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Shanghai Surprise

by Helen Storey

by Helen Storey .

It would be easy to assume the hunger for contact with the West might encourage a quiet revolution amongst those in China who are involved in the arts. Having spoken to the students, however, I doubt it will happen soon.

I didn’t really believe we were going until the visas and plane tickets arrived two days before we were due to leave. Although China appeared to be opening its borders, the projects that the Institute of Contemporary Art were taking to a shopping centre in Shanghai were full of issues on which the Chinese traditionally hold very strong and particular views. There was a real risk that the authorities would put a stop to it, even though the exhibition was timed to coincide with Tony Blair’s first ever visit to the country.

Our project, Primitive Streak, which chronicles the first 1,000 hours of human life, took fertility and artistic self-expression as its themes. The bookshop, stocked with copies of The Face, i-D and alternative art books, would expose the Chinese to imagery unimaginable until now. Sera Furneaux’s Kissing Booth would encourage open and public intimacy to be replayed on large screens, while US computer company Sun MicroSystems allowed unedited access to the internet.

My business partner Caroline Coates, my embryologist sister Kate and I were met at Shanghai airport by two well-mannered hotel bellboys in ill-fitting dark blue uniforms. Blinking in the morning sunshine that cut through the smog, we were bundled into a hotel bus for the half-hour drive to the hotel.

Shanghai creeps up on you slowly. None of the 12 million or so inhabitants was visible from its network of flyovers. To the accompaniment of The Nutcracker Suite on the bus radio, we watched as ranks of steel and glass towers rose on the skyline, looking like garish and over-designed scent bottles.

The scale and extent of new buildings, many part-finished or unoccupied, suggested Shanghai was on the move, levelling its past, keenly intent on the future., But then the road dipped into a sea of bikes and wooden shanties where wedding dresses were displayed for sale hanging from powerlines in the street and barbers sat cutting men’s hair with their stools placed precariously close to the traffic.

The Westgate Shopping Mall, where the show was to be held, was not unlike others I have visited in the Far East – filled with designer brands, real and ripped off, alongside home-produced items. It was the last place you might choose to display something that should not be touched, yet it was perfect for parachuting into everyday Chinese life.

That night we walked the Bund waterfront, an exotic version of the Brighton promenade, the financial heart of the city. Most of the inhabitants, it seemed, were out of doors, strolling the illuminated, fluorescent riverbank, photographing each other, eating noodles out of cartons. Uniformed sailors brushed against us in an effort to have a picture taken with a Western woman. For the first time, I began to wonder what they were going to make of it all. My biggest fear was that it would be seen merely as foreign art, whereas I wanted them to see it as science as much as art. Of course, with China’s one-child policy still in place in many parts of the country, this is contentious stuff.

The following morning we discovered that part of the collection was stuck in Zurich. Muddled explanations made it hard for us to figure out what had happened but finally it arrived. Now we had the task of getting it through customs, delivered, unpacked, ironed and mounted before the Prime Minister came to open the exhibition at 6pm the following day.

We worked through to the early hours; grey with fatigue, we returned to the hotel to sleep. In the morning, under doctor’s orders, I performed my daily back exercises; necessary but not very elegant when you’re not wearing any clothes. Later I was told that hidden cameras are still not unusual in hotels. What, I wondered, might they have seen on this occasion?

We trooped back to the shopping centre to finish dressing the mannequins and then host the international press conference. I should have written my speech on the plane, if not before leaving, when energy was on my side. On seeing my crumpled notes, Philip Dodd, director of the ICA, whispered ‘You’re not going to read that, are you?’ I did. It wasn’t my finest hour, but I made it. The European journalists asked questions, but the Chinese reporters were very, very quiet.

In the afternoon I gave a talk to the fashion students from La Salle School, a Canadian college with a Shanghai branch. All female and aged between 17 and 20, the students were dressed conservatively in neat skirts or trousers, with only details such as glasses and earrings providing variation. Speaking through an interpreter, I told them of my fashion college training and of my recent shift towards experimental work – a decision that was based, paradoxically, on a need to create a body of work that might last.

As I walked the students through the collection, starting with the garments that represented sperm and egg, I hoped to encourage a more open-minded relationship to scientific research and design. I hadn’t anticipated, however, that the collection would have a direct bearing on their lives.

As I explained the nature of DNA and the notion of ‘individuality’, I realised I was confronting their perceptions of themselves head-on. Whereas the instinct in Western culture is to look for the new and unexpected, theirs was to seek conformity and orthodoxy. And here I was, painting a picture for them of the potential each one of them possessed to be different from their mothers and fathers, from everyone around them.

As this dawned on the group, some wandered off, while the remainder closed in tighter around me. They stood glued by each dress, waiting to see what it might signify. I was no longer the messenger: the collection itself was doing the work. A sense of discovery had overtaken the group.

Not suspicious of the future, the young Chinese assume that, as boundaries drop away, everything coming at them will inevitably appear novel. Youth and the artistic community are in the best position to decide which aspects of their tradition might be challenged and might be retained. The head lecturer at La Salle, for instance, described a project that had been rejected by the students when they discovered that the cloth they were being asked to use was traditionally employed to cover the dead.

Other reactions to the work came from a diverse group of people: a gang of beauty-counter girls, chefs, biology students and embryologists, old men, pregnant women and schoolchildren. I only saw one woman who looked like someone who might have visited the exhibition in London: she wore a long black skirt, a backpack, and had dreadlocks. She visited the exhibition several times.

Tony Blair opened the exhibition, accompanied by Cherie, who asked for a closer look. ‘Where’s the Lewinsky dress then?’ asked one of the Blair party – a reference, we assume, to the 1,000 Sperm Coat. ‘I hear Monica’s got a frock in the show,’ he went on. ‘Ours, I’m afraid, is washed,’ I replied, at which, blushing, he disappeared into the crowd. Cherie, meanwhile, declared the coat beautiful.

I am now in the early stages of returning the Primitive Streak project to the Chinese by working through the Internet with La Salle. We hope to create a body of digital fashion work in partnership with the ICA, allowing anyone to study the design process – via a web page – from brief to realisation.

It would be easy to assume the hunger for contact with the West might encourage a quiet revolution amongst those in China who are involved in the arts. Having spoken to the students, however, I doubt it will happen soon. Yet we do have much to learn from each other. Art and design have often succeeded where language has failed, and as the collection moved off to Beijing I was reminded that, as ever, it will be the practitioners of art who speak most powerfully across this divide.

Originally published in British Vogue, January 1999, p.36-37