I went into the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at the Met last week whilst in New York with fairly low expectations, because I had pre-show suspicions that the theme had been shoe-horned in to appeal to tourists (lowered still by the lukewarm-ish reviews of the show). Of course though, my own cultural background made the show all the more intriguing.
I was aware of the premise of the show curated by Andrew Bolton. “This exhibition attempts to propose a less politicised and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” reads the introductory wall text. “The show is “not about China per se, but about a collective fantasy of China.” Edward Said. Orientalism. This hard-to-pin-down idea of what is the proper way of appropriating culture. Say no more. I’m there, if not to admire, then certainly to critique.
Entering the lower levels of this vast three floor exhibition the sweeping sounds of Ryuichi Sakamaoto’s soundtrack for The Last Emperor hit me as well as a wall of opulent Manchu robes encased in glass globules alongside examples where Qing dynasty attire have infected Western fashion designers – with Tom Ford’s A/W 2004-5 collection for Yves Saint Laurent taking centre stage. Though the impact of Qing robes can date further back as seen in pieces like a curiously printed shirt by Coco Chanel from the 1920s. It opens with this historical reference as the exhibition maintains it’s one of the primary Chinese references that infect designers.
Then swiftly on, film montages curated by Wong Kar Wai are themed around what is another potent period of inspiration – the early 20th century adoption of the quipao or cheongsam – best expressed in Wong Kar Wai’s films like In the Mood for Love or Eros. Mandarin collared dresses by Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacob’s Louis Vuitton also sit side by side with 1920s-1930s examples of cheongsams.
You wazz through Cultural Revolution-era China – clearly there aren’t enough Western takes on the Mao suit to showcase – and then get transported to Anna May Wong’s role in our first connection with China through Hollywood. Adjoining rooms include dedications to the obvious benchmark collections such as Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 A/W haute couture collection that had Mongol costume mashing up with Qing dynasty or Valentino’s recent special haute couture collection made for a show in Beijing backgrounded by classics like Raise the Red Lantern or Farewell my Concubine. Blue and white porcelain also features heavily as a favoured decorative motif for designers like Roberto Cavalli, Valentino and Rodarte, to use as they wish.
Although certain collections from the late 20th century dominate the exhibition, Bolton does manage to make the point that looking to China for inspiration is something that goes back to a time before 20th century fashion. In another lavish room, an 18th century French silk mantua in the spirit of Western chinoiserie is reflected in a faded mirror as is a brilliantly oddball toile de jouy gown with jutting out hooped skirts from John Galliano’s S/S 03 haute couture collection. Reflected upon, refracted and ultimately re-intepreted – that’s how cultural references are cycled through in fashion – and the exhibition attempts to show this process in its best light.
Where it becomes incredibly impressive is the centre room dedicated mostly to that aforementioned couture collection by Galliano. They sit around a Chinese garden with a projected moon on the ceiling reflected on the water, a reference to the Chinese title of the exhibition – literally “Moon in the Water”. The dramatic lighting makes the beautiful garments hint and glint at you. In fact, Galliano’s work for Dior runs throughout the exhibition as one of the most heightened primary examples of the West looking Eastwards in fashion. That collection was fascinating precisely because the manifestation was borne entirely out of wild imagination. And it’s at that point you begin to forget about all concerns of cultural appropriation.
Another favourite moment has to be the final portion of the exhibition where in amongst perspex bamboo rods, Craig Green’s zen-inspired S/S 15 collection – the one that made everyone cry – dominates. That’s no mean feat for a young British menswear designer. Word on the street is that Anna Wintour asked specifically for Green’s work to be included. That’s heartening to know. Green’s talent deserves to be recognised on this big big stage.
And by the by, the design, layout and arrangement really is fantastic. Stephen Jones’ head dresses for the mannequins in particular really elevated it all.
But… and there is a but. You leave with some what if’s. The way the exhibition skirted around the idea of appropriation was as polite as most of the attendees at the Met Ball. Beautiful? Yes. Risk-taking in terms of its critique. Perhaps not. In essence, the show writes itself out of any responsibility to represent Chinese attire in historic and accurate fashion as we’re invited to pass a non-judgemental and celebratory gaze over the garments on show. But where does that leave the treatise on Orientalism? What is the curator saying critically about this tendency that pervades fashion to “exoticise” the East? To better illustrate the point of seeing China through the Western designer’s eye, you could bring in examples of work inspired by other parts of Asia, namely Japan – arguably a far larger influence on Western designers than China. This would point to a cultural malaise that does infect the Western eye when appropriating “Asian” culture – that crossovers and misunderstanding can often occur. If the exhibition had retained its original title, “Chinese Whispers” it certainly would have helped to delve deeper into the “misunderstanding” part of the exhibition.
On the other hand, you wonder whether cultural appropriation deserves to be lambasted in the first place where China is concerned. Adopting the mandarin collar or embroidering a dragon on a dress is not necessarily on the same level of cultural denigration as say wearing a feathered headdress from Native American culture at a festival. When I went a second time with Steve on Sunday, I was surrounded by a throng of Chinese tourists. You could overhear their comments of approval and fascination with the subject at hand. Dresses by Rodarte or Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium collection were largely alien to them but their fantasised familiarity made for pretty and positive viewing.
As it stands, Andrew Bolton and his team have succeeded at spectacularly showcasing the sumptuous visions of “Cathay” (as China was once known) conjured up by mostly Western designers, framed by superb exhibition design and film clips that present a smorgasbord of fantasy. For better or for worse, they assert our collective imagination of women looking sensual and demure in qui-paos, beautiful brides in red and dashing men flying about in kung fu movies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when those images are created by Chinese people themselves (most of the directors of the films mentioned are Chinese). In fact, the whole exhibition could be the equivalent of watching one of those visually rich films. You’re seeing imagination at work as opposed to authenticity being dictated.