Mind & Matter


The Power of the Unexpected

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One of the 17 installations in "The Same." Image: Beijing Center for the Arts


A significant but infrequently discussed strategy in the making of art and architecture is the intentional use of surprise. Whether subtle or shocking, surprise is an important method used to awaken the consciousness of the viewer—a strategy that media scholar Marshall McLuhan advocated as a way to make environments perceptible. The architect Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA, once told me that "if there is no surprise with something, it is not real, because it goes unnoticed. It might as well not exist."

Surprise is a central element in Chinese artist Lin Tianmiao's current exhibition at the Beijing Center for the Arts. Entitled "The Same," the installation presents seventeen works of material assemblage, each of which appears to be a colorful, tactile landscape when viewed from a distance. On closer inspection, however, these works elicit deeper meanings revealed through unexpected material details. In some pieces, glimmering objects suspended in fields of threads or tree branches are actually animal bones wrapped in gold foils. In other works, metal structures support synthetic skeletons encased in colorful silks.

According to a gallery statement, the exhibition depicts "the artist’s personal experience of and meditation on human life, sentiment, spiritual world and their relations to nature and the universe; it is a provocative visual display of the suffering, confusion and struggling deep down in our inner world. Everything looks the same if you watch at a distance; and nothing may be the same if you get closer. This seems to be the unavoidable dilemma and inescapable destiny of humanity."

At one level, Tianmiao's introspective works explore issues that are deeply personal to the artist. At another, "The Same" reminds us of the broader applicability of surprise—a strategy which, when executed well, creates a charged experience and constructs an intimate conceptual connection between artist and viewer.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.