Next to them, a circular pond with giant green lotus leaves rising high above the muddy water, where three men crowd around four others seated at a square wooden table. They are in the midst of betting on a game of cricket fighting qiu xing, a traditional game since the Tang Dynasty. Fenced off by a rectangular box, two black crickets battle on a corner while two of the men use hay sticks to provoke them by tickling their sides.
Nearby, on the glass wall of Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art (a former People’s Park greenhouse remodeled by atelier Liu Yugang Architects in 2005) is a five-meter-tall black and white billboard of the iconic model Sasha Pivovarova wearing a Christian Dior spring/summer 1948 haute couture Aventure ensemble, flared back checkered jacket with large folded sleeve. The billboard towers over the men as excitement gathers from the match. Covered in a black suede glove, Ms. Pivovarova’s right hand reaches out, unconsciously executing a basic taijiquan’s push hand maneuver.
“Haute couture gowns possess the unique quality of an objet d’art,” French curator Florence Müller says as she points to an array of framed original sketches by Christian Dior. “Art and fashion starts in the drawings as artists and designers often initiate projects and collections with drawings. Mr. Dior was first an illustrator before becoming a fashion designer.” The sketches include a black crayon outline of the Champs-Élysées model based on the Envol line from the first spring/summer 1947 collection. The Esprit Dior exhibition at Shanghai MOCA showcased the global idea of Dior and its evolution since the founding of the house in February of 1947, in nine themed rooms delineating the house’s legacy.
“Based [on] the idea of the architectural curves and femininity, Dior constructed a silhouette around the bra, waist, and hip,” Müller says of the original 1947 Bar jacket in white, flare hip jacket, and long black skirt. A sequence of mannequins illustrate Dior’s history from a 1954 charcoal classic skirt-suit to a 1961 Yves Saint Laurent tweed coat, a 2007 John Galliano black wool jet bead embroidered skirt suit, and a 2012 Raf Simons reinterpretation of the red 1948 Arizona coat in a longer length and a metal belt done for women today.
A pivot for much of today’s luxury business models, Dior built a gestation of perfumes and accessories in tandem with fashion. Miss Dior perfume debuted in 1947 and Roger Vivier and Salvatore Ferragamo created the souliers in 1953. Victor Grandpierre designed the boxes of Miss Dior rouge lipsticks in 1950 to match the colors of the dresses.
Interspersed among the clothes are the true hidden highlights of the exhibition: the works of Chinese artists inspired by what Dior meant to them. A Christian Bérard-inspired Marya Markina strapless cream hand painted pink triple organza dress from fall/winter 2007 stands in front of an oil on canvas portrait of Dior by Zeng Fanzhi. Zheng Guogu’s To Oxidize 200 Years–Dior, metallic renderings of the iconic fragrance bottles, shares the gallery of toile Bar jackets and suits. Liu Jianhua’s 3,000 teardrop glass bottles float above the Athena gold dress from 1951 (featured in a recent J’adore advertisement). Lin Tianmao’s partial animal sculpture—using the actual atelier scissors and wooden measuring tape and wrapped in gold silk threads—soars in mid-air above a first assistant from the Dior tailleur atelier demonstrating the art of handmade cutting and sewing a shoulder of a jacket as his other hand presses a red leather Lady Dior purse.
“Mr. Dior started as a gallery owner from 1923 to 1930 when a global economic crisis forced him to stop,” says Müller. “He started to do illustrations, first for magazines and then for fashion houses, at the time that would buy design drawings to produce clothes. The collaboration of Dior and Chinese artists is a continuation of a story that started over a decade ago, culminating in the late 2008 exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.”
Since the liberalization of the economy, and the slow shedding of epic carapace of rigid and monopolistic control on visual content over two decades ago, China has witnessed a sprout of a vibrant modern art scene growing from the long shadow of centrally guided propaganda imagery, with public billboards and posters extolling the virtues of socialism in every walk of life.
“Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” was the short-lived campaign in the spring of 1956, created to significantly ease totalitarian control of expressions in culture, art, and literature. Seems a distant past now, considering that prominent Chinese artists have defined a new role for art in their country. A leap forward has transformed China into a hybrid society where new values and old traditions coexist, especially in the mood of new Chinese art.
“By their chosen medium and their ideas, these Chinese artists are connected to the haute couture spirit as they worked between past and present, between tradition and innovation,” the curator says. “Their art has double content, touching on the past but with a vision for today as they make connections with the contemporary world offering critiques of the world we live. Zheng Guogo used indestructible metallic fragrance bottles to fight against time and against the transient icons of commodity culture. Zhang Huan used ash from temples as paint and Liu Jianhua employed Song dynasty techniques to fashion his porcelain sculptures.”
Just off highway G15 in the Songjiang industrial zone, Zhang Huan’s compound resembles a gated manufacturing facility next to a printing plant, more than an artist studio. A parking lot doubles as a full basketball court in the seven building compound. The first houses a series of the silhouettes of Chairman Mao sitting with people around him, made from dried lotus seeds, shells, leaves, Chinese medicine ingredients, and grass. Within the complex, a trolley on train tracks moves raw materials for art production and transportation between the neighboring buildings.
Three passenger train cars recovered from the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake sit idle on the side of a gallery, incense burning in a corner. In an adjacent building, Communist revolutionary war images from the ’30s inspired the carvings on old thick wooden door frames—one of which features young soldiers mixed with enlarged paste black and white photo—resting next to a white General Electric washer and dryer.
“I left behind all the art books when I left Shanghai for New York in the late ’90s and as I returned in 2005, I found a book called The Dictionary of China’s Calligraphy. The book exposed the many different ways of writing the word zhong or ‘center’ in various classical calligraphy styles. I took that as my inspiration,” Zhang Huan explains, while standing in front of a black oil canvas.
Raised in a small village in Anyang, Henan, Zhang Huan began creating performance art, using his own body as canvas. Local photographers, from a short-lived community in Beijing East Village, documented those performances. For the piece “Family Tree” (2000), calligraphers wrote on Huan’s face until it was completely painted black.
“About seven to eight years ago, I found an ash holder in a Shanghai temple. I saw so many people burning incense and put them in the holder. At the time I wondered and asked myself, ‘What is it that brings all the people here?’ They were all outside of the Buddhist temple for more than five hours. ‘What are they doing? What drove them here?’ I walked over to the ash holder where the incense was burning; I realized the materials I needed for my artwork,” Zhang notes on his decision to adopt different materials.
“In China, the fashion has just started to bloom and there are so many fashion designers and artists [who] are drawn and inspired by Dior. Fashion and art are all the same; fashion is part of everyday life and art is in museum for appreciation. In galleries there’s a chair but a chair can be viewed as sculpture as well as just a chair to sit.” Despite having lived abroad, Huang appreciates Chinese culture and the embraces of Buddhism. “Buddhism, first the spirit and cause, is important for me, especially Tibetan Buddhism,” he explains of his large-scale sculptures and paintings of the Buddha.
How has Chinese art changed within the last two decades? Yan Pei-Ming has a theory: “In the beginning there is nothing. Recently there has been a race to catch up as fast as possible. The economic opening here has also created an opening of the mind. Slowly people began to be interested in art and artists begin to do different types of art,” he explains from the terrace of the MoCA.
Born in Shanghai and raised in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Yan Pei-Ming immigrated to France in 1980 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Using big brushes that spread thick and rapid strokes across canvas into monochromatic colors—bold black and white or white and red—Yan painted large size portraits of figures like Mao, Bruce Lee, Buddha and unknowns, a prostitute or a corpse, that play on chiaroscuro effects of abstractions, the subject coming to focus from a distance. “For me the human figure and person [are] very important. Art is a mirror that reflects our times and our society.”
“Because I live in France, I am like a tourist here even though I come very often. Culture here is about the culture of consumption, and in this environment, art is like an alibi. For some people art became a means to accelerate forward,” Yan says of the current vein linking art and luxury products in China. “Art is like buying a handbag for many here.”
Yan’s portrayal of human beings in a spontaneous physical manner reveals the deeds or misdeeds that reside in all of us. “Western art is more about individuals who express themselves. In China there is no emphasis on this individual role in art and it would be impossible to have someone like Van Gogh or Manet because they are individuals that played a large role in defining their epoch.” When I ask him about the commodity culture now taking hold in China, Yan mentions that even artists have become consumers.
The painter muses on the enduring fashion heritage: “[Christian] Dior worked on fundamental forms and very strong basic colors. After many years his work is relevant because it was never about trendy fashion where there is always a game of catching up. Even the most experimental art has a base in traditional techniques and structures. Dior was an artist who eschewed the ephemeral.”
“It is important for me to use the history of Chinese culture, like the old porcelain techniques, to create my work. China has a lot of history in philosophy and literature. More than just copying, history is moved forward to the present, incorporating the history with the contemporary mind set,” Liu Jianhua explains of his primary use of traditional porcelain in his studio at a former factory park in the Putuo District. “Porcelain is very interesting and mysterious because, after 1000 degrees, the ceramic material can transform in a way that people couldn’t imagine. Few artists use ceramic because it is a common material,” he adds, pointing to a wall of blue-sky celadon plates using the same techniques from the longquan fabricants from the Northern Song era. “Today, Chinese artists combine western art approach with the peak of Chinese art and ethics especially from the Zhou Dynasty.”
Liu’s Discordant sculptures of headless female nudes from 1994, with Sun Yatsen jackets and military uniforms, offer a first view on the cultural impact of economic changes in China that creates dissymmetry between allegiances to traditions and to changes. The “Youthful Times” and “Obsessive Memory” series challenge Westerners’ distortions of Chinese-ness by blindly fetishizing the cheongsam as sole representative of Chinese culture.
“I used a gold material for the 3,000 J’adore bottles. The name Dior, in the word ‘or’ in French means gold, and this was why I chose gold to match the theme. The word gold means to advocate human’s desires in all aspects, negative and positive. Gold is glamorous, luxurious, and magical. I wanted to present gold in a beautiful way and what it is like in the dark side,” he remarks, on the genesis of the 3,000 J’adore bottles at MoCA.
Fashion, like art, affects how people think and live. “Look at the state of fashion in local magazines and you can measure how developed a society actually is,” Yan muses. Perhaps one could say the same for art.
The heart of 21st century Chinese art is a symbiosis that is neither East nor West. Fashion follows similar discourses, navigating the appurtenances between culture, history, tradition, and innovation. Engaging Chinese artists like Zhang Huan, Liu Jianhua, and Yan Pei-Ming affirmed Dior’s foundation between fashion, art, heritage, and modernity.