Toward an Aesthetic of Surfaces
Like Alice’s make-believe world, the China reflected in the examples of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear fashions in this catalogue and related exhibition is a fictional, fabulous invention, offering an alternate reality with a dreamlike illogic. Its fanciful imagery, which combines Eastern and Western stylistic elements, belongs to the tradition and practice of chinoiserie, a style that emerged in the late seventeenth century and reached its pinnacle in the mid-eighteenth century. Within the conventions and trajectory of chinoiserie, China is a site on which historically changing fears and desires are projected. As a style, it belongs to the broader tradition and practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as the Eurocentric predilection to essentialize Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.
While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of “subordinated otherness” outlined by Said, China: Through the Looking Glass attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a locus of infinite and unbridled creativity. Through careful juxtapositions of Western fashions and Chinese costumes and decorative arts, this catalogue presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. As these comparisons demonstrate, China has proved a source of continual inspiration and reinvigoration for Western fashion. Far from being dismissive or disrespectful of its peoples and customs, Western designers have invariably looked to China with honorable intentions, to learn from both its artistic and cultural traditions. Instead of relating Orientalism to modes of power and knowledge, this catalogue relates it to concepts of cultural exchange and mutual understanding.
There is a tonic effect in the placement of Western fashions alongside Chinese costumes and decorative arts. Mutually enlivening and mutually enlightening, the resulting visual or aesthetic dialogues encourage new mimetic and referential readings that are based on subjective rather than objective assessments. As observers and active participants, we are forced to exercise our imaginative capacities, for the China that unfolds before our eyes is a China “through the looking glass,” one that is cultur- ally and historically decontextualized. Freed from settings, past and present, the objects in this catalogue and in the exhibition galleries begin to speak for and between themselves. A narrative space opens up that is constantly being reorganized by free associations. Meanings are endlessly negotiated and renegotiated. As if by magic, the psychological distance between the East and the West, spanning worldviews that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. So too does the association of the East with the natural and the authentic, and the West with the cultural and the simulacrum. As these binaries dissolve and disintegrate, the notion of Orientalism is disentangled from its connotations of Western domination and discrimination. Instead of silencing the other, Orientalism becomes an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross- cultural communication and representation.
Cinema often serves as a conduit for this reciprocal exchange between the East and the West. Frequently, film is the principal—and certainly the most compelling and seductive—lens through which contemporary designers encounter Chinese imagery, and this volume explores the impact of movies in shaping their fantasies. The China of cinema is, of course, a phantasmagoria of make-believe stories and characters located in an elsewhere of endless possibility. Even films that are based on real-life people and events reflect the personal perspectives (and prejudices) of their creators. This invented, imaginary China is not the exclusive preserve of Hollywood. Chinese directors, especially those belonging to the so-called “Fifth Generation,” such as Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, depict the nation as both illusory and indistinct. Indeed, their films, aimed at an international audience, can be interpreted as an extension of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese export art in their negotiation of internal/introverted views of China (romanticized national history) and external/extroverted views (exoticized national history). Thus, the China portrayed in the haute couture and ready-to-wear fashions in this publication are doubly removed from reality and actuality.
Mediated by such cinematic representations, the conversations in China: Through the Looking Glass attempt to reimagine the relationship between the East and the West not as one-sided mimicry or appropriation, but rather as a layered series of enfolded exchanges.
Evening dress, autumn/ winter 2004- 5, presented by Yves Saint Laurent (French, founded 1961) and designed by Tom Ford (American, born 1961), yellow silk satin embroidered with polychrome plastic sequins. courtesy of Yves Saint Laurent Dress, spring/...
House of Givenchy (French, founded 1952). Alexander Mcqueen (British, 1969-2010). Chopines, autumn/winter 1997 haute couture. Black silk satin embroidered with polychrome silk thread. courtesy of Alexander Mcqueen