Enchanting commodities

Still from Wallpaper 1 by Ed Pien ©Ed Pien

Courtney Barnes has just done a post on Ed Pien’s beautiful and subtly disturbing video works Wallpaper 1 and Wallpaper 2, part of the Sinopticon programme of exhibitions and events in Plymouth exploring responses to China by contemporary artists.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the State Dressing Room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©National Trust Images/J. Whitaker

Looking at Wallpaper 1 and 2 (which I hadn’t seen yet), it occurred to me that Pien seems to be revisiting the sense of enchantment that eighteenth-century viewers must have experienced when confronted by Chinese wallpapers in their original fresh state, with vivid colours and beautifully detailed foliage and figures.

WESSIELING, National-Dress (installation view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London). ©WESSIELING

At a talk at Saltram last week, one of the other artists participating in Sinopticon, WESSIELING, described the surprisingly recent origin and continuing transformation of the cheongsam dress. Based on a male style of dress from the Qing period (1644-1911), the cheongsam was adopted by Chinese women in the 1920s and 1930s as a modern, no-nonsense, almost feminist type of apparel.

Stock figures showing different types of Chinese costume, in Sir William Chamber’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils (1757). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

During the subsequent decades of the twentieth century, however, the cheongsam acquired connotations of exoticism and eroticism, especially in the west – think The World of Suzy Wong. It is still a powerful fashion motif today, occasionally revisited by international couturiers. After being banned by the Comunist Party it has now been adopted as a kind of national dress by the new, post-Maoist China.

Detail from High Priestess Cape, by Grayson Perry, rayon embroidered on satin, 2007. ©Grayson Perry

In her talk WESSIELING discussed the process of commodification whereby cultural motifs such as the cheongsam are marketed to western audiences, are changed and rebranded, and are then sometimes re-adopted by the Chinese with a whole new set of signifiers attached.

Detail from Chinese embroidered silk hangings, early eighteenth century, on the state bed at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

It seems to me that many of the works being shown as part of Sinopticon embody the apparently conflicting processes of enchantment and commodification. Grayson Perry, for instance, highlights the connections between elegance and desire, materialism and sexuality. His works are shown in direct juxtaposition with objects from the core collections of both Saltram and the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Still from Sensing Obscurity I by Erika Tan. ©Erika Tan

Erika Tan’s evocative film Sensing Obscurity I, set at Saltram (but shown at the Plymouth College of Art), includes scenes where a group of male Chinese performers carries out various conservation cleaning tasks, as if the house is a Chinese museum explaining that exotic western phenomenon, the British country house. In other scenes the Chinese wallpaper seems to come alive as female performers in traditional Chinese dress are glimpsed in the darkened rooms of the house.

Conservator handling one of the drawers of the Chippendale-attributed secretaire veneered with Chinese lacquer at Osterley Park, west London. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Hugh Grant makes a cameo appearance in Sensing Obscurity I, in the form of a ghostly image of him playing Edward Ferrars in Ang Lee’s 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Fiction and reality, past and present, east and west, drama and stillness all seem to interact and coalesce.

The last opportunity to see these exhibitions in Plymouth is 7 July.

8 Responses to “Enchanting commodities”

  1. frenzzee Says:

    Pien’s work looks astonishing!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes his flowers look like logos or like jewellery, don’t they? And in the actual video works their movement gives them an eery quality, while at the same time making them look even more exquisite.

  3. style court Says:

    Ah, retro-gendering again. Today, the cheongsam seems so quintessentially feminine (by the way, I think fashion designer Vivienne Tam writes so well about the silhouette), it’s interesting to think that it was once masculine. Australian/Chinese artist, Elise Benjamin, recently interpreted one in a slightly darker, very personal way, like a gorgeous cage (her version was a metal sculpture, though).

    Emile, I love how you mention the enchantment 18th-century viewers must have experienced at first sight of the chinoiserie papers — great juxtaposition with Pien’s work. Really wish I could see all of the installations in person.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes Vivienne Tam’s beautiful essay-cum-collage-album ‘China Chic’ (http://bit.ly/M1JOKT), first published in 2000, really opened my eyes to China as a ‘contemporary’ culture – previously I had always (myopically, of course) seen it as somehow ‘antique’.

    And here is your post including a mention of Elise Benjamin’s restrictive/revealing pierced copper cheongsam: http://bit.ly/N8OQ1T

  5. nostellprioryconservation Says:

    I love the wallpaper in our State Dressing Room too – every single bit is different, it’s breathtaking!
    Ellie

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Ellie, and yes the level of botanical detail is amazing too. Perhaps we can get an expert on Chinese plants to identify all of them one day.

  7. robert Says:

    Sir William Chamber’s book of stock images brings forth a plethora of ideas. Are there modern issues? Many thanks, Robert

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, yes there are, but they are not currently in print and are discouragingly expensive too – have a look on AbeBooks.

    There is also a (much cheaper) facsimile of George Henry Mason and William Alexander’s images of Chinese life, including costumes, reprinted in 1988 as ‘Views of 18th century China’.

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