Yin Xiuzhen: ‘Each piece of clothing brings with it the wearer’s spirit’

Yin Xiuzhen has never been one to limit herself. The acclaimed artist, who is represented in the UBS Art Collection, has consistently experimented with materials and techniques to create her own artistic vocabulary. By turns monumental and delicate, Yin’s sculptures and installations often employ disparate found items to explore themes of memory, globalization, and individual and collective experience.

In this short video introducing her approach to art, the Beijing-based artist explains one of the most distinctive hallmarks of her work, the use of worn clothes as an artistic material. For her, clothing is imprinted with the unique histories of its wearers, making it an ideal material for artworks which act as repositories for memory and cultural identity. “Once worn,” she believes, “each piece of clothing brings with it the wearer’s spirit, his or her experiences, memories, and their unique life values, a treasure trove of stories.”

Clothing also possesses a particular significance for Yin, whose childhood in 1970s Beijing was marked by frugality. “Each person would be allocated a certain number of [fabric] coupons,” she recalls, “thus we could only make new clothes for Chinese New Year… Clothing was precious, and we wore them until they turned into torn pieces of fabric, and even then, we would still use them as cleaning cloths. That’s how we truly maximized textiles.”

It is apt that her artistic career has allowed her to continue extending the life of textiles in an age of fast fashion when these values have been lost. “Today, many people treat them as trash and discard them at will,” she says. “This also makes me reflect upon these issues, and how my practice incorporates elements of sustainability through the act of upcycling clothing.” In fact, Yin was one of the first major artists in China to create work in response to environmental concerns: in her 1995 performance work, Washing River, she invited members of the public to assist her in washing frozen cubes of polluted water from a river in Chengdu.

In Wall Instrument No. 27, 2019–2021, recently acquired by the UBS Art Collection, Yin combines used textiles with ceramics. Characteristically, this series of works arose from an act of experimentation. After visiting Jingdezhen, home of a 1000-year-old Chinese porcelain production tradition, Yin decided to disrupt established techniques by introducing metals and found objects, “resulting in two materials wrestling with each other.” She relished the unpredictability of the process as cracks and imperfections arose organically, allowing her to stuff worn textiles – with all the rich associations these carry for her – into the fractures. “Just like that, it was like a human soul was growing inside it once again, offering it life.”

Yin intends to continue experimenting: “I don’t think I want to limit myself to a certain kind of medium. I originally studied oil painting, and then found myself in performance art, before moving on to other forms and I think even in the future, I still won’t constrain myself to a certain type of work.”

UBS is the lead partner of the 8th edition of the West Bund Art & Design Fair held at the West Bund Art Center, Shanghai, from 11 to 14 November 2021. Yin’s work will be exhibited as part of ‘Reimagining: New Directions,’ a special presentation of newly acquired artworks from the UBS Art Collection uniting some of the most exciting Chinese artists today. The display will feature works by Yin Xiuzhen, Ma Qiusha, Chen Wei, Liu Ren, Shi Guowei and Yang Guangnan, part of a generation that came of age in a rapidly changing China in the era following economic reform. Viewed together, the works suggest new artistic directions and connections.