Cross-cultural exchanges: Stories of fashion, protest, and contemporary art in China and beyond by Jenny Lin
Last November, Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) released a series of videos on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) as part of its “DG Loves China” campaign aimed at generating hype for the Italian luxury brand’s upcoming fashion show in Shanghai. The videos depict a Chinese model, clad in D&G, awkwardly trying to eat various Italian foods – pizza, pasta, and cannoli – with chopsticks. Dripping in Orientialism, the videos feature Chinese folk music, a male narrator with a thick Beijing accent, and a setting recalling early Hollywood depictions of China as enigmatic entity – a darkened restaurant filled with traditional Chinese signifiers like red and gold baubles.
The videos outraged hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens, who felt D&G was stereotyping China and Chinese people as outmoded. Matters got worse when a fashion blogger posted a screenshot of Stefano Gabbana’s response: an Instagram chat with racist comments including “I will say that the country of [five poop emojis] is China.” Gabbana later claimed his account had been hacked, pasting “NOT ME” over another troubling post, but, exacerbated by the brand owners’ history of racist comments and actions, the damage was done.
“The Great Show,” D&G’s planned fashion extravaganza to be held at the Shanghai Expo Center, was promptly cancelled. Mega Chinese on-line retailers Alibaba & JD.com stopped selling all D&G products, as did Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford store after customers began returning D&G items. In Milan, Chinese protestors appeared at the brand’s flagship store demanding refunds. In Chinese cities, anti-D&G logos could be seen in store windows and entrepreneurs started selling NOT ME/anti-D&G clothing. Some may dismiss D&G’s PR catastrophe in China as overblown or trivial, but I insist we carefully consider such stories, for they exemplify our current geopolitical landscape threatened by trade wars, rising nationalisms, and persistent racism rooted in histories of colonialism and labor exploitation.
While it is obvious why D&G’s “Chopsticks to Eat” videos, and even more so Gabbana’s racist rants, offended, outrage over a previous D&G photo shoot in Beijing might be more puzzling to people outside China. The 2017 shoot featured models in D&G outfits juxtaposed against “everyday” locals including elderly garbage collectors and taxi-drivers. Many Beijing natives asserted the ads did not represent the city or its sophisticated inhabitants. Presenting glamorous models in haute couture amidst gritty urban landscapes and “authentic” denizens is a longstanding strategy of the fashion industry, aimed at lending luxury goods street cred and a slightly dangerous, edgy appeal. While the non-model subjects pictured in the D&G ads most certainly live in Beijing, they represent marginalized populations (e.g., migrant workers from the countryside), who, like their counterparts around the world, have been rendered nearly voiceless by governments and remain almost invisible, albeit often indispensable, to affluent people who adhere to the ethos that late capitalism necessarily equals progress for all who work hard.
The personal sentiment in and nationalist tone of many of the negative reactions to D&G’s campaigns in mainland China raise important points regarding divisions between local, national, and international perceptions. Recent reports assert that amidst China’s rapid economic growth of the last few decades, which lifted millions of people out of poverty, inequality has also risen rapidly to one of the highest levels in the world. Like in the United States, wealth and education-levels vary widely between China’s rural and urban populations, which may help explain why many Beijingers would be surprised to see presumably lowly educated poor people in those D&G ads. Critics of the ads were most likely professional urbanites, who, personally identifying more closely with the jet-set models, would see low-wage workers as misrepresenting their Beijing (and China), perceived as a rising global power.
In the face of harmful Orientalizing content and nationalist responses, we must not cease cross-cultural exchange, but rather seek ways of sharing art and design and fostering mutual understanding across cultures. Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang, who tragically committed suicide two years ago at the age of 29, blurred boundaries between fashion and art while offering queer perspectives of contemporary life in Beijing. Trained in advertising, he employed the language of fashion photography – his images are undeniably sleek, youthful, and alluring – but also overturned that language through naked tangled limbs and genitals, and contorted, sculptural stacks of bodies, recalling early 1990s “Beijing East Village” performances by figures like Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan. Ren Hang most frequently employed his friends as models, and usually shot them nude. For this in China, which has strict anti-nudity laws, he was arrested, censored, and his shows often shut down. In defiance, Ren Hang opened up space for nude bodies and was increasingly approached by fans to be photographed. He found in fashion a means of circulating his striking, surreal, and gender non-conforming images to audiences around the world.
In addition to exhibiting in international art exhibitions, such as Ai Weiwei, Feng Boyi and Mark Wilson’s 2013 “FUCK OFF 2” at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands and “Love, Ren Hang,” currently on view at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, France, Ren Hang contributed to fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bizarre and Vogue, and collaborated with musician Frank Ocean on his magazine Boys Don’t Cry, released with the album Blonde. In line with Frank Ocean’s concept, Ren Hang’s photographs play with auto magazine tropes, picturing people on and in cars, but subverting typical advertising imagery of hyper-hetero-masculinity and hyper-sexualized bikini-clad women. Ren Hang’s spread in Boys Don’t Cry, entitled “I COMPACT U” and shot in the outskirts of Beijing, includes a photograph of three young men laying atop a compact white wagon, their naked bodies clinging to the curves of the car and clutching one another’s limbs; in another photo, the men’s heads and shoulders stick out of the car’s windows, latticed arms suggestively holding half-smoked cigarettes in each other’s mouths.
In these collaborations bridging art, fashion and music, Ren Hang contributed to a transnational system that allowed him to make, share, and earn a living off his work. Simultaneously, he pictured another side of urban Chinese life, which, unlike the D&G ads, did not resort to exploitation through Orientalizing content or glamorizing images starkly juxtaposing “haves” and “have-nots,” but instead shared intimate, awkward, and pleasurable moments, naked relations between friends. In a 2012 interview, Ren Hang stated, “I’ve seen enough overseas. I was in Russia a while ago, I was watching TV…all they talked about was bad news from China. People say you can go overseas to see the truth, but based on what I saw…it was not the truth. It was twisted…Chinese people put forth the positive things about China, but foreigners are aggressive in showing the negative side.” The photographs Ren Hang left in the world spark lingering questions: What if fashion shed its exoticizing tendencies, and broke down illusions of nationalism and consumerist desire? Might we discover new modes for truly sharing art, design, and ideas across cultures?
By Jenny Lin, author of Above sea: Contemporary art, urban culture, and the fashioning of global Shanghai. Lin is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art with Asian Focus at the University of Oregon.
- Watch the video and read additional commentary on the incident in Yuhan Xu, “Dolce & Gabbana Ad (With Chopsticks) Provokes Public Outrage in China,” National Public Radio website (December 1, 2018)
- For further coverage and references to other accusations of racism and homophobia, see Morwenna Ferrier, “Dolce & Gabbana postpones Shanghai show amid racism row,” in The Guardian (November 21, 2018)
- Read more information on responses from within mainland China, see “如果对不起有用，还抵制干嘛？！我们能坚持让Dolce＆Gabbana凉透吗？” (November 23, 2018)
- For coverage of D&G’s photo shoot in Beijing and the response it provoked, see Charles Liu, “Dolce & Gabbana Fashion Shoot on Streets of Beijing Upsets Locals,” The Beijinger (April 23, 2017)
- See, amongst others, Anjani Trivedi, “China’s Racing to the Top in Income Inequality: The gap starts with education levels amid a hunger for tech skills,” in Bloomberg Opinion (September 22, 2018)
- See Amy Qin, “Ren Hang, Provocative Chinese Photographer, Dies at 29,” in the New York Times (March 3, 2017)
- Read a brief description of Beijing’s East Village on the TATE website
- See Maison Européenne de la Photographie website
- See Francesca Marani, “Remembering Ren Hang,” in Vogue Italia (February 24, 2017)
- See this Tweet
- Ren Hang quoted in Erik Bernhardsson, “In Conversation with Ren Hang (2012),” translated by Dier Zhang (January 29, 2017)
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