of concern towards to both social and environmental issues, not just in China, but the whole world. Is there any particular nation or area that you feel deserves greater interest? Or is there any specific problem you think that requires more urgent attention than others?
Scientific advancement constantly shortens the physical distances between people and it allows smoother and easier communication through time and space. However, “people’s own interests” keep building boundaries and bring more problems to our already damaged planet. The deterioration of both the natural and social environments means that it is time for people to start considering the future of our planet seriously. It is all in our own hands.

Your husband is also a very well-respected artist. What is it like being married to someone you can also collaborate with?
No doubt the reason that our life is full of sparkles comes from our mutual interests. However, on the other hand, we are also very much independent of each other. Based on our high degree of individualism, we created an independent form of cooperation. We call it The Tao of Chopsticks (筷道). This year, we’ll exhibit The Way of Chopsticks 4 in Beijing. It is nothing but luck if there can always be something to talk about between two people.

(The Way of Chopsticks – Since 2002, Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen have started a joint project based on the mechanism of chopsticks. Under an established rule, they each create individual chopsticks, which are then are juxtaposed, coming together as an integrated artwork. The Tao of Chopsticks is based on trust, equality and co-operation of two very similar individuals. Mutual trust is the embodiment with equality and independence as the spirit of The Tao of Chopsticks).

If you were not limited by anything, such as budget, location, materials, resources, or even any practical issues – what would be your ideal installation?
Constraints and limitations, including budget, location, materials, resource as well as practical issues can be the source and asset of creation.

When you design your works, do you take into consideration the particular group of audience your work will attract? 

Let nature takes its course. The freedom of artistic language makes art borderless. Life is the source of inspiration for art and at the same time serves as elements of art. All people get involved in art directly or indirectly. Creators, viewers and even opponents can all become elements of artworks.

Your work is so unique. It is hard to compare it to that of any other artist. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Everyone has their own experiences which are irreplicable in certain ways, but in the meantime, there are also many collective memories and imprints for all of us. It is the amalgamation of differences and similarities that inspire the creativity in life.

If you could do one thing that changed the world what would it be?
Change the gene of selfishness and greed in human nature.

If you could give one piece of advice to a young artist what would it be?
Youth and passion are your greatest assets. Don’t ignore your potential.

by Yasmin Bilbeisi

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams

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Glass Online art writer

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