China was, and will always be, in its heart of hearts, an empire — whether it is royal, revolutionary, or techno-bureaucratic-communist-cum-capitalist. First and foremost this is what China Through the Looking Glass — possibly the largest show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s history comprised of 140 pieces from the 1700s to now — celebrates in its gorgeous, over-the-top, utterly fabulous way. Though more discretely billed as part of the department of Asian Art’s centenary that includes nineteen exhibitions and installations in over fifty galleries of Asian Art throughout the year, this is the centenary’s most splashy, killer app. Andrew Bolton from the museum’s Costume Institute (formerly of the Victoria and Albert Museum) explains the show is about “the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion.” The exhibit showcases, among other things, a collaboration and bromance between Bolton and Wong Kar Wai, a Hong Kong Second Wave filmmaker who won the 1997 best director film award at Cannes for his film Happy Together, a love story about a pair of gay expatriates living in Buenos Aires. Wong also presided as president of the jury at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, bestowing on him some serious cinematic chops. Also included in the exhibition’s mix is production designer Nathan Crowley, known for his work on the movies Interstellar and The Dark Knight.
If you start at the lowest level (the show is dispersed throughout the Chinese Galleries and the lower level Anna Wintour Costume Center) you are immediately surrounded by a darkened video tunnel flanked on either side by two wall-sized projections of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 multi Oscar winning film The Last Emperor, accompanied by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s yearning, nostalgic soundtrack.
The video terminal leads up to, like the Wizard of Oz, a presentation of the authentic, yellow imperial festival robe of the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) Henry Pu Yi, worn when he was a mere four years old. This mis-en-scene introduces the aptly titled theme of the show “Through the Looking Glass” derived from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where Alice dives through the mirror into a made-up world. Both Bolton and Wong note the aura of fantasy is “far from authentic,” but instead of dispelling typical Orientalist stereotypes and dealing with racial, gender, and power imbalances, the curator and his various collaborators have decided to embrace them to the hilt. As viewers ensconced in this worldview, the show is so well put together you might as well go along for the ride.
Imperial robes are paired with Western haute couture, with enormous mirrors constantly playing a trickster role. Some of the robes on display are stitched with the twelve imperial symbols worn by Chinese emperors. The British milliner Stephen Jones was commissioned by the museum to commit a royal court taboo by riffing off these symbols with his modern headpieces for the mannequins.
A Chinese artist friend from Beijing gave me a bit of needed cultural perspective, saying the show was for people who knew nothing about China, or for ex-pat Chinese who had not been back to the mainland for 30 years. For mainland residents the show is just a display of China’s myth of itself, which means the show contained no surprises for her, though she was happy to see Western people enjoying themselves, and proud of the respectful presentations.
It’s not just the imperial empires that are represented, it’s also the other modern dynasties that followed including the Republic of China (1912–49) and The People’s Republic of China (1949–present). The Shanghai films from the 1920s to the 1940s play a big role as clips from notable Chinese directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Ang Lee, and of course Wong Kar Wai are looped again and again, representing “women of style” like Hu Di (Butterfly Wi) Oei Huilan and Soong Mei-Ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek). I saw a number of elderly Chinese stare at the film clips in awe and wonder, surprised to see moments of their youth flash by on huge LED screens inside a Western museum.
The modern qipao or cheongsam, a type of dress derived from imperial robes and styled with a more modern ideology was a fashion beacon mostly before World War II. The dress was most exemplified by Paramount Studios costume designer Travis Banton in his dress for Chinese actress Anna May Wong’s role in the 1934 potboiler film, Limehouse Blues.
Situated in the Met’s calligraphy gallery are two simple dresses from the early 1950s, one by Coco Chanel and the other by Christian Dior. The fabric, covered in Chinese calligraphy is actually, and hilariously about someone’s dyspeptic digestive issues.
Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, first exported into the West in the 16th century was later ‘reorientalized’ by the Chinese themselves. Guo Pei, the designer who created the much maligned and celebrated “Rihanna dress” for the Costume Institute Gala has her blue-and-white, porcelain-inspired dress situated next to those by Roberto Cavalli, Alexander McQueen, Giambattista Valli, Galliano, Valentino, and Rodarte. As if to ratchet the porcelain metaphor up a notch, Red Gate Gallery’s Li Xiaofeng shows his actual porcelain piece, “The Weight of the Millenium,” a contemplation, as he put it in a mailing sent by his gallery in Beijing, on the emergence of the Mongol Yuan capital Khanbalik as a “blue snake that has been hibernating for a millennium,” saying the porcelain shards represent the “splendor once crushed … (and) illusions flowing with sorrow!”
The Met’s Ming dynasty-inspired Astor Court with its scholar’s garden is the most jaw-dropping installation in the show. Nathan Crowley created a moonlit oasis with a gigantic moon projected on the ceiling and reflected back in a pond of water, surrounded by seven mannequins wearing his spring 2003 Christian Dior Haute Couture Collection and Maison Martin Margiela repurposed costumes, a combination of a fantasy of Beijing opera, the Queen Mother of England, and Kabuki style ideals all inspired by the performances of the renown Chinese opera performer Mei Langfang.
In another gallery, a special bamboo garden of 20-foot high Perspex plexiglass rods lights from the bottom with LED lights to create a simulated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon effect. In the installation, martial arts-inspired figures show British menswear designer Craig Green’s spring 2015 collection.
The People’s Republic of China will always be equated with the Zongshan suit, which actually came from Sun Yat-sen, but is known as the Mao suit, after Chairman Mao Zedong. It is the embodiment of utopian ideals and the last type of clothing that screams China. Mao and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing with her kitschy Red Guard ballets spawned the art of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), inspiring Andy Warhol, now revered in China, to print paintings of Mao in 1972, right after Richard M. Nixon visited China. That act ultimately resulted in Warhol’s rather anonymous 1982 visit to China. The photo of Mao he used came from the 1964 portrait ensconced in the Little Red Book, and inspired Zhang Honglu to print his own Chairman Mao series, of which I have seen gracing the fabric on people’s couches in Beijing. For her 1995 spring/summer collection, designer Vivienne Tam used Zhang’s images to make a dress pulsating with Mao’s images.
If you go along with the fantasy and the spectacular theatrical effects, and the notion of museum as Alice in Wonderland meets Disneyland with a dollop of nostalgia, you will have a fine time at this gorgeous show. If you are going for anything smacking of critical inquiry, take a raincheck.
China Through the Looking Glass continues at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 16.