To­ward an Aes­thetic of Sur­faces

China Pictorial (English) - - Culture Books - Text by An­drew Bolton

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

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