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China: Through the Looking Glass | Book Review

I’ve recently made it my mission to read more art books. I’ve always been an avid reader, and currently, I’ve been wanting to try reading new genres beyond fiction. The China: Through the Looking Glass catalogue was my first step into that!

China: Through the Looking Glass was a huge blockbuster exhibition happening at the Met Museum in New York last year and I really really really really wanted to go. I didn’t, but the gorgeous catalogue offers a very nice consolation with a few essays on the theme behind the exhibition, and pictures of (most of) the exhibits. More pictures of a few of my favorite exhibits from the catalogue below. Also: you can follow along with what I’m reading on goodreads – it’s on my Reading Art widget in the sidebar. :D

This gorgeous gold dress by Chinese designer Guo Pei (who also designed Rihanna’s dress for Met Ball 2015) was not documented in the catalogue, but I guess that’s fine because it was splashed all over Instagram. LOVE it. <3 <3

To back up a bit, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a fashion exhibition every year that opens in the first week of May. The Met Gala is also held every year alongside the opening of the exhibition. Their 2014 exhibition was the very successful Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, but China: Through the Looking Glass broke Savage Beauty’s previous record for highest attendance. I was very excited to hear that the Costume Institute was doing a exhibition that focuses on China, definitely not an easy feat, and I was curious to see what aspect of China they were going to go for.

Early 5th century B.C. Chinese bell, Valentino “Shanghai” collection 2013

Somewhat to my surprise, or I might have set my expectations too high, the exhibition was about the Western perception of Chinese aesthetics and imagery, not about China per se. Call it chinoserie, or an attempt at assimilating “Chinese” designs into Western fashions. The exhibition mostly consisted of fashions by haute couture designers inspired by Chinese styles, accompanied by a look at Chinese material culture and film.

In this way, the exhibition does not offer anything new on Chinese art or fashion. On the flip side, the exhibition does give a fresh look at the interaction between Chinese and Western aesthetics, and the essays in the exhibition catalogue provide more insights into the topic.


A little while after I’d finished reading the catalogue, I saw advertisements in the MTR stations about a documentary called The First Monday in May (潮遊鏡花水月) that was about the process of building the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition. I was pretty much over the moon.

The documentary focuses on the two camps of Anna Wintour who oversees the Met Ball and Andrew Bolton, now the Head Curator of the Costume Institute, who oversaw the curatorial side of things. It was really interesting to see the kind of work that goes into preparing an event like the Met Ball, but I found Bolton’s curatorial process particularly inspiring. I also realized how much work goes into a making a huge exhibition, simply due to the many exhibits that were to be shown.

House of Dior, John Galliano, spring/summer 2009 haute couture

There is one scene in the documentary where Bolton suggests to his team that he’s thinking of placing a Mao suit inside the gallery where the Met’s Buddhist artworks are placed. I think most Hong Kong audiences would have collectively agreed that this was an absolutely bad idea, but I found it amusing in the documentary. It also reveals the difficulties in presenting a culture that, well, one might not be entirely familiar with. Thankfully, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, who was the artistic director for China: Through the Looking Glass, talked Bolton out of it. I remember Bolton saying that some controversy is good in an exhibition, but Wong noted that placing a Mao suit in a Buddhist room would not evoke the kind of controversy Bolton would have been looking for.

Vivienne Tam, coat, 1999

There is also one scene in the documentary when Bolton and Wintour flew to Beijing to promote the exhibition that I found very interesting. Some members of the Chinese media questioned the curatorial decision to focus on China’s ancient and modern history, rather than showcasing China’s contemporary history. Other than the fact that the fashion exhibits are mostly inspired by a Chinese aesthetic based in an imaginary past, a good point was brought up that China has yet to form a standardized contemporary aesthetic that would best represent contemporary China. It still seemed that the Chinese media was not very satisfied with the exhibition, but it shows the politics that can be involved when delving into another culture.

Travis Banton, evening dress, 1934

The poster image above is a still from my favorite scene from the documentary that quietly observes Bolton adjusting the position of the hem of the dress and then standing at a distance to view the exhibit for himself. It was really nice to see the amount of detail and thought poured into every aspect of the exhibition, anchored by solid research that each section of the exhibition is built on. I’m interested in curation myself, as I’m sure many other Fine Arts/Art History students are, and I would highly recommend this documentary for anyone who would like to get an inside look into the act of curating.

I found both the catalogue and the documentary very good resources to know more about the exhibition, especially since I didn’t get the chance to see it for myself. The documentary also has many nice shots winding through the exhibition, so it definitely felt like it made up for my missed chance. One final takeaway from the documentary for me: the Met Museum is closed every first Monday of May.

Isabel Toledo, ensemble, autumn/winter 1996-97

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  • Reply Charles Peter

    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.

    December 30, 2016 at 2:58 PM
    • Reply Ellice Wu

      That might be the case most of the time unfortunately, but I find it interesting to look at fashion as exhibits in a similar way to art. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

      January 2, 2017 at 9:48 PM

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