Signs of Empire & Buddha Fashionistas (China: Through The Looking Glass)


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A society of spectacle –Chinese and Chinese inspired fashion illuminated brightly by film, art, sculpture, and religion. Turning up my nose, I had no intention to see China: Through the Looking Glass, this summer’s blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But there it was, vivid and vulgar, on my way to visit the Indian galleries upstairs on the second floor of the museum. Instead of entering downstairs at the main entrance of the Costume Institute, I was drawn in by the fluorescent bamboo grove and kung fu action sequences set up in the spacious anteroom to the Chinese art galleries and along its back wall, flanked by ancient stela, a gigantic, 13 foot high sandstone Bodhisattva, and the big green Buddha of Medicine. Only a little less overwhelming than the extravaganza downstairs at the Costume Institute, this part of China: Through the Looking Glass integrates the exhibit into the main collection. I’m a sucker for eye candy –the display of modern western and contemporary haute couture set up alongside ancient and medieval Han Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, Song Dynasty, and Ming Dynasty art.

The combinations are not so much given over to analytic framing as much as the way they contribute to a new look at Chinese art and culture as mirrored off multiple reflecting surfaces and jewel box features that compose this particular part of “the society of spectacle”

Either you like this kind of immersion or you resent it. But I still think Holland Carter got it wrong in his review here at the NYT when he wrote, “Old stereotypes unfold; art is reduced to being a prop in a fashion shoot. The exhibition’s goal of closing the gap between fashion and art at the Met is realized, but the difference between the two disciplines is, too often, made glaring. 

I think this gets it wrong, first, because the stereotypes deployed are done so much more knowingly than would have been the case when many of these pieces were first produced in the history of the modern western fashion industry. Viewers are much more self-aware today than they once might have been. There’s also this difference. While once upon a time the taste for Chinoise had to do with the miniaturization and infantilization of Chinese cultural history, the scale at China: Through the Looking Glass is radically reversed. Neither small nor diminutive, as presented by the curators, China is gargantuan and physically overpowering. This too is, of course, a stereotype. One notes, nonetheless, that the galleries are/were crowded with tourists from China and/or Taiwan, suggesting that the power reversal is almost complete.

What caught me was not so much the exhibition, but its site-specific character. The clothes would have worked on their own, and one could have set them in a more analytic, less impressionistic display. So what grabbed me then was the way it transforms/ed the Chinese galleries at the museum. My own interest is less in the fashion per se, but in its intersection. Re: religion, in this case Buddhism, the side to China: Through the Looking Glass that caught my attention is the way it shows up [1] worldliness and worldly frames, [2]  the female figure, [3] the shifting history of style as a modern form of cosmopolitan ephemera around that figure, and [4] the institutional form of historical religion represented by art as they always reflect, reflect upon, and reflect off display-spectacle and power. Art and religion, fashion and spirituality –these are signs of empire.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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