When hot young Chinese artist Quentin Shih unveiled his “Shanghai Dreamers” photo series for Dior’s new flagship store in Shanghai a couple of weeks ago, he was no doubt confident of yet another success. After all he has been on a dream run since he first worked with Dior back in 2008. But this time, things turned out differently: he stirred up a storm of criticism in the Chinese blogosphere about the perceived racism of his work. Things got so intense that he has gone online to defend himself.
In the series [see photo gallery for images] Shih chose to pose western models decked out in Dior couture among serried ranks of Chinese clones dressed in the mode of conformist eras of Chinese modern history. The visual impact is strong, but the visual message makes many queasy. For those who bristle at the photos, they suggest that the Chinese are a featureless mass, while Dior (and the west) represent individuality. Adding insult to injury, Shih singles out for parody the 1970s — an era when China was still in the thick of the Cultural Revolution, which brought misery, imprisonment, and even death to countless citizens.
“Dear Christian Dior, your Shanghai Dreamers campaign is bromidic, lame, and example 253284293847289 of Orientalism, and we’re supposed to find it brave and exciting and new?” wrote one outraged blogger. It’s just racist, was the conclusion, and a host of others agreed.Shih says, in his self-defense, published on Tom Lasseters sympathetic blog on McClatchey’s "China Rises" site, that the whole series was his own “art work.” But this argument sounds a little lame when he goes on to say: “I was not lucky enough to shoot a Chinese model wearing Dior — if I did I would have put her in my work.” If he was in control, you wouldn’t have thought something so important to his visual scheme would have been left to chance.
The irony is that the Dior association that is now hurting Shih’s artistic credibility has been the engine of his success. Shih was one of a handful of emerging artists chosen in 2008 for “Christian Dior and Chinese Artists,” an art-meets-fashion extravaganza at Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art. Planned to celebrate 40 years of Dior couture, the show featured artists of the stature of Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, and Zhang Huan. Their contributions didn’t do a great deal for their reputations: when the show opened it was generally agreed that in the face-off between couture and art, the frocks came off best. Browsing the art there was little that could measure up to the inspiration, whimsy and technical brilliance of Yves Saint Laurent, Galliano, or Monsieur Dior himself.
But one undoubted winner was photographer Quentin Shih, who was plucked from the ranks of talented aspirants and afforded the chance to make art in Paris courtesy of Dior. The resulting series, entitled “Stranger in a Glass Box” posed Chinese top model Du Juan in Dior couture inside the eponymous box, which Shih placed in various stylised Chinese settings from factories to railway stations. As with his current series, the Chinese onlookers to the fashion action are dressed in vintage 1970s Communist vintage style, but they are animated groups rather than clones, and the model attracting their attention is also Chinese.
Shih went on to become a kind of “house artist” to Dior, creating imagery for Dior Homme and touring his glass box pictures from Beijing to Moscow, Singapore, and California.Now the danger of getting too close to your patrons is becoming clear. Shih clearly wants to be taken seriously as an artist but is hardly convincing defending work that looks so much like advertising.
To some observers, ARTINFO China amongst them, the question of racism is a sideshow. After all the western models themselves hardly look at peace in the strange world Shih has created. They look like they have awoken to a nightmare, less comfortable than the Chinese clones. The key question is one of sensitivity: who is entitled to make light of dark history and who is not? Shih seems to feel no embarrassment about referencing the '70s in his work, seeing only the “humor” in the conformist costumes of the era.
In his defence he makes it clear that he knows the Cultural Revolution was no laughing matter, but seems to think there is nothing disrespectful in giving this period a rosy glow in his works. In fact he seems to think that justifies what he has done. Obviously the “objective reality” was “much more cruel than the 'daydream' harmonious group people shown in my work” Shih writes in his online defence, apparently missing the point that for some people that’s precisely why fetishizing the era for a fashion photograph is so disturbing.
The Cultural Revolution period continues to exercise its fascination for Chinese artists, but while in the past the artists had some experience of the era and sought to use the period’s imagery for satirical, critical or elegiac purpose, Shih has reduced it to mere visuals — compelling but without meaning.
It remains to be seen what long-term damage is done to Shih’s artistic credibility by all this, but it does point up the danger of fashion/art collaborations. These days everyone seems to accept the exchange involved — artists lend credibility and “edge” to brands, while the brands bring chicness and, of course, cash to the artists. But when the products of these collaborations are questioned, it is the artists who find themselves in the firing line, forced to defend their credibility and knowing that at all costs they must never admit they did it for the money.