The stream of people flooding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s main lobby Friday were oblivious to the swarm of curators, conservationists and production specialists one flight below installing “China: Through the Looking Glass.”
Two and a half times larger than any previous Costume Institute exhibition, this Andrew Bolton-created extravaganza features a moonlit oasis in the Astor Court, a LED-lit bamboo forest and what is meant to be reminiscent of an opium den.
While navigating this warren of galleries and passages, museumgoers will eye 140 haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear pieces; not-to-be-believed Stephen Jones headdresses; The Last Emperor’s childhood robe; an array of Chinese masterpieces; costumes; paintings; porcelains, and other art. Then there’s the subtle mood lighting, mirrored walls reflecting projections of several award-winning films and dramatic music.
In line with the artistic direction of filmmaker Wong Kar Wai (who is known to take three years to make a movie), a cadre of electricians, lighting specialists and other construction types were painstakingly adjusting every last detail in the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery. And “Interstellar” production designer Nathan Crowley has been ensconced in the museum, helping to heighten the multimedia elements of the show. Imperial China, Nationalist China and Communist China will be represented throughout the exhibition.
Bolton said, “I wanted there to be some resonance to the garments and to the historical pieces. I wanted to get away from anything that smacked of storytelling. I wanted the items on display to be didactic.
“The difference between appropriation and inspiration,” Bolton said, “…after Edward Siad published his treatise on Orientalism in the late Seventies, his main critique of Orientalism was that it sort of essentialized Eastern cultures as this monolithic other. What we’re trying to do in the exhibition, while not discrediting his theories they have resonance and are absolutely appropriate for part of the story of Orientalism, but another part of the story is a less political interpretation of Orientalism where the East is seen as this culture of unbridled inspiration and creativity. Many designers tend to look to other cultures, even their own cultures really on a very surface level. It’s about aesthetics really, and they often don’t engage with the cultural context. Certainly, when it comes to Orientalism they engage with motifs.”
During Friday’s prep work, the production crew seemed to inhale collectively when one of the showstoppers — a piece designed by artist Li Xiaofeng that looks like a strapless dress made of shattered Ming porcelain — was raised onto a display form. The artist also designed the crate that was needed to stabilize the creation when it was shipped from China.
Another area inspired by Chinese opera will feature a handful of gowns that John Galliano designed for Christian Dior in 2003. (The designer already passed through and compared the experience to seeing an old friend.)
Organized in collaboration with the Department of Asian Art, “China: Through the Looking Glass” will also lead visitors through the museum’s Chinese Galleries, where they will find an Alexander McQueen gown set in a soothing Gournay wallpapered setting, a 1962 bulbous floral Balenciaga dress encased in glass like a piece of fine art and striking all-black Craig Green men’s wear hidden in the aforementioned forest.
The multisensory show is meant to encourage Costume Institute and Asian Art fans to explore areas of the museum that they might not normally gravitate toward. Visitors to the show also will find an assortment of designer-made products inspired by the exhibition in the Met Store. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Cartier, Marc Alary, Stephen Jones, de Gournay, Mary Katrantzou, Jennifer Fisher, Judith Leiber, and Irene Neuwirth have created accessories, stationery and jewelry to reflect the impact of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, and how China has fueled the fashionable imagination for centuries.. The limited edition merchandise will be sold in The Met’s store starting Tuesday through August 16 .
Bolton said of the show, “We wanted to try to give greater access to the East and West, and to try to minimize the gap between East and West.”