Bound Unbound: Lin Tianmiao, Asia Society, New York

The snip, snip, snip of scissors fills the silent space. Titanic blades hover on a floating screen, hacking at a curtain of hair. Wait – it’s not hair at all, but strands of white string that seem to tumble off the screen into piles on the parquet floor. Step around the display and you nearly trip on one of the 500 or so ghostly objects, a dozen jumble sales’ worth of kettles, watering cans, stock pots, staplers, trivets, picnic baskets and kitchen utensils, all sheathed in thin layers of thread. These spectral housewares sprawl across the space, transfigured by Lin Tianmiao’s wizardry.

This piece, “Bound and Unbound”, lends its title to a hypnotic retrospective at the Asia Society, surveying Lin’s work from 1995 to the present. It’s an apt description of an oeuvre that deals with constraint and liberation, the female body’s limitations and mutability.

Lin specialises in swaddling things in filaments of fibre, a technique she calls “thread winding”. Tools, bones and sewing machines all turn into totems as they succumb to her compulsive web-making. A surrealist at heart, Lin comes closest to Louise Nevelson in her integration of odds and ends into monumental – and monumentally ambiguous – meditations on femininity.

She is one of the few Chinese women who have leapt to a peak of power and prestige in a landscape dominated by men. Lin was born in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, in 1961, the daughter of two artists who schooled her in traditional crafts. A vivid memory of helping her mother sew clothes for the family still infiltrates everything she has done. In the 1980s, Lin and her husband, the video artist Wang Gongxin, decamped to New York, joining an artistic diaspora that included future celebrities Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing and the composer Tan Dun. She found work as a textile designer and in her free time explored galleries and museums, digesting the body-based innovations of Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois.

Lin’s creative engine started churning slowly towards the end of her stay in New York, and picked up steam when she got back to China in 1995. That year she exhibited “Proliferation of Thread Winding”, a harrowing installation in which thousands of menacing needles bristle from a slit in the centre of a mattress. The bed floats fluffily, leaking lengths of string that cascade to the floor and wind around scattered, spore-like balls. The piece sets pliable fabric against metallic aggression, obliquely commenting on conflicts between men and women.

Lin briefly slid through an unfortunate middle period of grotesque realism, featuring a range of thickened or emaciated human bodies slathered in satin. “Chatting” (2004) spotlights a cluster of heavyset, headless women whose box-like necks contain speakers that emit peals of laughter, panting, grunts and mixed-up mutterings. Near this klatch of pudgy muses, a gothic trio of aged men hovers awkwardly, skinny haunches sheathed in pink. These works are spooky and superficially discomfiting but don’t, in the end, have a whole lot to say.

In the past few years, Lin has returned to wrapping objects in thread, a technique that unleashes her expressivity. In “More or Less the Same”, she uses silver cord to bind together fake human bones and hand tools, creating mutant gadgets that skitter across an entire gallery. The result resembles a collection of strange archaeological finds: skulls fused with spatulas, a propeller mounted on a spine. Lin’s phantasms conjure a bionic beauty that’s almost comforting, a tender portrait of the intimate and ancient partnership between people and the things they make.

‘Bound Unbound: Lin Tianmiao’ continues until January 27,

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