The Review of Mapping Motifs

The World of Cheongsam. The Review of Mapping Motifs: An Exploratory Journey Through Fashion, Cities and Identities by WESSIELING.
by Nadja Stamselberg; ARTPOST.INFO, May 2006

It’s been 46 years since Suzie Wong wore the cheongsam, bringing the high-collared, form-fitting Chinese silk dress to the popular Western gaze. Beginning its journey in the early last century Shanghai, via exiled Hong Kong days and its recent revival in the mainland China, the long dress not only survived but also conquered new shores, colonising the fashion imagination of the Western designers. What was for a long time known, as the Suzie Wong dress, became a staple diet of the haute couture shows.

WESSIELING’s installation Mapping Motifs: An exploratory journey through fashion, cities and identities, puts the cheongsam in the spotlight, not only to make homage to a garment that has portrayed a unique East Asian modernity, but also to question our perception and reception of it. How do we receive the cheongsam? Are we concerned with where it comes from, who the designer is or with the garment’s authenticity? Are we more likely to appreciate it if it’s made by a Western designer rather than a Chinese tailor? These are just some of the questions raised. Pointing to the problematic of the cultural identity and fashion, the installation looks at the cheongsam as an ontological figure juxtaposed to the fashion’s habitual structure, narrative and its unsavoury relationship with globalisation.

WESSIELING steers us through the maze of questions with the help of six city maps (Paris, London, New York, Milan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai) reworked into a gigantic pattern that envelops the gallery walls. The nameless street map is quick to take hostages, immersing and sinking the viewer into the world of fashion cities. Referring to the self-contained nature of the fashion industry, it isolates the spectator from the outside world providing an ornamented backdrop to the six identically cut cheongsams hung on reassembled clothes driers. Each dress, representing a distinctive fashion capital, features an individual city map. The inclusion of Hong Kong and Shanghai in this idiosyncratic club is due their unique relationship with the garment. The distinctive, bold prints map the fashion street names and fashion brands. Flaunting abstract asymmetric patterns, the cheongsams rely on the colour red to betray their Chinese-ness. It is also red that WESSIELING turns to when colouring the background motif, perhaps both to cheer its felicitous powers and ward off evil influences. All the dresses are made by a Chinese qipao tailor. However, instead of using traditionally favoured silk or brocade, the fabric, a mixture of cotton and satin has been specially designed to allow for the printing technique. From a distance the maps featured cannot be identified. However, a closer view reveals superimposed words printed along the streets. With the two coloured lenses to hand the viewer is encouraged to explore further. Working as a magnifying glass, each coloured lens decodes the overlapping words disclosing designer names and the names of the streets their boutiques are on. Invited to play a detective the viewer embarks on an interactive journey of discovery. The unveiling of the names is reminiscent of stripping layers from the glamorous facade of the fashion trade. What is left is the battered face of the hard labour behind the industry. This is illustrated with the reassembled clothes dryers the cheongsams are hung on. Solid and concrete, strong and functional they bring to the viewers attention the unappealing reality that has finally got its long deserved place in the spotlight.

Mapping Motifs: An exploratory journey through fashion, cities and identities is at AVA Gallery, School of Architecture and the Visual Arts, University of East London (Docklands Campus), University Way, London E16 2RD. From April 26 till May 6 2006.

Nadja Stamselberg born in Sarajevo, Former Yugoslavia, received her BA (Hons) in Fine Art Painting from Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London, followed by MA in Arts Criticism from City University, London. She is currently writing her PhD at Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.