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30 Nov 2021 / by Wu Hung

Yin Xiuzhen: Dress Box

A wooden chest sits open on the floor displaying a neatly folded pink shirt embedded in a block of cement.

Detail of Yin Xiuzhen's Dress Box (1995). © Yin Xiuzhen; M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation

Wu Hung traces Yin Xiuzhen's affinity for working with old clothing, cement, and suitcases

Yin Xiuzhen grew up in a working-class family in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. Although she was interested in making pictures and crafts, such interests found little room to grow at a time when Chinese art was reduced to portraying Chairman Mao and the ‘revolutionary masses’ in a monotonous, symbolic style. She expressed her artistic talent mainly by sewing and knitting clothes for family members.

After graduating from high school in 1981, she set her heart on studying painting at university, a goal that had become possible after the end of the Cultural Revolution. For the next four years, she worked in a construction firm as an interior painter while spending evenings preparing for the entrance exam. In 1985, she entered the Department of Fine Arts at the Capital Normal University. Among her classmates was Song Dong, whom she would marry and form a life-long partnership with.

Photograph of the artist Song Dong lying face-down on the frozen surface of a small urban lake. Dressed in corduroy pants and a thick black jacket, he breathes on the unaffected ice.

Yin took this photograph of her partner, Song Dong, performing Breathing, Houhai, Back Sea (1996), an attempt to leave a temporary trace of his existence at Houhai Lake. © Song Dong; M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation

Like many other experimental artists of her generation, Yin abandoned canvas and paint after graduating from university in favour of more contemporary forms, such as installation, site-specific art, and performance. In her first group of non-painting works, produced between 1994 and 1995, her unusual sensitivity to the natural, material world is already apparent. Working with young, like-minded artists such as Song Dong and Zhu Jinshi, she created two of the earliest works of Land Art in China: The Tree of Parting (1994) and Tree Lute (1995).

Her other projects from this period attest to her deepening concerns with history and memory, identity, and relationships. Among these, Dress Box (1995) combines three components that she would employ continuously to great effect over the next two decades: old clothing, cement, and suitcases. Yin explains her fascination with used clothing in the short essay, ‘About Clothes’:

Why do I use old clothes as materials? It’s because I’ve always been interested in people’s life experiences . . . I feel that clothes are like a second skin; they have their own expressive language and are connected with their times and therefore with history. I started using old clothing in 1995 as an important material and element in my works. At the beginning, I gathered my own old clothing from my childhood to the present to create Dress Box. In this work, I used cement to seal clothes I’d worn over thirty years in a suitcase that my father had made and which I’d used for many years. I inscribed these words [on a bronze plaque] inside the suitcase’s lid: ‘These clothes are the clothes that I’ve worn over the past three decades; they carry my experiences, memory, and physical traces of time.’ [1]

Sculpture and digital video. A wooden chest sits open on the floor displaying a neatly folded pink shirt embedded in a block of cement. Above it on the wall, a video shows the chest being filled with cement, entombing the clothes inside.

The installation consists of the ‘dress box’ and video documentation of Yin's performance. © Yin Xiuzhen; M+ Sigg Collection. By donation

The installation resulted from a silent, solemn performance. Yin unpacked her old clothes in an empty gallery at the Beijing Contemporary Art Museum. She folded each piece of clothing into a flat rectangle and sewed up the edges so that they could never be opened again. She then laid these rectangles on the ground in rows, carefully packed them in the suitcase, attached the inscribed bronze plaque to the inside of the lid, and finally sealed them in the suitcase with cement mortar.

The performance/installation can be interpreted as a symbolic burial for the artist herself, since the sealed clothes were a ‘second skin’ shed from her body.[2] The work signifies Yin’s self-invention as well as her yearning for survival—a complex, poignant meaning that captures her experience at this moment of rebirth as she rejected her formal academic education and embraced experimental art.

These clothes are the clothes that I’ve worn over the past three decades; they carry my experiences, memory, and physical traces of time.

Inscription on Yin Xiuzhen's Dress Box

To Yin, the significance of used clothing goes beyond a means to convey personal memories. ‘[Old clothes] bear traces of people’s lived experiences,’ she writes. ‘Over a decade I’ve gathered together such “experiences” from numerous people in many countries, including my family, friends and strangers, forming a new “collective” with a hidden subconscious. Experiences can’t be duplicated. What I’ve done is to “stitch” these fragmentary experiences together so that they can start a new life.’[3]

A work that Yin created in 1995 had already begun to manifest this idea. Titled Yarn and shown at the Beijing Contemporary Art Museum, it includes two piles of worn jumpers she had collected from her family members. The colourful ones in one pile belonged to women, while the grey and blue ones in the other pile belonged to men. Some jumpers had been unravelled, and the strands of material formed two heaps of loose yarn in the foreground, with which the artist began to knit a new jumper or scarf. Transforming old clothing into new items, the work conveys Yin’s idea of ‘“stitch[ing]” fragmentary experiences together so they can start a new life’.

Sculpture consisting of an open suitcase on the floor. Inside the suitcase is a city landscape made out of folded, cut, and stitched pieces of clothing. The clothes create a landscape of skyscrapers, including a representation of Beijing’s Central Radio & TV Tower made out of jeans

As she entered a period of travelling overseas, Yin initiated the Portable Cities series. In each edition, she constructs a microcosm of urban space using clothing gathered in the titular city. Pictured here is Portable City: Beijing (2001), the first of the series. © Yin Xiuzhen; M+ Sigg Collection. By donation

Two years later, she created a similar installation called Unravel/Knit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York. In 2000, she made another work called Construction Material at the Gertrude Contemporary Art Space in Melbourne. On these two occasions, however, Yin collected old clothes from residents of these cities. Although she had no personal relationship with the donors and knew little about their lives, the two installations generated local sentiment because of Yin’s belief in the transcultural significance of old clothes as memory-bearing objects. In her words, ‘these collected clothes are actually the condensations of people. They had once been wrapped around warm bodies. Even after entering my work, they still radiate warmth of a spiritual kind.’[4]

Memory continued to enliven Yin’s works in the 2000s, especially when these works utilised old clothing. One representative project from this period, Collective Subconscious, consists of a series of altered minibuses. Each of these rectangular vehicles is cut in half. Between the two ends, Yin added a long, accordion-like tunnel covered with a quilt made from used clothes. Entering the inconspicuous minivan, viewers find themselves transported to a magical space, as they are bathed in soft, multicoloured light filtered through the clothes, and as they hear familiar old songs from bygone days.

Photograph showing a woman with long black hair in a black blazer. She looks directly in the camera with a slight smile. Behind her is a long tunnel made of quilted fabric.

Yin outside Collective Subconscious (2007), as presented at MoMA’s Projects 92 exhibition in 2010. Photo: Caroline Seidl/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Yin’s intention, however, is not to arouse a vague feeling of nostalgia, but to revisit a specific moment in her life and in China’s modern history. During the early phase of China’s economic boom in the 1980s, this type of minivan, nicknamed xiao mianbao, or ‘little loaf of bread’, became a symbol of financial well-being, independence, and mobility. Yin recalls: ‘If you could afford to take a “bread taxi” or drive your own “little bread”, you had a happy life that someone would covet . . . It became something that stood for people’s hopes and aspirations at that time.’[5] To emphasise the idea of ‘everyone’, she used over four hundred pieces of old clothing to extend a vehicle, turning a ‘little bread’ into a fifteen-metre-long public bus, resulting in, as she puts it, ‘a mixture of collectivist idealism and compressed realism’.[6]

This article is an excerpt from Chinese Art Since 1970: The M+ Sigg Collection, published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with M+. It has been modified slightly from its original version. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated).

Wu Hung is the Harrie A. Venderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago and the College Adjunct Curator at the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. He is the author of Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016) and the co-editor of Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (2010). His curatorial work includes the First Guangzhou Triennial, Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art, 1990–2000 (2002); Between Past and Future: New Photograph and Video Art from China (2004); and The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China (2019).

  1. 1.

    Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Guanyu yifu’ [About Clothes], unpublished manuscript.

  2. 2.

    Wu Hung, Transcience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, 1999), 125–126.

  3. 3.

    Yin, ‘About Clothes’.

  4. 4.

    Yin, ‘About Clothes’.

  5. 5.

    Lu Jingjing and Zhang Xiyuan, eds. Yin Xiuzhen (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher, 2012), 1999. Translation by X Zhu-Nowell, in ‘Yin Xiuzhen’, in Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, eds. Alexandra Munroe, Hou Hanru, and Philip Tinari (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2017), 186.

  6. 6.

    Lu and Zhang, eds., Yin Xiuzhen, 199.

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