Young artists don’t lean on Chinese identity

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/20 19:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Last week during men's Fashion Week in New York, I met partners Li Haoran and Qu Siying, designers for the fashion brand "Private Policy." Their work was among a dozen cutting edge brands chosen for an opening showcase at the funky Dune Studios in downtown Manhattan. The show featured handsome male models clad in skin tight swim shorts. Wine and coconut juice flowed, and guests dressed in all sorts of deliberate and artistic mismatches.

I am not a fashion expert. But the duo still surprised me, not by what their works are but by what they are not. If you try to find Chinese characteristics in them as one often expects from Chinese artists, you will be disappointed.

Yes, until two years ago, the designers were international students from China at Pratt Institute. They have full Chinese names and they have Chinese faces. But those were basically the only Chinese factors in that showroom. Their displays, under the theme "Trinkets," were meant to remind the viewers of the triviality of everyday life. Traditional Indian totem patterns and ubiquitous plastic shopping bags all found their way into the designers' collection. 

Li and Qu said they want to fuse the New York downtown style with worldwide social issues from climate change to slave labor in Southeast Asia. Their goal is not to produce beautiful clothes but to make statements with their designs. They work with a multi-racial team. In the two years since their brand was launched, it has landed in boutiques in New York and Los Angeles, as well as in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

When I asked them about Chinese characteristics, Li said as Chinese artists they don't have to consider that particularly because it is in their DNA. They added, "It might be better to translate the cultural influence into a universal language rather than forcing other people to accept Tang suits."

This was not the first time I had met young Chinese artists who don't emphasize their Chinese identity in their works. Indeed, at another show that morning, designer Edison Lu, who came to the US from Taiwan after high school, told me he doesn't like to use Chinese symbols in his works. His To Be Thrill collection includes suits he designed for his childhood best friend Mike Ho, a popular Taiwanese actor. The suits were inspired by a few TV series starring Ho.

Nicole Zhao, the New York manager of the namesake brand of Chinese designer Lan Yu, said at a forum in May that to make the products look "Chinese" is not a concern of the designer, who studied at both the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Even so, her designs often feature her skills in Suzhou-style embroidery. "The designer is Chinese, so we don't have to try hard to prove we are Chinese," said Zhao.

This is clearly a new trend that veers from the route that many Chinese artists who landed in the US had been following. In fashion, Chinese designers used to attract attention by adopting anything that was from their own heritage - from Mao suits and cheongsam buttons to patterns of peonies and ink paintings.

When Chinese-American designer Anna Sui was asked about the criticism that she had pushed the edge of Chinese style too far, she once told The South China Morning Post: "I told myself I'm not going to change my identity, or dilute it."

Identity used to be a confusing lifetime question for many Chinese born in the US. And artists, who by their nature are more often subject to confusion and doubt than average people, are often dogged by the question. But once they find the answer, most Chinese-American artists have usually embraced their identity wholeheartedly and even proclaimed it in their work.

And for immigrant artists from China, to mark their works with their own cultural heritage is not only a proud way of creating but also a natural and easy way of attracting attention in the US. 

This has helped create many great works from Amy Tan's novels to Tan Dun's music. But it also has helped shape, or at least reaffirm, the expectations of American audiences to Asian artists, and to some degree, vindicated stereotypes.

The younger generation of Chinese artists is confident enough to stay away from the crutch of identity symbols. They believe they are able to compete against anyone else without deploying their secret weapon.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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