Material Histories

Written by Paolo Acuna

The influence of the post-modernist art movement is reflected in the supremacy of the concept. The artist is in some aspects an agent of the concept that in turn effects the physical, that is to say, the stuff: paper, paint, canvas or ink. The artist’s role as a creator is therefore inseparable from the chosen materiality. Conversely, the act of choosing materials, of working with materials and the limitations and possibilities afforded by the material are central to the physical reality of an artist’s practice. Materials also exist not only as the metaphorical or proverbial clay to be moulded by the hand of the artists but also in its own physical reality in the world. Materials have their own history. To choose a material is also to choose to be a part of the history of how this material has been used by other artists, and in choosing to join this discourse an artist is making a choice that places them within this history. This discussion paper will attempt to carve a niche that would link the Australian artist Lindy Lee with the ancient tradition of working with paper and in bronzes that extends back to the aptly named Bronze Age in China in 2000 BC, and the Chinese artist based in the United States Cai Guo-Qiang with gunpowder age that saw China develop gunpowder technologies centuries before it emerged in the West. It will also make reference to the personal histories of these artists and how this interweaves with the material histories of gunpowder, bronze, paper, and ink through a discussion of their respective practices and selected artworks.


Lindy Lee is a contemporary Asian artist practicing in Australia. Lee was born in Brisbane to parents who had migrated to Australia from China in response to the political situation at the time and the rise of the Communism. Originally a painter who studied at Chelsea School of Art in London and Sydney College of Arts in Sydney her practice has expanded into a variety of media including works on paper, installation, sculpture and bronze. Lee’s cultural background and identity as an Australian of Chinese heritage bears an influence on the themes she explores within her practice which include the ideas behind the Eastern philosophical and religious studies of Buddhism and Taoism as well as Asian Australian identity (Lee 2020). This is relevant to the scope of my discussion paper as Lee’s cultural and spiritual identity informs her work in bronze not only as a material with links to Chinese artisans but as conceptual foundations for her work. For example, Buddhist notions of interconnectedness between the self and the universe are incorporated in her large-scale sculptural work ‘The Life of Stars’ at Art Gallery of South Australia where the internal emptiness and circular form and repeated perforations were influenced by the idea of Indra’s Net from the Arthava Veda that is a metaphor for various Buddhism ideas including emptiness, and interpenetration which is the idea that all phenomenon contain all other phenomenon and are interconnected and exists within itself infinitely (AGSA 2018).

Cai Guo-Qiang is a contemporary Asian artist based in New York. His work spans across various materials and media including installation, video, drawing, painting and gunpowder that he utilises in performance based ephemeral works such as
Fallen Blossom: Explosion Project (2009) at Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cai was born in China during the Cultural Revolution and experienced the cultural upheaval of this time in history firsthand. His father was a calligrapher and traditional painter. The artist studied stage design at Shanghai Theatre Academy between 1981 to 1985 where he was exposed to theatre, interactive practice and Western Art practices such as oil painting (Cai 2008). His early work draws on abstraction and utilises oil painting and gunpowder. There are often references to Maoist as well as Taoist concepts in his work that reflect his early experiences and upbringing and his practice also draws on and raises questions about politics, symbols and narratives in Chinese culture (Cai 2005).

Material Histories

Both Lindy Lee and Cai Guo-Qiang are members of diaspora communities. These artists share a cultural heritage as they are both Chinese. This shared heritage is reflected in the choice of materials with which they have engaged throughout their career and practice.

Lindy Lee’s practice began with works on paper. Lee was interested in the way in which the materiality of the paper is transformed by the process of photocopying whereby an image is reproduced. More specifically, in the nature of the reproduction process itself where the copy becomes an artefact with its own distinct characteristics after the fact. An example of this is a work made in 1985 titled Untitled (After Jan van Eyck) where the surface of the paper develops a unique, almost densely crowded, powdery quality reminiscent of moth wings. The resulting image also is imperfect and unpredictable (Lee 2021). This engagement with paper is a fascinating and new way of working with an object that has been used for millennia. Paper in the form by which it is recognisable today was invented in China during the 2nd century CE by Cai Lin who was at the time employed as the director of the Imperial Workshops. At this time, the process to create paper was laborious and involved the pressing and soaking of plant and wooden fibres in water and drying this pulp on bamboo stretchers for extended periods in the sun. The outcome would be individually mottled sheets unique in their grain quality (Cartwright 2017). Lindy Lee’s early work engaged with paper not as a means to an end but as a material with its own unique and idiosyncratically attractive material qualities: the paperiness of the thing itself (Lee 2017). In a way Lee subverts Heidegger’s theory of things in that in this case the thingness of the object did not present itself when it stopped functioning but rather asserts itself to a new relationship interactive with the person - in this case the artist Lindy Lee - by its pre-industrialist product qualities: that which might have been present in the 2nd century, namely its capacity to be unpredictable. As a unique object that exists independent of its function. The process of rendering reproductions of art, and the materialist preoccupation of things preceding ideas are both concepts well situated within modernism, however Lee’s engagement with paper (not least as a Chinese artist whose practice is preoccupied with questions of heritage and Chinese philosophies) places her further back in the material history of this paper, right at the beginning but also at the cutting-edge.

The tradition of working in bronze began in China in 1700 BC and continued well into the Iron Age. The use of bronze in China at this time was not limited to primitive functions as tools or weaponry but also in the creation of vessels and objects utilised in religious, courtly and state rituals. Bronze objects were integral to rituals of ancestor worship and were also symbols of class and power amongst Emperors and members of their court. Bronze vessels such as cups and goblets were used in ancestor worship rituals and were often carved with symbols and inscriptions relating to these practices. Bronze was not only a symbol of prestige but also represents the degree of culture that this society exhibited (Weatherhead East Asia Institute 2014). The sophistication evidenced in the bronze artefacts from this period relates a tradition of working within this materiality that is continued in the work of Lindy Lee whose own practice revolves around similar Taoist traditions of ancestor worship whereby the ancestor is the link between the person and the universality represented by Heaven or Tiān (Lee 2017). Lee’s works in bronze such as Forming Like a Single Dew Drop engages with Taoist and Zen Buddhist notions of spirituality and her Chinese heritage. This artwork is created through the act of throwing molten bronze onto the foundry floor. The randomness generated by the gesture is inherent to the final outcome of the sculpture which in itself relates to the concept of Heaven or eternity in the Taoist tradition, in that the moment of the gesture is alive within the eternity of the still sculpture: like a single dew drop existing within the eternity of universe the moment is captured by artist where now meets forever. The way Lee engages with bronze is dynamic and original while continuing traditions of the use of this material that extend as far back as 1700 BC.

Gunpowder is considered as one of the Four Great Inventions of China. Its base chemical had been used by Chinese healers and chemists for centuries prior to the discovery of its incendiary properties in the 9th century BCE whereafter it was employed in warfare. Later it was used in community-based traditions of celebration and gathering such as marking the event of the birth of a baby, or conversely, of a funeral, and marriages, homecomings and to celebrate the building of a new home (Cai 2014). In China gunpowder has functioned in the intervening millennia as an accepted quotidian aspect of life: from the political where it has been used by the Communist party in the 20th and 21st century at the opening of formal speeches; the everyday, such as yearly Chinese New Year
Celebrations marked with fireworks; and in warfare such as in arrow launchers and gunpowder pots (Hoffman et al 2018).

The artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s practice has developed from paintings and murals to performance-based works utilising gunpowder. The material is used within his practice as a drawing medium and in conceptual works where the artist stages controlled visual explosions. In an interview published in 2008 titled ‘Interview with Cai Guo-Qiang on the eve of his retrospective: “I am eternally optimistic; I am Chinese”’ the artist relates how he is drawn to the material as it interlinks with his own personal history as in his childhood fireworks were used to mark celebrations (Cai 2014). Cai also engages with the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the material. In the same interview he relates that his use of gunpowder was a reaction to the stifling political condition at that time and his aim was to utilise the unpredictability of the material to generate spontaneity within this political paradigm (Cai 2008). In this way the artist is working within this material and with its essential nature to confront ideas of social upheaval and the Communist politics of his country of birth. Cai draws on the histories of this material both personally and more widely as an integral part of his art practice. The potential volatility, political undertones and links to childhood memories of fireworks is exemplified in the artwork Fallen Blossoms Project that Cai Guo-Qiang staged at the Philadelphia Museum of Contemporary Art in 2009.

The artists Lindy Lee and Cai Guo-Qiang are two of the most prominent and exciting artists working today. Their work encompasses sculpture, painting, performance, drawings and moves between such dynamic media as firework drawings, molten bronze sculpture, potentially explosive books and arrestingly beautiful, mirrored sculptures interwoven with light as if from within. While it is important from an observer’s perspective to note the exhilarating visuals Lee and Cai create through their practice, it is in their engagement with materials in idiosyncratic and honest ways; where they bring their own histories and preoccupations; as well as drawing on the intrinsic traditions of the materials in which they work, that their art really shines.

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