Lin Tianmiao Helps Women Reclaim the Nasty Names They’ve Been Called In New Exhibition

Photo: Galerie Lelong

It’s rare in an art gallery setting that visitors are allowed to touch the work, and it’s even rarer that they’re encouraged to walk on it in their fresh-from-the-sidewalk shoes. But Lin Tianmiao’s “Protruding Patterns,” which will be on display at New York’s Galerie Lelong until October 21, is a welcome exception to traditional rules. The installation transforms the white-walled gallery into a sea of lush, patterned carpeting that bears thick wool embellishments in tones of red, orange, and pink. At first glance, these soft adornments look like amorphous blobs, but upon closer examination, you’ll find that they are in fact words and phrases from various cultures and languages, including English and Mandarin. Not just any random words, though, they’re words almost exclusively used to describe women. Think “prostitute,” “hoe,” “femme fatale,” “bimbo,” “super mom,” “bad bitch,” and “leftover woman.” They are scarlet letters that you, or women you know, have probably borne at some point.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition—this inviting environment filled with soft portraits of hard words. Walking through the maze of loaded language was, for me, a surprisingly overwhelming and emotional experience, despite the fact that I was there during the opening, when the gallery was swarming with lively conversations and casual selfie-taking. First came the ugly realization that every language in the world has names for different “types” of women, a symptom of the fact that a variety of otherwise diverse cultures are guilty of treating women as objects to be labeled and classified. Then, there was the feeling of being physically surrounded by manifestations of the stereotypes that have been responsible for boxing me and the women around me in. This could have made me feel claustrophobic, but instead, it made me feel strangely empowered.

Art like Tianmiao’s allows us, as women, to begin to reclaim these stereotypes by inviting us to interact with them physically. It’s worth noting that not all of the names on the carpet are necessarily negative—phrases like “beauty queen,” “goddess,” and “super mom” are ostensibly compliments. But they’re still traps. They represent the tools of thought employed by a patriarchal society—many patriarchal societies, in fact—of limiting, in both our own minds and in the minds of others, who we are and who we’re allowed to become. The ability to reckon on your own terms with the forces that have quietly affected the way you are perceived in the world is a gift that cannot be overstated.

And while the subject matter is serious, there’s also something kind of funny about Tianmiao’s creation. This makes sense, given that for many people, a big part of reclaiming something is often learning how to laugh at it. The stylish beauty of the work, which sees the gallery transformed into something between an impossibly clean opium den and an ABC Carpet and Home-fueled design daydream, begs to be Instagrammed, and this, too, goes a long way in terms of fostering an environment for reclamation. A quick scan of the gallery’s geotag shows that many women, myself included, have selected certain words, perhaps with a kind of twisted personal significance, to share with their followers. While this documentary behavior is pretty typical, sharing a word that’s been historically used to diminish you is an important step in overcoming the effect that the word has had on your self-esteem.

I focused in on the word “hoe,” partially because I thought it was amusing—in my experience, it’s typically been spelled sans the “e”, which brings to mind a gardening tool more than it does a sexually promiscuous woman. But I also selected it because it represents a genre of words—slut, skank, whore, etc.—that felt particularly hurtful and grating when applied to a younger me. Like most women, I’ve been bullied for supposed sexual promiscuity, and, like many women, I used to laugh it off while silently wondering if, in fact, my worth as a person was somehow directly correlated to how many dudes my peers thought I’d “done it” with. Of course, in my heart, I knew it wasn’t, but these words still held a strange power over me, like verbal boogeymen that could pop up at any time and expose me.

Tianmiao, who was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, is, at age 51, considered one of the first female artists from China to achieve international recognition. Textiles, including silk, cotton, thread, felt, and even human hair, are her materials of choice, a nod to time spent spooling cotton at the behest of her mother as a young girl, as well as the stereotypical feminine nature of these elements. “Protruding Patterns” isn’t Tianmiao’s first time rendering these kinds of words. In 2012, for example, she sewed them inside large versions of traditional embroidery frames, hanging them from the ceiling of the same gallery. But Tianmiao is widely known to eschew the label of “feminist artist” due to the fact that feminism is a concept that emerged from an entirely different social, cultural, and political context than Tianmiao’s own. This isn’t to say, of course, that she doesn’t believe in the tenets feminism or project them through her work, but it does mean that she comes from a culture where such a movement doesn’t really exist. Which makes her and her work that much more impressive.

“I don’t think there is any feminism in China,” Tianmiao told The Culture Trip in 2013. “Mao said that women hold up half the sky but we have not reached that level. Look at the photos of the party congress—there are no women! My own feminism is from a basic instinct. I believe as women we have to get stronger by ourselves.”

It’s this same basic instinct that has propelled the feminist movement forward for generations, that makes us inherently aware of being more than the names we’re called or the boxes we’re placed in, even as we’re resentful of being placed in them. And while touching, sharing a picture of, or even just taking the time to reflect on the significance of “beauty queen” or “witch” or “hoe with an e” is a small gesture in the grand scheme of revolutionary acts, it’s certainly a start down the path of getting stronger by ourselves.