Despite opening on a cold winter’s day in Beijing, Yin Xiuzhen’s show evoked a pleasant sense of warmth. Curator Leng Lin’s essay stated that the exhibition was deliberately conceived without an overriding theme, in order to free each work from any conceptual obligation or boundary. There was, however, a very subtle and intimate sensation that seemed to connect each of the seven pieces included here.
Since the early 1990s, Yin has been working ingeniously with everyday materials such as second-hand clothes and fabrics to create ambitious sculptures loaded with social references and personal reflections. Yin’s series of cloth-made portable cities – which can be folded to fit inside a suitcase and transported (‘Portable Cities’, 2002–4) – are appealing impressions and abstractions of urban landscapes. She has also sculpted a number of hostile and destructive objects from discarded fabric – deadly weapons, a soaring television tower, a suspended aeroplane (International Flight, 2001–4) and a life-size motorbike lying sideways on the floor (Where is the Brake?, 2005) – rendering them inoffensive, domestic and comical.
Collective Subconscious (2007), the centrepiece of this exhibition, is another outstanding example of Yin’s dexterity at uniting such contrasting materials as soft textiles and hard metals. The work consists of an abandoned blue minibus – a common means of transportation in Beijing during the late 1990s, which has since fallen out of fashion and all but disappeared – that the artist bisected and then reconnected with an extended stainless steel structure tightly wrapped in a patchwork of stitched-together clothes of various designs, textures and colours, thus rendering the minibus a 14-metre-long entity. There are many details to appreciate and ponder about this inventive vehicle. Dozens of small wheels are installed underneath the add-on part of the bus, making it look like a bulging centipede. Inside the cloth tunnel that links the two original parts of the bus, a number of old stools are scattered about the glistening stainless steel floor, encouraging gallery-goers to sit on them and take in the multicoloured beams of light that shine through the flimsy fabric on both sides of the tunnel. In Beijing and throughout China, these little stools were once basic items of household furniture, which people often assembled themselves from bits of salvaged wood or metal, and which they carried with them to sit on during public movie screenings, gatherings and communal meetings in the 1960s and ’70s. These stools extended private lives into the public sphere and emblematized a collective way of living and thinking; they also inferred the diminished possibilities of life spent under the shadow of the silent majority. A soothing pop song with a male vocal plays on a loop inside the bus. The various elements of the piece contribute to an ambience evoking the illusive security, comfort and temptation of belonging to a collective.
In the same room, a slim, shiny stainless steel ladder leant against the wall. At just under five meters tall, it stretched the full height of the gallery. The lower ends of Ladder (2007) were dressed in two tiny pink baby socks, which immediately offset the iciness of the steel as well as quietly undermining the aggressive and competitive nature of the adult world. Hanging next to each other on the wall in front of the minibus were three oil paintings, depicting the remains of melting sweets (Nos. 6, 7 and 8 from the ‘Candy’ series, all 2007). Vivid and lifelike in texture and colour, the canvases are framed with used fabric, which in itself resembles stretched chewing gum. Another work, also related to sweets, was Candy No. 9 (2007): a video showing nothing but two hands protruding from a dark background that play incessantly with sticky gum.
The only work in the exhibition not to make use of fabric was 125 cm3 (2007); a small cement cube, displayed in a vitrine, into the top of which a number of finger- and toenail were embedded. Fixing each one onto the cement cube appears as much an act of boredom, devoid of reason, as a deliberate attempt to collect a large number of long, crooked nails over time. Rather than being an expression of the ‘collective subconscious’, the seven works in the show could almost be seen as a collection of mischievous suggestions and devices the artist has dreamed up from everyday experience to tackle the frictions of a collective way of life.