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If the cardboard boxes and discarded trash stuck in every New York City gutter is any indication, paper is something the modern world generally takes for granted. But there was a time, many, many years ago (think before 22 AD) when paper was a product of privilege, its use reserved for a specific few. Exploring that concept within the context of China’s history is artist Chen Qiulin, with her latest installation at LA’s Hammer Museum, 14,235.
Paper folding and paper cutting (zhezhi and jianzhi, respectively) became popular after Cai Lun, a Chinese political official, made paper widely accessible by standardizing its production. Before Lun, if you wanted to write on something in China, you used silk (expensive) or bamboo (heavier than a Kindle). But Lun had a genius idea to use lighter, cheaper things, like tree bark, fishing nets, as well as hemp and cloth refuse. In addition to changing the product, he also changed the process, suspending felted sheets of fiber in water that was then drained out and the sheet left to dry. Voila. Paper.
It was a veritable boon, and the Chinese began to use paper for decoration and ceremonial uses, as well as an average antiquated time killer in the days before video games. Zhezi and jianzhi could entertain a person for hours—insomuch as balloon animals might. From swans, elephants, saber tooth tigers, you were only limited by your imagination and the deftness of your fingertips.
In the last twenty years, arts and crafts around the world have taken a hit, with more simple real world activities superseded by smartphones, virtual reality, and Angry Birds. The shift is documented in Qiulin’s 14,235, in which she renders geometric crystal-like structures in the tradition of zhezhi but in porcelain. Piled in clumps on the gallery floor, a dying tradition takes some sort of permanence, perhaps in the hopes of holding onto to an ephemeral history in the face of its demise.
Images courtesy of the Hammer Museum.