Artists in Luxury Sculpt China's New Cultural Revolution
Source:International Herald Tribune Author:Suzy Menkes Date: 2008-11-13 Size:
As China sets out to rebuild its artistic heritage, support is coming from an unexpected source: the global luxury industry. The big brands have targeted China - both for exhibition displays and for collaborations with contemporary artists.


Zhang Xiaogang's lineup of children in military uniforms, inspired by Dior Homme. (Christian Dior)

As China sets out to rebuild its artistic heritage, support is coming from an unexpected source: the global luxury industry. The big brands have targeted China - both for exhibition displays and for collaborations with contemporary artists.

When the new 8,000 square meter, or 87,000 square foot, contemporary art and design museum is constructed next to the iconic "bird's nest" Olympic stadium, its contents might include a portrait of Christian Dior, created in incense ash by the artist Zhang Huan.

Or, alongside the wine bottles in iron by Zheng Guogu, there may be a similar contemporary copper work re-creating Dior fragrances.

Those two objects will go on display next week as "Christian Dior & Chinese Artists" opens in an industrial space in Beijing, developed as an interior Chinese garden and displaying a capsule fashion history focusing on the founder Christian Dior and the current designer John Galliano.

Over the last two decades, there have been numerous collaborations between art and fashion. But it seems that the Chinese cannot get enough of fashion as art - and of their own artists at the epicenter of high fashion.

Two exhibitions have shown the heritage of European fashion houses to the Chinese. In March, Ferragamo held its 80th birthday celebrations in Shanghai, with an exhibition of Salvatore Ferragamo at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and with a fashion show staged at the new Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal.

"The 'Evolving Legend' exhibition was inaugurated in Shanghai to celebrate the anniversary and our 15 years relationship with China," said Michele Norsa, CEO of Ferragamo. He says that after the exhibition of the Florentine shoemaker's work moved on to Milan's Triennale, where it closed last week, there are now plans to take the show elsewhere in Asia.

Ferragamo established itself in Asia in the early 1970s and its first Chinese art collaborations go back to 1992, when an exhibition of 11 Chinese artists in different disciplines was held in its New York store, along with a sponsorship of a Chinese video art and photography exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.

MaxMara, another Italian design house, opened its traveling exhibition "Coats" last month at the Namoc Museum in Beijing with a fashion show and a dinner at the Tai Miao temple that was attended by internationally known Chinese celebrities. They included the actress Maggie Cheung, famous for the movie "In the Mood for Love," and Guo Jingjing, a gold-medal-winning diver at the Beijing Olympics.

Louis Vuitton, whose roots in China go back to 1979, has seen its artistic collaborations flower. As well as sponsoring a Sovereign Asia Art Prize in 2007, Vuitton brought art this year to its two Hong Kong stores, with Zhan Wang creating a steel sculpture in the Central district, and the shop in the Tsim Sha Tsui area across Victoria Harbor displaying work from the famous Chinese actor and photographer Chow Yun Fat.

Earlier this year, Vuitton held in its Champs-Elysées flagship store in Paris an exhibition inspired by André Citroën's epic journey down the "Silk Road" in 1931, including Chinese video artists and photographers.

For next week's exhibition, Sidney Toledano, CEO of Dior, was determined to do more than sponsor an art show.

"It's not about branding and marketing - it is about having a cultural impact," Toledano says. "We could just have supported the artists, but the idea was to let them work a Dior theme, to see how they looked at Monsieur Dior himself and the Dior universe. When I saw the finished works, done over three months, I was impressed by their creativity. It was almost like watching a couture collection develop."

The 21 artists whose works go on display from Nov. 16 at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing include some of China's edgiest artists. Their work, as seen currently at the new Charles Saatchi Gallery in London, might raise a few eyebrows in a dialogue between art and fashion.

Zhang Huan's personal and politicized sculptures and ash paintings will face off with the personage of Christian Dior; while Li Songsong is exchanging three paintings - of Boccaccio's "The Decameron," of the National People's Congress and of the crumpled wings of a fallen airplane - for the ultimate fashion statement: a giant Lady Dior bag in neon lights.

It seems unlikely that Liu Wei's sculpture of a turd will be redeveloped for Dior. But the hollow, robotic eyes of Zhang Xiaogang's paintings will be viewed in a vision of Dior Homme, designed by Kris Van Assche; and Liu Wei's extraordinary effects with dog chewings will be applied to Dior's "Cocotte" dress.


Pearl Lam, the director of the Contrasts Gallery of Chinese contemporary art which opened in Hong Kong in 1992 and later in Shanghai and Beijing, says that the line between art and commerce has never been drawn in China, because traditionally "artists" and their work were not defined. Known as "literati," they might paint, write calligraphy, compose poetry, literature and music, while at the same time designing with craftsmen anything from teapots to houses.

"In ancient times in China, art was not created for selling - only for self-cultivation," says Lam, explaining that the artworks were given away to those who had been appreciative and the literati's highest standing was to be qualified to join the imperial court.

Cut to the 21st century, and commercialism and consumerism have inevitably entered the equation, with the catalyst in the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and his collaborations with Louis Vuitton.

"When a Chinese artist, like Zhang Huan, accepts a commission from Dior to create works about Dior, he is in fact pushing the boundaries to react to the Chinese traditional values of art and to question: what is art in the context of China's 21st century," says Lam, who claims that all artists understand the power of marketing by fashion houses and know that through fashion exposure, the artist's name might become a brand.

It might sound like a collaboration between two hungry groups - the Chinese dignitaries, eager to find the home-grown art to fill a new architectural wonder; and Western brands trying to create a name and good will in China. But if commerce encourages art, whatever the motive, it seems a positive step. And with the Chinese, even in tough economic times, acting as suppliers of products to the world, is it surprising that the country's art has become a marketable commodity?

[Editor] Mark Lee