A farming scene, drawn intricately with incense ash found in Buddhist temples. A dark metal pillar, acting as a canvas above a pool of water. And at first glance, a 36-foot-long tiger skin rug—an illusion created by hundreds of thousands of carefully placed cigarettes.
These are just a few of the artworks displayed in The Allure of Matter, hosted by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art and Wrightwood 659. Conceived by Prof. Wu Hung, the new exhibition marks a public introduction to “material art,” or caizhi yishu—a term he coined to distill a four-decade-long trend of artistic development in China.
One of the world’s leading experts in contemporary Chinese art, Wu uses the new concept to shift art scholarship from a historical, cultural or political framework to something more fundamental: The materiality of the art itself. From silk to human hair to melted plastic, The Allure of Matter highlights the ways that artists express themselves through a specific medium.
“Art is always part of politics, so to speak; that part is true,” said Wu, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History. “But I feel that artists—first, they want to create interesting works.”
The result is the Smart Museum’s largest exhibition ever, one that spreads 48 pieces between the UChicago campus and Wrightwood 659’s four-story building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Taking up the full gallery footprint of both sites, this joint show is the largest of four stops on a national tour—one which began last summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will continue later this year at the Seattle Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
Wu advises even those who saw the LACMA exhibition, which closed last month, to visit The Allure of Matter in a different setting: “In Chicago’s spaces, the works will become more intimate.”