The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China

Reconfigured presentation: July 24–August 9, 2020

Since the 1980s, artists working in China have experimented with various materials, transforming seemingly everyday objects into large-scale artworks. These artists have exploded fireworks into paintings, felted hair into gleaming flags, stretched pantyhose into monochromatic paintings, deconstructed old doors and windows to make sculptures, and even skillfully molded porcelain into gleaming black flames.

Artists continue to explore and develop this creative mode, with some devoting decades of their practice to experiments with a single material. For the first time, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China brings together works in which conscious material choice has become a means of the artists’ expression, representing this unique trend throughout recent history. The exhibition features 48 two- and three-dimensional works made from a range of unique and humble materials. 

Reconfigured Chicago Presentation

In its original Chicago presentation, scheduled for February 7–May 3, 2020 but closed on March 14, 2020 due to COVID-19, the exhibition was divided into two halves, taking up the entire footprints of the Smart Museum of Art on the South Side and Wrightwood 659 on the North Side. The consolidated presentation at the Smart Museum in summer 2020 features a handful of works originally shown at Wrightwood 659. 

Exhibition website

The companion website offers a wealth of digital content that builds upon the exhibition—including virtual tours, original interviews, at-home activities, online programs, and behind-the-scenes videos and photos.


Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Gu Dexin, gu wenda, He Xiangyu, Hu Xiaoyuan, Huang Yong Ping, Jin Shan, Liang Shaoji, Lin Tianmiao, Liu Jianhua, Liu Wei, Ma Qiusha, Shi Hui, Song Dong, Sui Jianguo, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Wang Jin, Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhan Wang, Zhang Huan, Zhang Yu, and Zhu Jinshi.


The exhibition is accompanied by the first scholarly volume to examine Chinese art through the lens of materiality. The book features full color reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, artist profiles, and new essays that draw connections between Chinese art and the role of materials in global histories of art and contemporary practice. Available summer 2019. Published by the Smart Museum of Art and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. 

National tour

Top: Xu Bing, 1st Class, 2011, 500,000 “1st Class” brand cigarettes, spray adhesive, and carpet. Installation view at the Smart Museum of Art. Art © Xu Bing Studio.

Above: Chen Zhen, Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body, 2000, Crystal, glass, and metal. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.