Lin Tianmiao is one of China’s most famous female artists and one of its first contemporary artists to achieve international recognition. Lin is best known for her large-scale installations and sculptures by thread winding, the transformation of everyday, found objects – such as tools and bones – into sculptures by winding cotton, silk, hair, or felt around them so that they are completely changed. Lin also works in photography, video, and a variety of other media to study the relationship between women’s identity and the conventional social role of woman as mother.
Because of the Cultural Revolution, Lin had little formal education. By the time Lin was 15 years old, the Cultural Revolution was over, and her family was ruined financially. She helped her mother sort, wind, and spool cotton thread – a job she hated – while her father exposed her to both traditional Chinese ink and brush painting and the works of modern European artists through art catalogues. She left school without a degree and worked for two years as a puppet-maker in a theater company.
She took a short course in drawing at a teachers’ college, Beijing Normal University, where she met and married the artist Wang Gongxin. When she was 23, she moved away from art and started a check-cashing business on the advice of her father. When her husband became an artist-in-residence at SUNY Albany, she joined him and moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her husband earned money drawing portraits of people leaving the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Lin studied at the Art Students League, reinventing herself as a textile designer with work influenced by Minimalism.
In 1994 when Lin was pregnant, she and her husband moved back to Beijing to set up their home as a salon and a workplace for their installations. (They still live in Brooklyn for half of the year.) Her artwork combined Minimalism with textiles, the work she had to do as a young girl for her mother.
In 1995, her video art piece “The Proliferation of Thread Winding” was her earliest work. The video shows her winding balls of thread for white sheets that are pierced with thousands of needles. The work references the tediousness of women’s domestic work juxtaposed with the violence of the bed covered in needles. Lin mummified ordinary household objects in yards of cotton thread. In 1997, she created an installation, “Bound Unbound” of wrapped objects with a video of a scissors cutting threads.
Her predominant theme has always been the human body or some form of it in sculptures that show the stages and fragility of life. In 1998, her “Braiding” was a monumental self-portrait on a 12-foot-high transparent cloth hanging from the ceiling. Her face is perforated with hundreds of tied knots attached to strings that cascade from the cloth and pool onto the floor forming a 50-foot-long braid. It is joined with a video of Lin winding the string.
In her 2001 series “Focus,” Lin again focuses on her own face. She is androgenized with sexuality removed as in images of the Buddha. For her and for Chinese people in general, large-format facial portraits and official portraits of leaders have always had intrinsic value. A 2008 exhibition of her work showed 18 sculptures of women in abject positions with appendages for limbs. There were also bulbous forms of limbs or body parts sprouting from the floor and walls.
In New York City’s Galerie Lelong & Co. Lin carpeted the gallery with antique Chinese rugs, adding thickly embroidered words in several languages for the word ‘woman’. These words ranged from cryptic sexual slang to expressions of devotion. She was surprised “that almost every viewer seemed to be very happy within the work” in spite of the derogatory words used for women. She explained that this was due to the positive, calming ‘fiber effect’ people feel when they are walking on rugs.
In 2002, for the Shanghai Biennale she collaborated with her husband in an installation “Here? Or There?” which references landscape. Her art was seen in the 2007 Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “Global Feminisms” and in 2012 at New York’s Asia Society Museum where she wrapped real and artificial bones in bright neon-colored silk thread. The following year the Asia Society presented “Bound Unbound,” Lin’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. She has participated in numerous Biennales in the world. In 2015, the How Art Museum in China presented her solo exhibition, “1.62M: Lin Tianmiao.”
Her work is in the public collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Art Students League, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Singapore Art Museum, and others.