Anna May Wong, the misunderstood, American-born Chinese beauty who took early Hollywood by storm, raises a perfectly arched eyebrow beneath her trademark bangs and surveys the scene. Installation screens play her iconic film clips on loop in the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art where cases display sumptuous haute couture by Ralph Lauren, John Galliano for Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, mirroring the designs Ms. Wong wears in exotic publicity photographs. The polished black interior of the tunnel-like gallery has a dizzying effect; despite the glamorous fashion and dreamy sounds of Billie Holliday overhead, a historical heartache lies beneath the surface. May Wong, caught forever between the hurtful ‘Dragon Lady’ and ‘Butterfly’ stereotypes of a racist industry, becomes a fitting icon for the largest show the museum has ever undertaken. Spanning three floors in collaboration between the Costume Institute and The Department of Asian Art - the latter which is celebrating its centennial - China Through the Looking Glass is an ambitiously beautiful examination of cultural exchange and where the line between inspiration and appropriation becomes fashionably blurred.
With over 140 objects on display, from the aforementioned Western couture to Chinese costumes, porcelains, objets d’art and paintings, the show is a carefully curated series of conversations - selected rooms highlight certain aspects of material Chinese culture that have served western aesthetics, such as perfume, blue and white porcelain and export silk, as well as designers who have heeded the call of ‘The Orient’ predominantly in their work, such as Yves Saint Laurent and his 1977 Mongol-inspired runway show, the same year his infamous Opium fragrance was released. To brand this exhibition merely ambitious does not do it justice; ‘China’ is vibrant, impressive and more importantly, alive – primed to excite the most weary museum-goer. Selected films edited by Wong Kar Wai, the celebrated Hong Kong-based director, provide even greater context for the objects on display; film has served up fantastical and realistic views of China on a mass scale, from The Ziegfield Follies to Farewell My Concubine. Yet the question is silently asked with every antique vase and slinky dress displayed side by side: who can take from where and how much?
The museum states that ‘the China mirrored in these fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism.’ Although this statement refers to the intellectual sparring over the West’s appropriation of Eastern cultures, in this exhibition Orientalism does become a fertile ground for creative interplay. It’s no secret that smoke-filled pagodas, rippling silk, snarling dragons and smiling Buddhas have enticed the hungry imaginations of Westerners for centuries, beginning with tales from the advent of modern commerce, The Silk Road. The exhibition is housed partially in The Arts of Ancient China galleries, where intricately bold fashions by Valentino, McQueen, Versace, Lanvin and Chanel, along with staggering jewels from Cartier and Bulgari, stand encased with Chinese artifacts. Here the real versus the imagined allows history and fantasy to take hold. For example, the incredible gold ‘Lotus’ evening gown designed by Beijing-based couturier Guo Pei becomes the centerpiece in a hushed, spot-lit gallery flanked by stone Buddhas allowing for heightened drama. The dress and its craftsmanship appear almost worthy of worship itself – a placement that that conflicted some reviewers. The Astor Court, built by traditional craftsman with its pagodas and carved doorways, showcases 20th century court robes and Galliano’s confectionery gowns for Dior of taffeta, silk, organza and tulle like so many ladies in waiting beneath a projection of a blood red moon reflected below. It is a garden of earthly delights, one of many that turned the exhibition into a continued exercise of surprise and awe, such as the Costume Institute gallery of explosive and erotic fashion across a wall of screens playing a montage from The Last Emperor, to the hall of gowns inspired by blue and white porcelain-like the encased Chinese, Delft and British wares.
The image of the ‘moon in the water,’ when read in Chinese poetry, serves as a metaphor for beauty reflected and out of reach, a symbol of something enticing yet untrustworthy. What makes this show so successful is the lack of pretension and protest. It does not claim to be a survey of authentic Chinese culture, nor does it shy away from how troubling and questionable certain interpretations of China by Western designers and artists have been - one has to look no farther than a 1950’s era dress by Dior printed with calligraphy that, when translated, tells of an upset stomach. It places the beautiful, the strange and the historical all side-by-side and allows the viewer to decide which final products honor traditional tropes or misinterpret the sacred. Indeed, we travel down the proverbial rabbit hole and encounter a complex China mirrored against her complicated Western onlookers, a dual image barely grasped and forever elusive.
China Through the Looking Glass ran until 7 September 2015 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York