Home Info Links Tumblr S H I N I N G & N E Wby mariel
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Get Ready For A Rant

I feel like I've seriously let my posts slip.
The last couple have been teeny tiny little excuses for posts with youtube link bunged in or descriptions of how I beat my dad raw at monopoly the night before last. Which I'm still so chuffed about by the way, congratulation's wouldn't go amiss.
So, in order to counteract the lazy-ness that I have found myself imbued (word of the day suckers) with as of late, I decided to go trawling through the mess that is my "blog" folder on my desktop. The folder that I abuse horrifically with the drag and drop function. It is full of web-pages, snippets of text and photos with file-names consisting only of "tumblr" and a series of numbers and letters. It's a mess. However, nestled amongst all the cross-processed photos and screen shots of vogue.com's stupid flash only website, I found something I actually want to write a little about.

A while ago I stumbled upon the work of Quentin Shih, a photographer who, in collaboration with Dior, produced a series of photographs titled "The Stranger in the Glass Box" (available on Shih's website under Art Projects). I instantly fell in love with the series, Shih's use of scale and light in his images is stunning, and the underlying political currents in his campaign gave me something to think about.

Despite my massive love-fest with all his photos (lots more dragging and dropping), I don't particularly want to write about that particular series by Shih. After some serious googling and internet-stalking, I found that Shih has since gone back into collaboration with Dior, and has produced another series of photographs that not only showcase the house's garments beautifully, but also provide the viewer with a little slice of Shih's (and presumably Dior's) opinion on modern Chinese ideals and Fashion's place in China's ever-changing society. Interesting.
His series, titled "Shanghai Dreamers" shows Dior's designs in faded photographs, the aesthetic and colour of which mirror traditional guó huà paintings, with each image having a flat, pastel base and a pale colour scheme that seems to sit on a level with the base. The faded colours and stark backdrop are, in my opinion stunning, and having the photograph as a piece of art to be studied, rather than a simple fashion editorial was an excellent idea. 
The haute couture nature of the clothing is then reflected in the "haute-couture" nature of the photographs. They are not simple, ready-to-wear designs, these images took time and effort.
Shih himself says on his images, specifically the Chinese characters that surround the model in Dior"they replicate themselves, wearing plastic clothes, they stand on display in vast spaces or upon a stage - because they were, and still are dreamers. As China enters a new era, they begin to stand together upon a world stage, self-conscious and yet filled with power."
Apparently, Shih's inspiration for the extra model seen alongside the women dressed in Dior came from the 1970's and the style of group photography that was prolific at that time in Maoist China. 

However, here's where it gets iffy. 

The photographs all feature two models. In the majority of the images, there is one Chinese model in relatively plain clothes or work-mans uniform replicated over and over to create a crowd of homogenous, vacant backdrop to the second model; a Caucasian woman dressed entirely in Dior and styled to the nines.
Why must the Chinese model be only one face, replicated over and over again? The old slur "they all look the same" comes to mind, but perhaps I'm jumping the gun here. I tend to get over-excited by potential racism in ad campaigns. When Sony fucked up big time, I near bust a nut (here).

I thought about the images a fair bit, but I can't help but conclude that there is something a wee bit dodgy about this campaign. 

If I was trying to break a new market, especially one as vital as the fashion community in Shanghai, one of the world's fastest growing cities and one of the famed booming Chinese metropolitan economies, I would definitely want to avoid pissing people off. And, as a Western brand moving into a different culture, one with whom there has been a troubled, colonial past, I would try especially hard not to come across as racist or in anyway promoting a sense of racial superiority. To me, this campaign makes no effort to do avoid these issues whatsoever. If anything, it jumps right on the racism, wraps it up in nice Dior couture and shoves it in our faces. Like my neighbour's cat when it brings dead mice into our kitchen and looks at us like, "LOOK. I BROUGHT YOU A PRESENT. NOW LOVE ME."

OK, so perhaps the choice of Caucasian models was something not motivated by a desire to express racial superiority, perhaps it was merely an aesthetic decision that, with hindsight (which always makes things much clearer), was really damn stupid. However, this contrast of a Caucasian woman backed by identical, almost subservient East Asian woman isn't something uncommon in Western Pop culture.
Anyone remember how much we bummed Gwen back in the day?

Jenny Zhang of www.fashionforwriters.com supports Margeret Cho's arguement that Gwen Stefani's use of 4 Japanese girls renamed and rebranded (Love, Angel, Music and Baby? Please.) as accessories for her tours and public apperances was a modern example of Orientalism. Zhang writes: "...during her Harajuku phase, Gwen physically outfitted herself with four Japanese women, who were, of course, a good two feet shorter than her (making the visual image of a very familiar Orientalist narrative of domination and subordination all but undeniable,) and were all dressed the exact same in contrast to Stefani’s wildly differentiated and individualized outfit..."
Unfortunately, these events aren't challenged, probably because when someone mentions racism, we jump to the obvious image of black and white, slavery and colonialisation in Africa, and ignore the growing threat of racist attitudes towards those of East Asian decent.

In my view, western pop culture's opinions of East Asia, especially those on East Asian youth in Japan and South Korea is seriously warped. If we thought of Asia in the terms that are advertised to us we would believe all Japanese youth to be characters from Fruits magazine, or girls in an identical school uniform, yet again homogenized by their dress and conduct. Even East Asian history is dismissed by pop culture's influence over our views on East Asia. Unfortunately, most people know embarrasingly little about the nations that will shape our future, and yet feel informed enough to make decisions that lead to quite obviously racist ends. If Gwen Stefani had demanded that 4 black women dress in  identical, revealing outfits, take on new, humiliating names and follow her around to every event she attended, providing a nice homogeneous background to her stunning individualism, I reckon there'd be hell to pay.

If people were more educated about East Asia, I reckon this issue would disappear, but unfortunately, it isn't an area that comes up often in our education system. I never learned a thing about any East Asian history, the most I learned was when, on a spin off from Germany in WWII, we studied 3 months of Japanese military behaviour.

An excellent canvassing of East Asian history and politics.

Especially since Japan is one of the biggest economies in the world today, and that the largest bank in the world at the moment is an East Asian one. I'm sure if we called upon those in Marketing at Dior and questioned them on the changes in Communist China throughout the 1960's and 1970's, or even any Chinese history, they'd have no clue. Yet they feel their brand is educated enough, and qualified enough to make bold statements about such things in huge photographic prints, displayed publicly through Shanghai, one of China's most cosmopolitan and diverse cities.

More attention must be paid to the West's opinion's on East Asia, the colonialism that occurred there, and how racism affects pop culture's perspective on our East Asian neighbours, who's influence in the world is growing ever heavier each day. If a brand as influential and as international as Christian Dior can make such a massive mistake, surely we have to take notice that something is wrong. If any kind of advertising "faux pas" of the same scale had occurred with black people as the race being subjugated, there'd be a massive outcry. Why hasn't that happened here?

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