Human or Man-Made Material:
“The Allure of Matter” Visits Chicago

By Rebecca Memoli


“The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China” has come to Chicago from Los Angeles County Museum of Art and taken up residency at Wrightwood 659 in Lincoln Park and the Smart Museum on University of Chicago campus—two spaces on opposite ends of the city. The works included at Wrightwood on the North Side speak more to topics of man-made materials through repurposing and finding unconventional ways of using those materials. Works at the Smart Museum on the South Side focus on the human as material. Artworks there employ the viewer as a more active participant in interesting ways like movement and smell. Together, the two halves of “The Allure of Matter” are an introduction to some extraordinary Chinese artists. By subverting, distorting, and recycling of material for art, these artists show how, like DNA, matter encodes the function of humans and connects humanity to their place of origin.

Wrightwood 659 is in a building that doesn’t look like a museum. Four floors in total, the Wrightwood is much larger than its exterior lets on. The theme of architecture rings throughout the works at Wrightwood. Standing almost two stories tall is a temple-like structure built out of salvaged materials. That work, Liu Wei’s Merely a Mistake II, sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition. The works at Wrightwood maintain their object-ness while transforming into something else. Kill by Sui Jianguo, for instance, is a rug composed of rubber and thousands of nails mimics the coil of a centipede giving new and dangerous life to an otherwise inanimate object. Throughout the museum, the artists utilize materials that have conventional uses in China but are unconventional as materials for art or are used in non-traditional ways.



Left: Liu Wei, Merely a Mistake II No. 7, 2013, Doors and door frames, wooden beams, acrylic board, stainless steel, and iron. Installation view at Wrightwood 659. Courtesy of the artist Long March Space. Right: Sui Jianguo, Kill, 1996. Installation view, "The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2019–20. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Detail.


Some of the installations appear seamlessly in the space, like Shi Hui’s Float, which at first glance appear like a permanent fixture suspended throughout the vaulted space of the front lobby and mezzanine. Journeying from floor to floor permits a closer look, revealing that the vent-like shapes are constructed out of handmade paper, called xuan, over a delicate wire mesh.


Shi Hui, Float, 2000/2007/2013, Wire mesh and xuan paper pulp. Installation view at Wrightwood 659. Courtesy of the artist.


Xuan is used by several artists throughout Wrightwood, highlighting the versatility of the medium as well as its cultural significance. Zhang Yu uses the paper to explore gesture through the delicate surface of long sheets of hanging xuan. Fingerprints was created by the artist by dipping his finger into water and pressing it into the surface of the paper. The result is a mesmerizing pattern that is nearly invisible.


Left: Zhang Yu, Fingerprints, 2008, Longjing spring water on xuan paper. Installation view at Wrightwood 659. Courtesy of the artist. Right: Detail.


 On the top floor, Wave by Zhu Jinshi feels cramped in the space. The delicate shape of the wave is skewed and pinched in a way that feels claustrophobic. The piece itself seems to be designed to speak to the seeming lightness of paper. Each sheet is meticulously crumpled and hung. Lines of stones are attached to segments via fine strings as though they alone are preventing the work from floating upwards. If given more space the effect could bring more attention to the material quality of xuan paper, which as a single sheet can be light as air, but in mass, weigh a considerable amount.

Traveling south to the Smart Museum, the exhibition continues with artists who focus on natural rather than man-made materials. In contrast to the Wrightwood, artists here lean toward the use of material in referencing the human as a part of that materiality or as a participant with the material. Either through action or through the byproduct of the human body, there is more interaction with the viewer in these works through the senses and with the action of the viewer walking, drawing, and smelling.

Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project takes a poetic look at the history of tobacco and how its production and targeted sales have ravaged working-class communities in China. The scent of tobacco, rich and sweet, permeates the first gallery. This aroma is produced by 1st Class, a large installation of a tiger pelt rug constructed out of thousands of carefully placed cigarettes. The orange of the filters and the white of the paper create the stripes of the Bengal tiger. The tiger rug is a symbol for the allure of exotic luxury like a single cigarette, the danger of something that seems benign, but that in mass has had a crushing impact on the Chinese.


Xu Bing, 1st Class, 2011. Installation view, "The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2019–20. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.


Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have a morbid reverence for the matter they use to create their work. Human fat for the artists is a material that is reflects the excess in modern society while simultaneously vacillating between life and death. Yu explains in Susanna Ferrell’s essay The Great Significance of Fat:

“I think this material is especially magical, because when we first saw it, the feeling of death was particularly strong. There was a kind of silence, devoid of life, but the fat was very lively. It was flowing and shining—this material itself really evokes the feeling of being alive. This is why I think the material has so much feeling.”

Thus, standing thirteen feet high is Yuan and Yu’s Civilization Pillar, constructed out of human fat mixed with wax. The room in which the pillar of fat stands has a musty animal smell to it. The fat was collected via liposuction clinics over the course of five months from more than five hundred different live sources. The pillar is described by the curator as a monument to excess. It is comprised of material created by excessive consumption and then discarded by its creators at great expense.

Object-materials vs subject-materials is at the base of the art philosophy of gu wenda, who believes that if the material source is from the subject, it creates what he calls a “first nature” as opposed to a “second nature.” Sculptures created with material sourced from the subject directly are thus one degree less removed than those made of a separate material.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Civilization Pillar, 2001/2019. Installation view at the Smart Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artists.The exploration of this philosophy has taken shape with united nations: american code. This sculptural monument takes the form of a house-like structure. It is constructed out of braids of human hair sourced from Americans. The braids have been dyed in all the colors of the rainbow. Inside the structure hangs a wall of tapestry-like panels. On the panels there are cryptic words written in various languages; these are also woven out of human hair. These interior words reference the dispersal of language in the Tower of Babel story. The viewer is welcomed to navigate through the monument that is literally “of the people.”


gu wenda, united nations: american code, 1995–2019, Human hair. Commissioned by the Smart Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, and Peabody Essex Museum. Installation view at the Smart Museum of Art. Courtesy of the artist.


Despite the size, there is not as visceral a reaction elicited by the structure of wenda’s monument as there is by the Civilization Pillar. It is unnerving to see human fat outside the body. It is yellow and glistens. But the nature of hair is to be seen, dyed and braided, as it is in wenda’s installation. Also, the form of the pillar feels more like a feat of engineering than the hair structure. It stands more like a monument and does not invite the viewer to interact, but instead looms over the viewer, commanding attention.


gu wenda, united nations: american code, 1995–2019. Detail, entrance.


A direct, human connection to a place of origin through material is underlying all the work in the exhibition and it continues with the Smart Museum’s youth outreach programming. On view in the lobby, there is a collection of student works created by Juniors at a UChicago Laboratory high school program. In response to the exhibition, the students have created their own works of art that echo the spirit and thesis of the Allure of Matter. By tying together, the materiality of their own homes with the issues that they encountered in the exhibition, these students have connected in a meaningful way to artists on the opposite end of the globe.

Most notable were works by Destiney Williamson and Ethan Kern. Williamson’s mixed media piece, The Pride in My Hair, connects the artists through the cultural significance of hair for black women. In a similar way that gu wenda sources the hair for each United Nations monument from the country it represents, Williamson too has sourced her materials from her community. “The hair I bought at my local beauty supply store, and all the other materials I received from the school. Hair connects to me in the same way that it connects to the Black community. It represents a shared sense of identity and culture.” Williamson has woven the word ‘black’ with her hair reflecting that it is the blackness of her hair that makes the material imbued with power.


Destiney Williamson, The Pride in My Hair, Amour braiding hair on cardboard with acrylic paint, 2020 photo courtesy of Smart Museum.


 Ethan Kern’s Needle Toque incorporates hypodermic needles in a half circle at the bottom of a map of Canada. Kern uses the physical objects that deliver the addictive drug that has affected so many people. “I want the viewer to feel a sense of shock and maybe even nervousness at first, seeing the amount of needles spread onto this large board.” A dark echo of the ravage’s addiction has on his hometown of Vancouver, the inspiration for this piece was drawn from the Xu Bing’s 1st Class from the Tobacco Project. There is a dangerous tactility invoked using needles that recalls the rusted nails in Jianguo’s rug at Wrightwood 659.


Ethan Kern, Needle Toque, wood, brush paint, spray paint, sharpie, and needles, 2020

photo courtesy of Smart Museum.


The contrasts between the two parts of “The Allure of Matter” are interesting to consider in reference to the geography of Chicago. Travelling from one location to the other can give visitors a chance to traverse the span of the city. The works included and even the spaces themselves point to a contrast of temperament within the city itself. While Wrightwood, a more private museum in a more conservative part of town, has strong work, the bolder, more controversial works are at the Smart Museum. There are more pieces on view at the Wrightwood, but if you are looking for Xu Bing and Ai Weiwei, their works are on view at The Smart Museum. A visit to either will likely not disappoint, but those faint of heart might be more interested in the less abject works at Wrightwood.

Both museums are free, but tickets for Wrightwood must be reserved online. The exhibition at Wrightwood is scheduled to close on May 2nd; the Smart Museum’s exhibition is scheduled to close on May 3rd. No official decision has been made about whether the exhibition will be extended due to the COVID-19 closures. Until museums are open again, all the works along with in-depth interviews with all the artists are available on the website,


Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual.”






SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal