Exploring Senses and Affect Through East Asian Art and Fashion
Affect / Touch / Texture / Textile / Fashion / East Asian Art
East Asian art is based on a strict geographic definition as well as a recognition of common bonds forged through the acceptance of the same religion – Buddhism – by many cultures. Visual arts, performing arts, music, and literature of China and Japan have been uniquely linked for several millennia by the common written language of Hanzi or Kanji, and by close cultural and political connections. To fully understand East Asian art, one must be able to recognize its diversity and its dynamic nature. However, the Western world so often ignores the fact that East Asian art represents the wisdom and cultural heritages that exist outside of all the fantasies and have been evolving over time – beyond porcelain, ink painting, and calligraphy.
The Western world’s first impression of East Asian art predominantly came from the boom of Japanese art in Europe during the nineteenth century – so profound that it has turned into a stereotype that still lingers today. The French term Japonisme, first described by French art critic and collector Philippe Burty in 1872, has witnessed the popularity and influence of Japanese arts among a group of Western European artists in the late nineteenth century following the forced reopening of foreign trade with Japan in 1853. During the period of Japonisme, Japanese decorative arts, including ceramics, enamels, metalwork, and lacquerware, were highly influential in the West. The first major international exhibition in which Japan has an independent section happened in London in 1862. According to art historian and curator Ayako Ono, this exhibition marked the point when Japan started to have a distinct cultural identity from the general category of the ‘Orient’. Following the Louvre and the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst Köln in Cologne, exhibitions in major museums in Britain, Germany, Denmark followed and eagerly added Japanese art to their collections. As design theorist Christopher Dresser said in a lecture in 1878 at the society of the Arts, Sir Rutherfod Alcock was the first British diplomatic representative to live in Japan who has introduced many of the Japanese arts to the English public for the first time:
It was in the year 1862 that I first formed an acquaintance with Japanese art, your Excellency, my chairman [Sir Rutherford Alcock], having in that year brought together a number of objects from this strange country, such as were then altogether new to us .... I need not tell your Excellency that you have the honour of having first made Japanese productions known to the English public.
Even then, Japanese art was still strange, mysterious, and very much ‘Oriental’ to most European art collectors. The majority of the collections from the Japonisme period foregrounded temples, kimono, geisha, and ukiyo-e as the signature artifacts of Japan.
With the demise of the first-generation Japanese art collectors and the change of ownership of important collections, Japonisme no longer held its primary influence. In the early twentieth century, Chinese art made its re-entrance as an equally popular replacement for Japonisme as the collision of Eastern and Western cultures and arts continued. At the time, the term Chinoiserie describes western imitation of Chinese art, the patterns, and motifs such as Chinese silk, blue-and-white porcelain, dragons, exotic birds, and strangely dressed Chinamen. In the end, Chinoiserie became so influential that it altered what Western people knew about authentic Chinese art. While a systematic collection of East Asian arts was formed in Western museums with mostly prints and handcrafts, the most valuable paintings, sculptures, and other works of art cherished by Chinese and Japanese collectors were carefully kept at home in Asia. The collections of the museums reflected the political environment and cultural characteristics of Japan and China at that time, yet they created an overwhelming impression of East Asian art that continues to influence how the Western world perceives it today. East Asian art pursues the fanciful rather than the real, ambiguity rather than truth, nothingness rather than existence. The aesthetics and ideas embedded in the art are highly culture-oriented, inseparable from the influence of religion and philosophy. Thus, the divergence between Western and East Asian cultures has impeded the communication between Western and Eastern arts. In fact, the Western world might have never fully seen or comprehended East Asian art.
What is East Asian art in today’s era? Having gained worldwide popularity, East Asian artists depict a different image of contemporary East Asian art. Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, trained in traditional Japanese painting style nihonga and inspired by abstract expressionism, works in paintings, performances, sculptures, and installations filled with accumulations, obsessions, and repetitions of motifs – notably dots. Through her infinite, repetitive works, Kusama chose to prioritize the desire of sharing her own mental world over highlighting characteristics of Japanese art. Artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been constantly deconstructing, re-claiming and re-imagining histories and traditions. The photographic series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) documents Ai dropping a valuable antique vase that was approximately 2,000 years old. Incorporating what he has called a “cultural readymade”, Ai forces viewers to consider issues of cultural transformation and destruction of the past – “building a new world by destroying the old one”, as himself explained. Artists like Kusama and Ai have been refreshing the Western world's knowledge of Eastern art beyond the stereotypes of Japonisme, Chinoiserie and the ‘Orient’. Perhaps the best way to apprehend East Asian art is not to try to define it, but to experience it dynamically.
An Online Exhibition
The COVID-19 global pandemic forced art institutions to swiftly adapt to an entirely new situation that left galleries and art fairs with highly restricted access and forced them to close to prevent the spread of the virus. While the global art world is looking for an alternative space for art to exist, digital space came out as a solution with new methods available for building art communities – virtual art tours, live-streamed artist talks and online interactive sessions. Art historian Sheila Hoffman argues that many major museums – such as MoMA, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim – understood the creation of online art exhibitions as a process of copying physical objects and practices to an online space, and thus relied primarily on the formats of online archives, AR and VR tours, educational videos and podcasts. Simply moving everything from a physical exhibition to a digital space often results in the failure to replicate the kind of experience acquired through physical movements and interactions. In previous attempts at creating online exhibitions during the past few years, art institutions have failed to utilize the unique experiences online platforms offer. Online exhibitions are not merely a compromise with the current situation of the pandemic. They are a necessary addition to curatorial practice as online art exhibitions are likely to become the new normal for both creators and viewers.
In a comparison between physical and online exhibitions, critics and viewers often put forward the importance of physicality in experiencing and perceiving art. The key to curating an online exhibition is a full utilization of digital resources. As curator Wang Xin argues, technology has made communal interactions possible for participants of online exhibitions:
One thing that is tricky to recreate virtually is the communal experience of viewing art. The viewing experiences are never perfectly synchronized, but that social space is crucial. At the same time, that communal aspect has already become technologically available: user-generated commentaries alongside screened content, for example, can produce the sensation of shared participation.
A new form of connectedness between the viewers can be reinforced through embracing technology. For the viewer of Sensing Texture, being able to sense the artwork is fundamental when engaging with textiles. Yet for many reasons, artworks are most likely to be untouchable, regardless of where the exhibition takes place. Sensing Texture experiments on delivering the sense of touch in two ways – through the activation of other senses (vision and hearing) and through indirect haptic interactions with the artwork. The later refers to testing the effect of vicarious touch, or “mirror touch”, the automatic simulation of touch observed on the body of another person, which is linked to the activation of a broad somatosensory cortical network during the visual perception of tactile sensations. Sensing Texture invites artists into the construction of the exhibition by filming videos of themselves making, styling, or interacting with textiles so that the viewer can feel the touch and the texture through image and sound.
Texture appeals to the senses. Referencing the tactile quality of a surface or a substance, texture can evoke initial reactions and feelings, such as pleasure, discomfort, familiarity, strangeness and even uncanniness. Artists are constantly exploring inventive ways of using texture to convey meanings and express emotions. The term “textile” shares the same Latin root with “texture” – texere, meaning “to weave”, “to braid”, or “to construct”. With fabric, one can see and feel its texture affected by the type of fabrics, method of manufacture, or finishing. Textile designers create textures through knotting, looping, braiding, weaving and dyeing threads of fabric. As an essential component in textile art and fashion design, texture decides the balance, proportion, and emphasis of a design piece, which further influences how viewers perceive it. Derived from the Latin word affectus, meaning “disposition”, affect refers to the underlying experience of feeling, emotion, or mood in psychology, and is pre-personal. The type of experience affect involves is nonconscious – it reveals the inner dynamics of the individuals who are experiencing art. Affect is the most direct reflection of the senses that are activated, and thus is essential to the viewer’s communication and understanding. Therefore, the technique of textile making greatly determines how the viewer generates meanings when engaging with a textile art or fashion design.
In ancient China, textiles had been developed to indicate the wearer's place in the social order. A complicated system was invented that would offer a wide variety of textile-making methods to match the complex structure of this feudal society with strict, hierarchical principles. Clothes not only satisfied the diverse needs of people but also served as symbolic representations to differentiate the social classes. Historians Feng Zhao and Le Wang have sorted out a glossary that presents eighty items of textile terminology through careful research and study of the documents from the cities of Dunhuang (敦煌) and Turfan (吐鲁番) – two important sites on the Silk Road in Chinese Central Asia. According to the glossary, there are several kinds of silk corresponding to different weaving techniques including plain weave (juan, lian, ge, zhi, gua, jian, man, shi), damask (ling, qi, qi zheng), gauze (luo, sha), polychrome compound weave (jin, Zhuang hua), with resist-dye design (xie, lu tai), embroidery (xiu) and other techniques (cai, hu, jian). While there were dramatic differences between the time, labour, money and other resources needed to perform these techniques, the appearance alone could convey the value of the fabric and assert the status of its wearer. Some of these textile terms also indicated the specific patterns and colours of fabric. For instance, Kongque ling (孔雀绫), literally, “peacock ling”, refers to a damask with a pattern showing a pair of symmetrical peacocks that Zhao and Wang describe as being “face to face, holding one knot in their beaks,” a highly exclusive pattern during the Tang Dynasty that only government officials could wear. Patterns like Kongque ling were so delicate that they required extra labour to produce and thus were valuable enough to designate those of higher social class. Similarly, colours such as yellow, purple, and gold were strictly regulated in both ancient China and ancient Japan since they symbolized wealth, power and royalty. The Chinese considered yellow of a golden hue the most prestigious colour – representing the centre of the earth and everything that generates Yin and Yang. Overall, textiles from ancient China and Japan mostly reflected the political structure, social values, folk cultures, and religious beliefs of the time, rather than expressing the ideas and emotions of particular individuals.
Contemporary East Asian artists and fashion designers are reinventing meanings for textiles without abandoning traditions or history. Recent Japanese textile design draws on the traditions of its ancient craft practices. In order to preserve both the practical and aesthetic expertise in traditional Japanese textile practices and sustain its value for today, artist and scholar Tim Parry-Williams argues that contemporary artists and designers should apply textile-making techniques based on comprehensive studies:
Contemporary textile needs to embrace traditional practice in its fullest sense, operating out of the fields, workshops, and factories of both urban and country locales, employ willing hearts, minds and hands, sustain the fullest portfolio of material and fibre, and, while acknowledging and partnering tradition, inspire a new hybridity and textile future.
A new generation of artists eager to innovate and experiment with materials and techniques have inherited the traditions while using textile to create images and express ideas. Sensing Texture brings East Asian art and culture to a Western audience and introduces them to traditional Chinese and Japanese dyeing and weaving techniques, which the artists apply to express contemporary themes. These artists represent a generation whose creations are based on cultural traditions yet also reflect on modern notions of self, time, and change.
While studying traditional textile-dyeing techniques, artists create symbolic images on various fabric surfaces that activate affect and senses of the viewer. Japanese illustrator and textile artist NOGCHI YUKA's textile paintings express how human minds are influenced by the outside world and how that influence leads to the formation of various emotions. She has used several techniques including Yuzen dyeing (友禪染), Katazome (型染), discharge printing (拔染) to apply colours to the fabric. Rather than adopting traditional Japanese decorative motifs, NOGCHI YUKA’s illustrations frequently depict a female animation character as a reflection of herself. In her series of works, including Things That Move (2021), the artist purifies her overwhelming emotions that have been accumulating inside by “drawing” on fabric, as an act of exhaling out the inner chaos from her body. Chinese fashion designer Syoei Ko made NEWS (2018) – a pair of monochrome shirts – with Katazome and Batik (wax printing). The artist has selected two sets of keywords trending on Chinese social media, one of which includes scandals and negative reports that were exposed on the Internet while the other includes words extracted from the official news program of China, CCTV News, that promotes the prosperity of the country. Ko printed the set of negative keywords in white against black on one shirt, and reversed the colour use for the set of positive keywords on the other shirt. With such a design, the artist forms a comparison between two opposite sides of reality, reminding viewers that even things written in black and white can be true and misleading at the same time. Ko intentionally blurred the line between fashion and art by making NEWS both wearable and meaningful. Like Ko, Chinese artist DODO also applied Batik in the creation of her textile painting, Commensalism (2020), which depicts a harmonious marine ecosystem where animals and plants are interdependent. Japanese fashion designer and photographer No.44, on the other hand, combined a modern technique, thermal transfer print, with a traditional technique, Edo Embroidery (江戸刺繍, or silk gauze embroidery), experimenting with the ultra-thin material to deliver the sense of touch as well as an intimate relationship with the human body. Her fashion design Ikebana (2019) adopts ideas from the Japanese art of flower arrangement, which symbolizes the conventional definition of “beauty” that the artist stands against.
Artists also re-imagine traditions with modern expressions and technologies. Chinese artist Zhe Wang created her installation Prologue (2020) with self-developed 3D-printing technology. Instead of using common 3D-printing materials such as resins, plastics, or metals, the artist turned her own calligraphy works into paper pulp and let the machine stack layers of paper pulp with random textures on top of each other. Expressing the artist's reflection on the collision of cultural heritage and modern industrialization, Wang's unique technique endows Prologue with two opposite tactile qualities: the coldness of machines and the warmth of handmade works.
Combining multiple techniques and experimenting with uncommon materials, the artists have given textile diverse forms and rich textures, bringing infinite possibilities for contemporary textile design. Japanese graphic and textile designer Runa Takeuchi went through a complex process that involves silk screen printing, cutting, foil processing, foaming, and bonding to produce her multi-piece installation Composition and Structure (2020), which offers a variety of textures that evoke the viewer’s desire to touch. Takeuchi turned flat fabric surfaces into three-dimensional objects and gave volume to the textile so that it can maintain its shape without being attached to the human body or other objects. Japanese artist Ime Taso’s work Heaven until the end (2020) combines colourful yarn threads and variable memorable items through knitting and embroidery. Such a combination represents times and memories that cannot be expressed in words. Ime Taso focuses on showing the complexity and the flamboyance of the textures, which invite the viewer into a mysterious space. Applying Kausri (絣, or ikat), Chinese artist Jingyi Guan and Japanese artist Nozomi Saikai both explore transformations of fabrics and create abstract textile art that affects the viewer’s perception of space and senses. In her work Fluttering Line (2020), Nozomi purposefully disrupts the regular patterns to reinvigorate them while making them unpredictable. Guan created the textile installation Castle, Light, Building, People (2022) by transforming a figurative image of an urban night scene into regular geometric patterns based on her impression and feelings. The texture of the textile adds a sense of space to the work.
Working with textiles in adventurous ways, the artists in this exhibition experiment with new possibilities of applying time-honoured techniques and skills to express new ideas. Their works introduce the current trends of East Asian art and challenge the long-standing western filter of ‘Oriental’ aesthetics. While each artwork revolves around different ideas and themes, they all activate the sense of touch through texture. With paintings, installations and fashion designs exhibited in a virtual space, the viewer is invited to re-discover contemporary East Asian art through an uncommon sensory experience.
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Renee Ge (葛润宁)
Based in Hangzhou and Toronto, Ge majored in Art History and Media Studies at the University of Toronto and is currently enrolled in the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program (MFA) at OCAD University.