Feminist Ideologies of Lee Bul and Lin Tianmiao

Written by Catherine Weng

The significance of feminism and its reshaping of contextual spheres, in 1960s to 1980s Korea and China is explored in Lee Bul’s (b.1964) and Lin Tianmiao’s (b.1961) art practices. Specifically, the social and political tensions of gender and racial discrimination, as evident through the materials, subject matter and process of artworks including Bul’s Abortion (1989), Monstar Pink (1998/2011), Cyborg Series W1-W4 (1998) and Tianmiao’s Chatting (2004), Mother’s!!! (2008) and Badges (2011-2012). Both artists exhibit ideas of the female body as a reproductive tool, the female body’s hybrid representation in art and the domestic roles of women. Consequently, the feminist lens of Bul and Tianmiao inform their roles in shifting attitudes and values bounded in both the contemporary art space and public world.

The definition of feminism with its western roots is simplified as ‘the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes’ (Burkett 2021: para.1). However, the concept of intersectionality shows a greater consideration of ethnical, class, cultural and religious determinants (Bong 2016; Lemma 2019). Feminist and racial activism must battle the issues within one another for successful change to occur (Crenshaw 1991). This coincides with Sharon Bong’s argument focusing upon ‘Asian women’ and the greater marginalisation this category entails (Bong 2016:2). Bong is an Associate Professor of Gender Studies at Monash University Malaysia. As Bong suggests, it is the circumstances of ‘poverty and status as an ethnic, cultural, religious and sexual minority’ that intensifies the issue of feminism within Asia (Bong 2016:2). In the consideration of Bul and Tianmiao’s practices, Korea and China’s feminist history lacked a unified force striving for women’s rights. The Korean women’s rights movement that ‘began’ in the late nineteenth century was overlooked by the social class liberation that sought to establish a democracy. It was thought that gender issues would be solved within the social movement (Jung 2014). This was similar to the situation in China where feminist activism was ‘for the sake of the nation’ (Zarrow 1988:796). While women’s rights in Korea and China did improve in educational, economic, and political sectors, it is evident that their progression was limited in comparison to their western counterparts (Jie 1996).

Bul and Tianmiao display the political manipulation in 1960s-80s Korea and China of female reproduction in their artworks. In Korea, a law banning abortion was enforced in 1953. Despite this, the government of the 1960s-80s encouraged ‘birth-controlling methods of abortion, contraception, and sterilization to reduce the nation’s total fertility rate’ (Kim et al. 2019: para. 3). While these acts seemed beneficial for women, the disabled and financially unstable were coerced into having abortions. Women still needed permission from their husbands and lacked access to safe health care services due to the laws governing abortion (Kim et al. 2019). As a response to this politically charged environment, Bul’s Abortion, demonstrated the severity of institutional control over female reproduction. The performance piece involved the artist hanging upside down from the ceiling, secured by rope and a body harness while nude.
She was situated in a dark space surrounded by chairs with two spotlights casting a warm illumination over her body. The red rope and harness with the room’s warm saturation accentuated the femineity of the act. Performing at Seoul’s Dongsoong Art Centre in 1989, she verbally interacted with the audience by discussing abortion and her experiences of receiving one illegally. The performance went on for two hours until the audience intervened and took her down (Russeth 2021). The sustained physicality of being bound and suspended in the air amplified Bul’s commitment to confronting viewers with the brutal visualisation of the government’s control over female anatomy. The interaction between the artist and audience also added elements of humanity and compassion as discussions around abortion often disempowers and objectifies people's bodies. She forces the question of politicising female anatomy to her audience and the success of this is identified in their inability to bear the performance any longer, requiring audience intervention and cutting her down (Russeth 2021).

Lin Tianmiao similarly responds to the political oppression of female reproduction in Chatting. Growing up in an authoritarian state within the context of China’s one child policy (1980-2016), her practice displays her resistance towards this country’s patriarchal and conservative nature. 
The one-child policy stemmed from the concept of ‘birth planning’ (Greenhalgh 1994:6). Thus, giving birth was seen as a task dictated by the state and performed for the benefit of society (Greenhalgh 1994). Parallel to Bul, Tianmiao reacts to her government’s ideology in her configuration of the nude female body. In Chatting, she installs six, white sculptures of naked women constructed from fibreglass and synthetic silk against a pink semi-circular background. They stand with their box-shaped heads bowed, elbows slightly bent and a few hands holding circular objects that resemble cellular shapes. The cellular shapes are positioned in various areas of each sculpture, including their backs, hips and between their legs. The imagery of biological forms growing on the women alludes to the plague of their bodies under political control. This is supported by the cluster of silk threads that hang from their heads and arms, symbolising their physical and mental disintegration. The threads that link them at their heads also produces the notion of submitting to authoritarian repression. Tianmiao also includes sound in her installation as a recording of a woman’s voice softly panting, moaning, and vomiting plays in the background. The contradictory sounds of pleasure and discomfort highlights the distanced intimacy of sexual intercourse (Guest 2016). In contrast to Bul’s humanisation of abortion, Tianmiao strips the identity of the women by replacing their heads with monitors which signifies the government’s objectification of women as they have been reduced to their reproductive ability. Consequently, Bul and Tianmiao reveal their attitudes towards authoritative rule over reproduction in their unconventional display of the female body. Their works maintain relevance in our society which continues to politicise reproductive anatomy.

The connotations of the female body and its hybrid portrayal in art are evaluated through Bul and Tianmiao’s confrontation with societal gender distinctions. Specifically, the significance of the nude, female body is seen at both ends of the art value spectrum: the sophisticated and romanticised depictions of femineity versus the crude, low-brow representation of sexuality (Nead 1990). The root of these depictions often comes from the cultural projection of male sexuality and their objectification of the female body in both western and eastern art spheres (Schneemann 1991). These impressions create a social divide in which females are reduced to their aesthetic appeal. Bul disputes this in her investigation of female bodily structures morphed with inhumane features in the sculpture Monster: Pink. Constructed from fabric, cotton fillings, acrylic paint and structured with a stainless-steel frame, Bul visualises a hybrid form of beauty turning into horror (Bul 2000). Monster: Pink scales 2.1 x 2.1 x 1.8 metres and has root-like tentacles and organs. The sculpture’s glossy lustre emphasises the fleshy and humanoid allusion. The exaggerated mutation creates a ‘tidal wave of abjection’ in which Bul frees the work from society’s fixed system of definitions (Murray 2008: 38). The abjection is seen in the obscure imagery: organic characteristics void of a specific gender, race or class. It demonstrates her embrace of the ‘otherness’ that often perpetuates in the categorisation of the female nude. In reflecting upon Bul’s context within Korea, her unconventional manifestation of the body disturbs idealised representations of femineity.

The theme of opposing society’s perceptions upon the female body recurs in Tianmiao’s Mother’s!!!. In her large installation work of sculpted objects made from polyurea, silk and cotton threads; she fractures the maternal body to demonstrate its physiological and psychological changes. Tianmiao blankets the gallery room in white and creates a sterile environment in which the matters of birthing, gaining weight, marriage and menopause are viewed (Merlin 2018). Stemming from both her personal turmoil of accepting these bodily transitions and desire to reveal the perspective from ‘[a] women’s inward-looking eye’, she establishes her own standards of womanhood (Merlin 2018: para. 22). Indeed, despite the feminist bearings Tianmiao’s intentions appear to have, she disputes the label as a feminist artist. She states that feminism originates from the west and she doesn’t want to categorise her work under the term- perceiving it as a regression for Asian women artists (Guest 2016). The sculptures arranged in the room include a large mass of balls hanging from the ceiling and are linked with threads held by a small figure as if they were balloons. The shapes echo the biological forms seen in Chatting. A short table in the shape of a watch glass is crowded with sculpted science equipment that have wires and tubes united at the neck of a nude female body. It may allude to the scientific invasion of female anatomy that was experienced during the one child policy: 300 million Chinese women were forced to insert an IUD that was irremovable without surgery after their first birth (Huang 2022). Other sculptures of headless, nude female bodies with larger figures are seen sitting, standing and crouched around the room which mimic a state of confusion. Bul and Tianmiao both equip abstracted figurative forms in their sculptural work to divulge the reality of the female body and its place in the art world.
Korean and Chinese societies construct of women’s domesticity is also challenged in Bul and Tianmiao’s harnessing of materiality in their practices. Traditionalist thinking of women’s roles at home maintains the sense of inferiority placed on women. Both artists reveal the labours of women in their intricate extensive processes of making through contrasting material approaches. In Bul’s Cyborg Series W1-W4, she utilises cast silicone, polyurethane filling and paint pigment to manufacture 6ft, futuristic and feminine cyborgs (Mori Art Museum n.d). The bodies are headless with various limbs missing, posed in contrapposto, and are installed from the ceiling. Femininity in the industrial-like creations can be viewed in the accentuation of the breasts, hips and waists, creating an hourglass figure. While they represent notions of ‘ideal beauty’ from western culture, the cast silicone used alludes to plastic surgery and the artificial construction of the body (McCarthy 2022). The materials that create the armoured body with geometric and hard-edged shapes also have industrial connotations in architectural, engineering and building sectors. This contradicts gender norms of the conventional ‘soft’ female body. In creating commanding feminine figures, Bul’s intent of emasculating patriarchal power is demonstrated (Hyesook 2017).

Tianmiao equips a different approach to Bul in her subversion of traditional silk embroidery to oppose domesticity in Badges. Influenced by the household activity of her mother winding thread and sewing, she connects with her childhood memories in her artwork (Smart Museum of Art n.d.). She produces over 60 hoops eembroidered with various American and Chinese derogatory terms for women such as slut, cougar, suonǚ (foxy woman) and jinǚhe (technical girl) (YunFan 2012). It is accompanied with a soundtrack that voices the same terms. The long process of embroidery and the expansive installation also references the history of each slur. Tianmiao collected the words from various traditional dictionaries and had assistants from younger generations to curate a collection of terms that had relevance and demonstrated prevailing gender discrimination in western and eastern societies (YunFan 2012). Her decision to utilise a conventionally feminine technique in a socially confronting piece successfully disbars the domestic implications of working with textiles. As such, Bul and Tianmiao’s material choices unveil their abilities to contemporise and redefine the domesticity of women.

Ultimately, the feminist thinking of Lee Bul’s and Lin Tianmiao’s art practice is revealed in their iconography, materiality, and processes of making. Impacted by their cultural spheres in Korea and China, they signify issues such as reproductive freedom, hybrid depictions of females in art and traditional responsibilities of women while intersecting racial cues. The sustained relevance of the matters discussed in the artworks, including those constructed in the late 1980s and 1990s, continue to expose the stagnated progression of gendered discrimination and discrepancies in contemporary society.

Figure 1: Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989. Performance view, 1st Korea-Japan Performance Festival, Lobby Theater, Dongsoong Art Center, Seoul, October 1989. https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202106/lee-bul-85781

Figure 2: Lin Tianmiao, Mother's!!!, 2008. Polyurea, silk, cotton threads
Dimensions variable. Installation view: Asia Society Museum, New York (2012).

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