nicholas p. fernacz

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(fig. 1) Heinrich Josef Schütz, A View in Kew Gardens of the Alhambra and the Pagoda, detail, 1813, aquatint with watercolor, 35.9 x 43.8 cm
image courtesy | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

His Majesty, King George III, during the majority of the late 18th century, lived across multiple royal residencies including Buckingham Palace, but none was more enticing than the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew situated in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames. Here, buildings and flora from across the globe enveloped George III, transporting him to various locales both under his colonial rule and otherwise. One folly, unlike the rest, was truly an architectural feat: The Great Pagoda, likely based upon two 18th century pagodas situated in the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Contemporary scholarship criticizes the designer of this building, Sir William Chambers, over his two publications on the subject of Chinese gardens where his language flattens the many complexities of Chinese gardening as a discipline, but also celebrates him for his early conceptualization of Chinese gardens in the West.[1] In said publications, Chambers essentializes the gardens into what he describes as modular displays based upon three constructions of views—the pleasing, horrid, and enchanted—established through endlessly interchangeable artifices, flora and fauna.[2] However, Chambers’ pagoda also functions through two methodologies of design: (1) the construction of a Sinicized view, as written about by Chambers himself, and (2) popular during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, the use of sensuous qualities to delight a beholder to a decorative object, as theorized by Jonathan Hay in his book, Sensuous Surfaces: the Decorative Object in Early Modern China. These two design techniques, as well as the theatricality of gardens where movement through space is central to the experience, merge to establish a truly Chinese encounter for the King. The Great Pagoda serves not only as chinoiserie exotica—imitation Chinese ornament—but also as a theatrical set upon which the King of England could perform as his Chinese equivalent, the Qianlong Emperor, for personal exoticism or heightened diplomatic strategizing. Furthermore, beyond Kew, the appropriation of architectural styles in royal and imperial garden spaces is a reciprocal effort appearing in both Europe and China, highlighting not only a mutuality in exoticism, but also the yearning for cultural contact with the exotic, most evident within courtly garden spaces.

Moving backward, a publication from 1773 entitled, A New Display of the Beauties of England, cites the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as the premier green England offers; although this is not quantified on the page, Kew and all its artifices are listed as the first beauty of England, considering Kew at the time of publication was “honoured with being the residence of his Majesty.”[3] The author recapitulates the experience of Kew, taking the reader sequentially through the palace and garden spaces. A New Display of the Beauties of England captivates the reader, drawing them down the paths of Kew as the King of England would have walked them.

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(fig. 2) Thomas Sandby, View of the Menagerie at Kew, 1763, watercolor, 27.5 x 45 cm
image courtesy | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

Admiration of his Majesty’s parks occurred as a ritual. King George III would rise, daily, between seven and eight in the morning and take “walks round the gardens” before meeting his bride, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, for breakfast at half past eight.[4] Kew Palace, as described in A New Display of the Beauties of England, is a “neat, plain building, but by no means suitable to the dignity of a King of Great Britain.” However, the great hall, and the palace more broadly, was a heavily ornamented space where the King could admire furniture, decoration, and paintings, each of both domestic and international provenances. Moving through the great hall to the passage that leads to the gardens, the King perhaps walked through his Majesty’s apartment before embarking outside. Upon leaving the palace, George III would view what was once a barren, flat plain, that “with great expense and labour … is now a kind of Eden.” The first pavilion the King encounters through his tour is the Temple of the Sun, a circular peripteros building featuring a Corinthian colonnade. Inside, his Majesty would be welcomed by a gilt interior with basso relievo featuring the Sun among festoons of flowers and the twelve zodiacs; although subtle, references to Greek and Roman mythology are the first remark on exotic philosophy. Beyond the Temple of the Sun and through the Exotic Garden and then the Flower Garden, the King would stroll on a short winding-walk that led his Majesty to The Menagerie, an ovular pavilion that housed pens of Chinese and Tartarian pheasants among many other exotic birds, beside which stood a small Chinese gazebo designed after an open ting (亭) (Figure 2). George III would then find himself passing four Roman buildings, The Temple of Bellona, The Temple of the God Pan, The Temple of Æolus, and The Temple of Solitude.[5] Near the Temple of Æolus, at the head of the lake, stands a two-story octagonal building often cited as The House of Confucius, (Figure 3). Grotesque paintings featuring motifs of Confucius and the Jesuit missions to China decorate the interior walls. Looking out from The House of Confucius, the King would have a pleasant view of the lake and gardens. From there, his Majesty could go for another short walk to an octagonal seat before ensuing towards the Theater of Augusta and the Temple of Victory, Roman and French buildings respectively. Moving towards the upper part of the garden, George III would find himself at The Alhambra, a Moresque building, and The Great Pagoda, a tower based upon designs of “Eastern temples,” specifically a Chinese ta (塔) (Figure 4).[6]

A New Display of the Beauties of England fosters an experience of Kew in which The Great Pagoda acts as a climactic point during a tour of his Majesty’s gardens. Spending three extended paragraphs discussing the dazzling nature of the tower, A New Display of the Beauties of England envisions this pavilion as one of the most important buildings on the King’s tour. Following his engagement with the pagoda, the King would circle around and see the rest of his garden pavilions before returning to the palace for an afternoon tea; and just like this A New Display of the Beauties of England shows little interest in the final pavilions George III would encounter.

Coming upon The Great Pagoda, designed by Sir William Chambers and completed in 1762, his Majesty would be enchanted with the tower (Figure 5). The pagoda consists of nine stories, each diminishing along the same mathematical proportion, totaling a staggering height of almost fifty meters. The roofs are modeled after the Chinese sweeping roof, with its tapered ends ornamented by a glass dragon, each offering a “dazzling reflexion [sic]” that emanated from the eighty beasts.[7] The King would see his brick tower, imposing over him, with the underside of its protruding roofs decorated by varnished iron in a black-and-white striped pattern. These roofs act as lips between each floor, propelling the mathematical diminishment upwards fostering an illusion of immense height when viewing the building from the ground. The base of the tower extends outwards onto a large patio where white pillars prop up the lower awning. This lower level appears roughly two and a half times human height, achieving great scale over the inhabitant. After this story, the interior floors are rather small, feeling claustrophobic within the tower, which diminish to about human size by the ninth floor. The construction of the brick walls of the tower reflect an English sensibility for material and design, however, the red maintains the reverie of Chinese architecture. Fenestration occurs on very other wall of the octagonal building, besides the upper viewing deck which has eight windows, each offering a distinct view of London and the surrounding landscape. These inset windows are long, rectangular and rounded at the top with a decorative border consisting of two bricks. Each floor of the pagoda features a non-functional balcony with a typical Chinese pen-shaft lattice fence in white. The decorative roof top of the tower leads to a point decorated by a golden spiraling “umbrella” lightning rod, reminiscent of Chinese stupas—interestingly also referred to by the character ta (塔). The 18th century interior of the structure was once filled with furnishings both European and Chinese, however today is painted light blue and white with a wooden floor.

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(fig. 3) Sir William Chambers, The House of Confucius, ca. 1720-1762, engraving, 37.5 x 54 cm
image courtesy | Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT

Upon entering the pagoda, his Majesty could ascend the central staircase, looking outward to view his country, from Hampstead and Highgate, to Surrey and Banstead-downs.[8] The Great Pagoda is perhaps the most wondrous building within Kew gardens, the resplendent ornament, the act of ascension by way of a spiral staircase, and the striking view his Majesty could take from the highest point in England at one time. However, this building also offers an inherently Chinese experience to its inhabitants by way of design. The stunning effect offered by the dragons, the richly painted surfaces, and the balcony fences reiterate the Ming-Qing material culture that Chambers references in both the design of his pagoda and his publications on the subject of Chinese gardening. The myriad buildings designed by Sir William Chambers display King George III’s fondness for Middle Eastern and Chinese tastes, despite the general preference for Roman and Grecian examples among the gentry class.[9]

By taking the King of England on a long and detouring path towards The Great Pagoda, Chambers heightens the dazzling effects that the building inspires. The creation of tension throughout the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, giving his Majesty hints at encounters with China as he walks across the green builds suspense as the King anticipates his approach to The Great Pagoda. In doing so, Chambers expands the temporality of the experience of The Great Pagoda, gradually inviting George III deeper into the chinoiserie atmosphere of the building; the gardens intrigue his Majesty to lose himself in the experience of the building, its dazzling surfaces, and overall luster. In this way, The Great Pagoda expands the scopic techniques developed in Chinese gardens that Chambers recounts in his publications. Chambers describes Chinese gardens as winding circumambulated walks, punctuated by small pavilions, seats, or choreographed views. However, the scale of these spaces is disparate. European landscape gardens are exponentially larger than their Chinese equivalents. Thus, Chambers fosters a sensual experience in which his Majesty would slowly come upon The Great Pagoda, nurturing a fetishistic view of Chinese gardens and culture. By adopting the methodology of pleasing and enchanted garden views at Kew, Chambers layers the ways in which The Great Pagoda, and the views the beholder can take of it, are indeed enchanted and Sinicized.

Chambers’ two publications on Chinese gardening, his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, and On the Art of Laying out Gardens Among the Chinese, were not only hugely influential among the English and French aristocracy—being translated into French—but also largely formulated Chamber’s own architectural practice at Kew, specifically informing The Great Pagoda and the few other Chinese examples.[10] Chambers’ publications came after his two trips to China with the Swedish East India company where he spent time in the gardens of Guangzhou. In Guangzhou, Chambers built a repertoire of knowledge upon which he could draw for his publications and architectural endeavors at Kew in London by visiting multiple scholar gardens. Beyond Chambers’ lists of what artifices, flora and fauna are and are not appropriate in Chinese garden spaces, Chambers develops his notion of the view within said gardens. Here, he references the pleasing, horrid, and enchanted as the three principal views one can take within scholar gardens, and goes on to say that Chinese gardens are meticulously designed to inspire these types of views.[11] These views reflect contemporary ideas about views in European landscape gardens, showing Chambers’ effort to highlight the familiar within the exotic.[12] Chambers does not necessarily delineate the pleasing, for it is rather self-explanatory, but the enchanted is cited as romantic in the Western conception, and the horrid is diagnosed through features that are rather frightening such as jagged rocks and caverns.[13] Chambers describes the gardens of Guangzhou—the only city in China he ever visited—as short winding walks where the modular displays of pavilions, birds, vegetation and waterways would construct these various views for the beholder. Chambers directly implements the ‘enchanted’ and ‘pleasing’ views within and around The Great Pagoda in order for the experience of the pavilion to offer an authentically ‘Chinese’ experience. Through the layering of natural and artificial ornamentation, Chambers employs the same strategies he observed in Guangzhou in order to present the King with a Chinese garden space his Majesty could enjoy. According to John Harris, visitors audibly gasped at the sight of The Great Pagoda, stating that the pagoda is, and continues to be, the most ambitious chinoiserie structure in Europe.[14] The construction of Chinese viewing methods is a covert form of chinoiserie—less obvious than deliberate motifs, but it is just one strategy Chambers drew upon from the discipline of Chinese gardening that contributes to the chinoiserie atmosphere of The Great Pagoda in order to create an idyllic Chinese experience for the King of England.

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(fig. 4) Heinrich Josef Schütz, A View in Kew Gardens of the Alhambra and the Pagoda, 1813, aquatint with watercolor, 35.9 x 43.8 cm
image courtesy | The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY

Kew’s Great Pagoda its atmosphere acts as a ‘chinoiserie objectscape’, a notion conceptualized by Jonathan Hay in his book, Sensuous Surfaces. The Ming-Qing ‘surfacescape’ can be described as a decorative object’s surface qualities with its imbued agency, where the surface begs to be touched through sensuous qualities like texture and form. The link between Chambers’ and Hay’s writing is evident here. Chambers writes that Chinese gardens “inspire an emotional response within the viewer” and “arouse curiosity,” which are indeed sensuous qualities.[15] The ‘objectscape’ implies that decorations—and their sensuousness—are situated among other decor, ornament, or material that contribute to an overall sensuous environment. The concept of the objectscape, and its role at Kew, is further developed through the visual strategies employed by Chambers within his design of The Great Pagoda. Ming-Qing surfacescapes, according to Hay, have the ability to reflexively “take on the character of vehicles for non-artistic processes—the exercise of taste, [and] self-fashioning.”[16] Hay goes on to assert that beholders’ interactions with decorative objects are inspired through an appeal “to the hand and eye in distinctive ways.”[17] In investigating decoration and ornament in Ming-Qing material culture, Hay finds that the conjoining of the man-made and natural constitute an ephemeral hybridity that is delightfully enchanting for beholders of decorative objects, which Hay mentions could include architectural structures, however, this idea is never fully developed.[18] Hybrid objects—that hybridity being constituted by the marriage of the man-made and natural—is exemplified by potted flowers, but on a larger scale could include The Great Pagoda and its greater environment. Hybridity within a decorative object expands the sensory possibilities with which to experience the ornament itself. An example is the evolving form of cut flowers housed in a vase, wilting over time, or the various diffuses of light and those reflections produced on the vessel for said flowers. These qualities inspire the beholder to take interest with the object throughout its lifetime to experience it in all its capacities, forever a mutating experience.

The Great Pagoda’s objectscape provides such an inherently ephemeral experience. The fleetingness of time, light, and temperature affect the beholder of the tower in myriad ways, offering different emotional appeals to the inhabitant through various sensory inputs.[19] His Majesty enjoying The Great Pagoda on a hot summer day would see the highly reflective glass surfaces of his tamed dragons perched, shorebird wings cocked back, tongues twisting forward, and the aroma of China broad leaved pine filling the air with the bewitching perfume of terpenes. Perhaps at night, the twinkling stars overhead would imbue those dragons with a liveliness, awaiting his Majesty with an eerie domesticity. As the King would enter The Great Pagoda, the gilt interior would glisten and reflect light, inviting him to ascend the staircase. In arriving at the top, he could view his country, itself an ever-changing, or ephemeral, landscape during the industrious 18th century. Although the view of London that The Great Pagoda offered him was fundamentally English, the rich surroundings of the tower maintained the chinoiserie reverie. Thus, the King’s engagement with the pagoda would enact a quasi-theatrical sequence tied to the atmospherics of chinoiserie that The Great Pagoda facilitates. The Great Pagoda acts as a stage for his Majesty to embody rulership within China, personifying the Qianlong Emperor, not only through the enchanting visual strategy of Chinese garden pavilions, but also through the Ming-Qing environs of The Great Pagoda’s objectscape and general regality of the structure. The King could feel as though he was the ruler of another nation in fantasy aided by the built environment.

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(fig. 5) James Basir, Plans, elevations, sections, and perspective views of the gardens and buildings at Kew…, 1763, etching, 53.6 x 37 cm
image courtesy | The British Museum, London

Through Hay’s understanding of the decorative object, The Great Pagoda offers itself to various avenues of exploration that have previously gone understudied. Not only does the Great Pagoda fascinate the hand and eye through its resplendent features and architectural motifs, but the atmosphere of the space is also inherently Chinese, that is to say, functions through the same decorative arts strategies as Ming-Qing material culture. As King George III would walk toward The Great Pagoda he was not only met with other Chinese pavilions, but also Chinese pheasants, Platanus orientalis, and most importantly the enchanting view that Chambers conceptualized from his writings on the subject of Chinese scholar gardens (Figure 6).[20] Through exaggerated Chinese motifs and atmospherics, The Great Pagoda acts as an exceedingly ‘Chinese’ building where his Majesty could personify the Qianlong Emperor through experiencing the sights, sounds and smells that are as authentically Chinese as Chambers could possibly conjure in England through his limited sense of what Chinese gardens were like, and the methodologies that Chinese gardens were operating under.

The Great Pagoda and its theatricality, constituted by the choreographed movement through a heightened chinoiserie atmosphere, serves the King of England as a fantastical experience, conceived to typify the experience of the Chinese garden methodology to the fullest extent within the established hierarchy of 18th century English landscape garden design. Through fantasy, his Majesty could reenact the leisure culture of Chinese scholar gardens—a mirrored environment not dissimilar to the spaces the Qianlong Emperor would walk through. In this way, George III and the richness of Kew’s Chinese ornamentation would merge to produce an imaginative sequence where his Majesty could reproduce the experiences, sights, sounds and smells within Chinese gardens, albeit in England. By employing not only Chinese decorative arts design techniques, but also scopic enterprises devised in Chinese garden spaces, Chambers envisions a complete chinoiserie fantasy for the King. Furthermore, the act of looking out from the top of The Great Pagoda served as a seat for his Majesty to hold, overlooking his country from a quasi-Chinese ‘throne’. In doing so, George III could imagine himself ruling over China despite looking across England, thus engaging in a form of theater.

Readers of this paper may take pause at the application of a methodology developed around strictly Chinese material culture and decorative arts—Hay’s Sensuous Surfaces—towards a non-Chinese building. Nevertheless, it must be noted that intellectual leaps such as this are made throughout landscape garden history. For example, Michael Symes writes about the term ‘fabrique’ in regards to English gardens in his article “The Concept of the “Fabrique”.” Symes charts the history of the fabrique in French and English landscape garden design. Translated from Larousse, he cites this definition of the term: “a small picturesque building intended for the ornament of a park, particularly an English garden.”[21] Although not small, The Great Pagoda can be considered one of many fabriques throughout Kew. Adapted from a painting idiom, 18th century scholars deployed this expression—fabrique— in order to conceptualize objects within physical garden spaces. In the 18th century, there was a widely held belief that the landscape garden was undoubtedly related to landscape painting, and thus the artist’s rendition of natural beauty was turned outwards toward the environment. Furthermore, Chambers himself argued that Chinese gardeners were “not only botanists but painters and philosophers as well.”[22] Based upon this, we can see that the history of garden design, and the way it has been written about, is inextricably linked to other art-making disciplines. Larousse’s definition of fabrique, once extended to The Great Pagoda, fits into the established language Chambers already uses to describe not only his pagoda, but also Chinese “ornamental gardening” as a subdiscipline in the field. The Great Pagoda, despite drawing inspiration from Chinese religious architecture, functions as a fabrique within Kew in order to fulfill an external non-artistic process, as Hay suggests in Sensuous Surfaces. Argued here, this non-artistic process is the fanciful course through which King George III could self-fashion as the Qianlong Emperor through the construction of a chinoiserie atmosphere upon the Kew grounds. Through the stripping of religious association within The Great Pagoda, Chambers reduces the intended function of the Chinese ta to simply ornament.

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(fig. 6) Humphry Repton, Figures 194, 195 showing Great Pagoda perspectives, ca. 1840, engraving, unknown dimensions
included in | “Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” London, 1840

In order to understand Kew’s Great Pagoda, it is necessary to have an understanding of the globality of exotica in the 18th century. Greg Thomas touches on internationality and identifies a mutuality in appropriation between European and Chinese palace cultures during the 18th century in an article titled “Yuanming Yuan/Versailles: Intercultural Interactions Between Chinese and European Palace Cultures.”[23] While Thomas’ example focuses specifically on Yuanming Yuan (圆明园) and Versailles, his argument can be extrapolated in order to think about the similar relationship occurring between England and China at this time. Due to the nature of the appropriations taking place between the Qianlong Emperor and European rulers, readers of history can interpret a global exoticism that took place during the 18th century, which does not disinclude England. Both the Qianlong Emperor and King George III intended to reproduce the exotic’s royal leisure culture through the constructed fantasies at Yuanming Yuan, or the Garden of Perfect Brightness, and at Kew respectively. While Yuanming Yuan expands upon Kew’s appropriations in that there is an expansive European palace plantation in Beijing, it is evident that both rulers had a taste for exotica. Both Qianlong and George III had exotic pavilions designed and built on their palace grounds in order to domesticate the exotic through familiarizing nonnative motifs. Once this familiarization occurred, each ruler could enact a mutual theatricality within the garden spaces, self-fashioning as they chose.

The European palaces at Yuanming Yuan in Beijing function through a reverse mutuality where the Qianlong Emperor could personify the King of England, or perhaps other European rulers by viewing imported technologies, living in Baroque palaces and even governing over an illusionistic avenue constructed through an inherently European trompe l’oeil fantasy. This European atmosphere at Yuanming Yuan enacts an inversed but shared exotic gaze between China and Europe, reinforcing the draw for rulers on the world stage to construct spaces for fantasy outside of serious diplomatic strategy. The Qianlong Emperor entrusted Giuseppe Castiglione with designing a series of European palaces across a large swath of land at the Old Summer Palace, perhaps the most well-known of which is Haiyantang (海晏堂) (Figure 7).[24] Qianlong requested hybrid Baroque-Neoclassical buildings and pavilions to be constructed across a large park at Yuanming Yuan featuring topiaries, aquariums and large water fountains where he could relish in the exoticism of Européennerie—exotic European forms deployed as ornament. At the European palaces of Yuanming Yuan, the Emperor could admire his vast collection of European technologies such as mechanical clocks introduced by the Jesuit missionaries, thus producing an atmosphere of Europe in which the Emperor could envelope himself in Western aristocratic culture, enacting a reversed but mutual sensuousness. Therefore, Qianlong mirrored George III through not only a reciprocal appropriation of exotic structures and royal leisure, but also through the act of exotic looking in a theatrical setting in order to fulfill a fantasy of rulership over the foreign, most notably at Perspective Hill, translated from the Chinese Xianfashan (线法山).

The Jesuits constructed and introduced a trompe l’oeil illusion for the Qianlong Emperor on Perspective Hill, the easternmost example of Européennerie within the European palace complex at Yuanming Yuan (Figure 8). Perspective Hill was a large Baroque viewing gazebo in which the Emperor could gaze upon Perspective Painting East of the Lake (Hudong xianfahua 湖东线法画), a backdrop that employs a series of stage flats painted in trompe l’oeil in order to trick the eye into viewing a fully three-dimensional European city street (Figure 9, 10). Here the Emperor could envision himself as a European ruler, gazing down upon his European city through an inherently European mode of visualization. This may seem unconvincing to a Western audience, but for a Chinese audience in the 18th century, trompe l’oeil and one-point perspective were entirely foreign scopic enterprises. Perspective Hill directly challenges Kew’s Great Pagoda as a fantastical viewing experience, however, does so through similar means. The Qianlong Emperor not only viewed his land from a European pavilion within his gardens, but also employed a trompe l’oeil, or exotic scopic experience, in order to establish a convincing European city street constructed through theatrical design. In doing so, the Qianlong Emperor is mutually co-opting a foreign experience in order to foster an aspirational fantasy of European rule.

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(fig. 7) Ilantai, Fountains from the Yuanming yuan European Palaces, engraved ca. 1781-1786, copper engraving, 55 x 80 cm, unknown collection

Kristina Kleutghen writes extensively about the Qianlong’s experience within the Western Palace complex, and argues that the European palaces indeed are more complicated than simply a fantastical excursion. Instead, Kleutghen argues that the Emperor’s self-fashioning in the gardens in fact fostered a refined experience for the Son of Heaven through an intricate understanding of European modes of viewing. In Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, she forwards that through the trick of trompe l’oeil at Perspective Painting East of the Lake, the Qianlong could revel in his access to comprehending European pictorial methods.[25] Indeed, the Emperor’s understanding of trompe l’oeil brought him great pleasure, and this access was circulated to only his closest coterie in the imperial court; guests in this space were limited and the printed album depicting the Western villas were distributed to only but a few selected members of the court.[26] While he was generally uninterested in diplomatic engagements with Europe—typically avoiding any mention of specific countries altogether—it is clear through Qianlong’s guarding of this optical trick that European scopic enterprises held cultural capital in 18th century China.[27]

Defining the theatricality of chinoiserie and gardens is of critical importance. Chinoiserie possesses theatrical qualities in that it presents a heightened display through multivalent lenses of exotica, performing an abstraction or alternative reality. Chinoiserie is authentic in tandem with being inauthentic through these multivalent lenses where Europe adapted Chinese motifs, and China then responded with Occidental versions of their own decorative arts exports—seen in particular through blue-and-white porcelain production in the 17th and 18th centuries. Theatricality provides an experience that is parallel to daily life, where Kew’s nonnative architectural motifs act as conduits for grafting personal fantasies. The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew are a perfect setting for theater, mimicking the sights, sounds, and movement of places throughout the world. Creating a marvelous experience through theater fosters limitless possibilities within the defined stage; at Kew, the stage begins as King George III exits his mansion and enters the green. A contemporary imagining of his Majesty’s experience in the garden appears in a replica of the newly renovated Great Pagoda of today, displaying the King, accompanied by Queen Charlotte and the rest of his entourage, choreographed along a track processing through the gardens among zebras peacocks and kangaroos. By spinning little wheels with handles, visitors can operate the scene, making it come to life. As the visitor controls these wheels, the King makes his way about the garden passing the mosque, pagoda and alhambra. Here, and in reality, a walk through Kew is especially dramatic, or theatrical, due to the scope of its chinoiserie and other exotic structures, and the multiple methodologies through which Chambers channeled The Great Pagoda’s design. In providing such an elaborate stage featuring The Great Pagoda as part of a sensuous chinoiserie objectscape, Chambers convinces the King of England that he may indeed have transported out of the Kingdom. This imbued theatricality is crucial to understanding his Majesty’s experience within said stage.

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(fig. 8) Ilantai, Hill of Perspective, engraved ca. 1783-1786, copper engraving, 76.2 x 111.76 cm
image courtesy | Museo Italo Americano, San Francisco, CA

Despite a mutuality in appropriations, the inquisitiveness King George III directed towards the Qianlong Emperor was not entirely shared. In fact, King George III sent an embassy led by George Leonard Staunton to China in the late 18th century, however, it was not a diplomatic success.[28] Nonetheless, his Majesty was eager to gather as much information about China as possible in order to make an informed appeal to the Emperor to increase trade access for Britain.[29] It is safe to infer that George III desired to understand China and the Qianlong Emperor better personally—in addition to his political motivations—due to his Majesty’s taste for Chinese motifs. King George III can be seen as attempting to understand how the Emperor thinks, perhaps in order to gain a deeper conceptualization of how the Son of Heaven operated politically. However, Britain’s attitude towards China was ambivalent, where China was largely seen as a “rival on the world stage.”[30] Through The Great Pagoda, his Majesty could embody the Qianlong Emperor, thus allowing him to, at least hypothetically, personify the Qianlong Emperor and think as he would. Without the optics or sensuousness of The Great Pagoda’s atmosphere, George III would have had a more difficult time attempting to embody the Emperor as the experience would feel inauthentic. Thus, it was necessary that Sir William Chambers create as authentically Chinese an experience as possible for his Majesty, at least as authentic as an English aristocrat could conceive. Anecdotally, it must be mentioned that George Leonard Staunton, during his trip to China, leading the British embassy, found the Emperor’s pastiche of a European picturesque park quite disturbing and unbecoming of a European landscape garden.[31] It is not a leap to say that Mandarins would likely hold a similar distaste for the Chinese pavilions at Kew.

Theater and exotica are at play in both The Great Pagoda and Yuanming Yuan. While Yuanming Yuan employed theatrical set design in order to create a fantasy for the Qianlong Emperor, The Great Pagoda implements Ming-Qing ornamental strategies in order to enhance the viewing experience for King George III. Both garden spaces deploy foreign scopic techniques and exotic decorative architectural fabrique in order to produce a marvelous experience of the exotic’s royal leisure culture. By designing stages for the Emperor and King to act upon, the Jesuits and Sir William Chambers respectively establish theatrical encounters based around exotica that allow for a child-like make-believe encounter with the visual language and atmospherics of faraway cultures. Both of these sets propel their actors into ulterior realms where reality subsides for personal fantasy and potential empire building. Thus, the creation of a fantastical viewing experience at The Great Pagoda serves to please King George III by allowing him to not only ascertain a concrete impression of the exotic ‘other’ that China was to an English audience in the mid 18th century, but also as a pleasing grounds where the King could enact a perpendicular aspirational fantasy from those of Qianlong at the European palaces at Yuanming Yuan.

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(fig. 9) Ilantai, Painting of Perspective, East of the Lake, engraved ca. 1783-1786, copper engraving, 76.2 x 111.76 cm
image courtesy | Museo Italo Americano, San Francisco, CA

The Great Pagoda and Yuanming Yuan both act as conduits for their respective rulers. Through an understanding of the pictorial illusions devised in the series of copper engravings narrativising the Western Palace complex at Yuanming Yuan, the Qianlong could self-fashion as a refined viewer who grasps exotic and foreign representational methods.[32] In the Qianlong’s case, trompe l’oeil was a conduit through which his self-importance and sophistication could be channeled, despite an overall disinterest in Europe. Conversely, The Great Pagoda was a conduit through which George III could channel his civic interest in China, despite his uninsightful understanding of the country and its larger culture. In this way, garden spaces can be understood through their function outside of manicuring landscape. The choreography of Chambers’ Pagoda, its methodologies of design, and its function, all provide layers of meaning which enhance contemporary engagement with 18th century exotica, situating it within a global conversation.

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(fig. 10) Caroll Brown Malone, Ruins of the Perspective Painting, ca. 1920, photograph, unknown dimensions
included in | “History of the Peking Summer Palaces,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1928


“…with the oddest thrill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the grass path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way, forgetting her tea, wishing to go down there and then down there, remembering orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson-chested bird…”[33]

This 20th century example, from Virginia Woolf’s short story, Kew Gardens, brilliantly captures the sensuousness of The Great Pagoda at Kew (Figure 11). The enchanting paths of Kew’s expansive plantation draws our protagonist, a young woman, down towards the exotic Great Pagoda. Woolf’s language arouses a sense of wonder about The Great Pagoda and presents it as an enchanted chinoiserie objectscape. Woolf’s 1927 Kew Gardens confirms The Great Pagoda continued ability to bewitch beholders through its Ming-Qing objectscape into the early 20th century. Woolf’s quote highlights the beholder’s continued fascination with the enchanted view and sensuous objectscape that Chambers translated from a Chinese origin for an English audience at Kew, thus illuminating the space and The Great Pagoda’s persistence as an inherently ‘Chinese’ environment.

It is clear through England’s continued fascination with Kew’s pagoda as a sensuous and enchanting object that Chambers was indeed successful in producing a ‘Chinese’ garden space, at least that an 18th century British audience would participate in as ‘Chinese’. In Kew Gardens, Virginia Woolf herself employs The Great Pagoda as a stage for her actors to engage with each other upon. Although the experience has mutated, appearing now in a literary setting, Kew evidently persists as a theatrical set. Beyond this, Chambers triumphs in producing a chinoiserie objectscape for the King of England, and in implementing tactile strategies drawn from Chinese material culture. Consequently, the fantasy of Kew’s Great Pagoda still operates today as it would have in 1762, offering a delightful detour amidst a chinoiserie atmosphere transporting the beholder from England to China.

(fig. 11) Unknown, The Great Pagoda at Kew, 2018, digital photograph, unknown dimensions
image courtesy | The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London


[1] Rinaldi, Bianca Maria, and Chambers, William, “On the Art of Laying Out Gardens Among the Chinese,” in Ideas of Chinese Gardens, edited by Bianca Maria Rinaldi (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 112.

[2] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 115.

[3] A New Display of the Beauties of England: or, a description of the most elegant or magnificent public edifices, royal palaces, noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, and other curiosities, natural or artificial, in different parts of the kingdom. Adorned with a variety of copper-plate cuts, neatly engraved (London: printed for R. Goadby; and sold by J. Towers, at No 111, in Fore street, near Cripplegate; and by R. Baldwin No. 47, in Pater-Noster-Row, 1773), 5.

[4] Acknowledgement must be given to the permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for access to this material, and for access to the Georgian Papers Programme for research purposes. Accession number: RA GEO/MAIN/15890 King George III’s Diary, 1769.

[5] A New Display of the Beauties of England, 5-8.

[6] A New Display of the Beauties of England, 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A New Display of the Beauties of England, 9-12.

[10] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 112.

[11] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 115.

[12] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 112.

[13] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 114-115.

[14] Harris, John, “Sir William Chambers and Kew Gardens,” in Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, edited by John Harris and Michael Snodin, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 65.

[15] Rinaldi, and Chambers, 113.

[16] Hay, Jonathan, “The Object Think With Us,” In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 61.

[17] Hay, 62.

[18] Hay, Jonathan, “The Atmospherics of Surface,” in Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), 344.

[19] Hay, 353.

[20] Repton, Humphry, “Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening: including some remarks on Grecian and Gothic architecture, collected from various manuscripts, in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen for whose use they were originally written; the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the respective arts,” in The Landscape Gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphrey Repton, Esq.: being his entire works on these subjects, (London: Whitehead and Co., printers, 76, Fleet Street, 1840), 479.

[21] Symes, Michael, “The Concept of the “Fabrique”,” Garden History 42, no. 1 (2014), 120.

[22] Von Erdberg, Eleanor, “The Anglo-Chinese Garden,” In Chinese Influence on European Garden Designs, edited by Bremer Whidden Pond, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 43.

[23] Thomas, Greg, “Yuanming Yuan/Versailles: Intercultural Interactions Between Chinese and European Palace Cultures,” in Art History, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, February, 2009), 115.

[24] Finlay, John,“The Qianlong Emperor’s Western Vistas: Linear Perspectives and Trompe l’Oeil Illusion in the European Palaces of the Yuanming yuan,” in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, Vol. 94 (2007), 160.

[25] Kleutghen, Kristina, “Staging Europe.” In Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2015, 216.

[26] Kleutghen, 201.

[27] Kleutghen, 211.

[28] Rinaldi, Bianca Maria, and Staunton, George Leonard, “Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China,” in Ideas of Chinese Gardens, edited by Bianca Maria Rinaldi, (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 186.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Porter, 41.

[31] Rinaldi, and Staunton, 187.

[32] Kleutghen, 216.

[33] Woolf, Virginia, Kew Gardens ([Place of publication not identified] : Richard West, 1927), 20.

works cited

A Diary, 1769, Royal Archives, RA GEO/MAIN/15890, Royal Archives, Windsor Castle, Windsor, England.

A New Display of the Beauties of England: or, a description of the most elegant or magnificent public edifices, royal palaces, noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, and other curiosities, natural or artificial, in different parts of the kingdom. Adorned with a variety of copper-plate cuts, neatly engraved, 1-13. 2nd ed. London: printed for R. Goadby; and sold by J. Towers, at No 111, in Fore street, near Cripplegate; and by R. Baldwin No. 47, in Pater-Noster-Row, 1773.

Desmond, Ray. “Sir William Chambers.” In The History of the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, 43-67. 2nd ed. London: Kew Publishing, 2007.

Finlay, John.“The Qianlong Emperor’s Western Vistas: Linear Perspectives and Trompe l’Oeil Illusion in the European Palaces of the Yuanming yuan.” In Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, Vol. 94 (2007): 159-193.

Harris, John. “Sir William Chambers and Kew Gardens.” In Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, edited by John Harris and Michael Snodin, 55-67. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Hay, Jonathan. “The Object Thinks With Us.” In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, 61-90. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.

—. “Surface, Affect, Metaphor.” In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, 91-106. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.

—. “Layering.” In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, 274-308. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.

—. “The Atmospherics of Surface.” In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, 341-379. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.

Hooker, William Jackson, Sir. Kew Gardens : Or, A Popular Guide to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. London : Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1850. (London : Spottiswoode and Shaw)

Keswick, Maggie, Charles Jencks, and Alison Hardie. “Western Reactions.” In The Chinese Garden : History, Art and Architecture, 16-37. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2003.

Kleutghen, Kristina. “Staging Europe.” In Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, 179-220. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2015.

Porter, David. “Cross-cultural aesthetics in William Chambers’ Chinese garden.” In The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England, 37-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Repton, Humphry. “Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening: including some remarks on Grecian and Gothic architecture, collected from various manuscripts, in the possession of the different noblemen and gentlemen for whose use they were originally written; the whole tending to establish fixed principles in the respective arts.” In The Landscape Gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphrey Repton, Esq.: being his entire works on these subjects, 407-606. London: Whitehead and Co., printers, 76, Fleet Street, 1840.

Rinaldi, Bianca Maria, and Chambers, William. “On the Art of Laying Out Gardens Among the Chinese.” In Ideas of Chinese Gardens, edited by Bianca Maria Rinaldi, 112-120. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

—. “A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening.” In Ideas of Chinese Gardens, edited by Bianca Maria Rinaldi, 303-342. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Rinaldi, Bianca Maria, and Staunton, George Leonard. “Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China.” In Ideas of Chinese Gardens, edited by Bianca Maria Rinaldi, 186-196. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Snodin, Michael. “Interiors and Ornament.” In Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, edited by John Harris and Michael Snodin, 125-148. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Symes, Michael. “The Concept of the “Fabrique”.” Garden History 42, no. 1 (2014): 120-127.

Thomas, Greg. “Yuanming Yuan/Versailles: Intercultural Interactions Between Chinese and European Palace Cultures.” In Art History, 115-143. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, February, 2009.

Von Erdberg, Eleanor. “Sources of Knowledge of Chinese Architecture in the Eighteenth Century.” In Chinese Influence on European Garden Designs, edited by Bremer Whidden Pond, 18-33. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

—. “The Anglo-Chinese Garden.” In Chinese Influence on European Garden Designs, edited by Bremer Whidden Pond, 34-44. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Wittkower, Rudolf. “China and Europe II, Chinoiserie and the Anglo-Chinese Garden.” In Selected Lectures of Rudolf Wittkower: The Impact of Non-European Civilizations on the Art of the West, compiled by Donald Martin Reynolds, 161-192. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Woolf, Virginia. 1927. Kew Gardens. [Place of publication not identified] : Richard West, 1927.

Sex, Drugs, and . . . Activism?

maria j. bastos-stanek

(fig. 1) Nan Goldin, view of protest against the Sackler Family at the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’re inspired by Nan Goldin’s snapshots of her friends and lovers in New York in the late 1970s and 1980s like me, you might attempt to go looking for the evidence of Goldin’s New York; those undeniably cool cafes, bars, and clubs that cultivated the creative underground; artist-run galleries at the forefront of the Culture Wars; cheap rent. For an outsider looking in, there is little context for Goldin’s bohemian roots. If you’re lucky, though, you might just catch her leading a demonstration with her new group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) at major museums in protest of the Sackler family and their disproportionate influence over the direction of arts funding in the U.S and Europe. Goldin’s turn towards activism allows us as an audience to discover new meaning and significance in her world and her work, specifically her 1985 slideshow exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

“I survived the opioid crisis” writes Nan Goldin in an op-ed in Artforum. Goldin founded P.A.I.N in response to her personal experience with addiction. P.A.I.N. takes aim at the Sackler family, whose name is now synonymous with the opioid crisis. The Sacklers built their fortune by developing the highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin, and used that money to fund arts institutions across the U.S. and Europe. P.A.I.N. carries out their demands—that the Sacklers use their fortune to fund drug treatment and rehabilitation—using direct action tactics inspired by the legacy of ACT UP.

Long before P.A.I.N., Goldin documented drug use in her slideshow, exhibition, and photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, created between 1978 and 1986. The projects consist of a series of snap-shot style photographs of Goldin and her various friends, lovers, and family in and around downtown Manhattan. We see Goldin at parties and bars; inside taxi cabs and bathroom stalls. Goldin’s world of restaurant booths and after-hours bars oozes of anticipation and eroticism.

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 8.00.26 PM(fig. 2) Nan Goldin, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City, 1980
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency illustrates a culture of promiscuity operating in New York during the 1970s and 1980s. By photographing scenes of drug use, sexual encounters, and other intimacies, Goldin captures her subjects emotional and physical vulnerabilities, their hopes and disappointments, along with her own. When discussing the improvisational qualities of the photographs, Goldin states “I was in the exact same state that I was recording. These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself. . . there was no separation between me and what I was photographing.”[1] Goldin narrates her own life—domestic violence and drug abuse included—and the difficulties she endured in order to live her life with freedom. To mobilize that sort of sensibility into political action, even thirty years later, speaks to the political power of the artist.

Goldin photographs with an aim towards documentation that may seem similar to the practice of live-blogging and other technological exploits of the digital age. What separates Ballad from the deluge of middlebrow ironic images on social media is the sense of sincerity bred from the risk and danger which Goldin and her friends engage in. Goldin’s subjects live their lives in front of the camera, not for the camera. Goldin captures her friends in actions of self-expression or self-destruction. Rarely are Goldin’s subjects without vice—alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. Take, for example, Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City (1980) (fig. 2). Goldin captures a pair of lovers. Monty embraces Rise with the strong arms of pathos. Deep black space and oceanic blues sooth the viewer’s gaze. A porcelain white hand grips sensuously dark hair. Desire mixes with vice. Eroticism surpasses impropriety.

In Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Against Interpretation,” she writes, “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” [2] Instead of a criticism of art which is primarily concerned with interpretation, Sontag argues that we should seek the pleasures of experiencing art as an autonomous form. Pleasure, she says, doesn’t take a stand. It is not an object for consideration, but rather, a subject.

In an age when art-making veers towards the didactic, Goldin’s photography curiously resists interpretation. Goldin captures a lifestyle that by moral convention would seem perverse or decadent, but which she subdues all judgement. She fully submits to the pull of pleasure, making her photographs seem sincere and normal; the natural outcome of living a life with freedom of action. Goldin’s concern for spontaneity, of capturing fleeting emotions, and the sincerity of a visual diary, eschews a moral response.

It would, though, be a mistake to consider Goldin’s photographs unplanned or overly casual. Goldin employs several techniques to direct the viewer’s gaze. Among them are framing and her expert use of color. Goldin largely photographs indoors under artificial lighting, lending to an intimate atmosphere of unguarded sincerity.

Goldin, Trixie(fig. 3) Nan Goldin, Trixie on the Cot, New York City, 1979
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Of course, Goldin isn’t the only artist to identify with the perverse. Diane Arbus, too, with her interest in misfits and outcasts, was also fascinated by those who live in the margins of society. Arbus photographed circus performers, nudists, interracial couples, transgender and sexual outlaws, and strangers made so by her alienating photographic techniques. Arbus’s photographs, too, feature an aurora of melancholy caused by the knowledge of Arbus’s troubled life which ended in suicide in 1971. However, Arbus has enjoyed major critical and commercial success both during her lifetime and after her death, having become the first American photographer to show at the Venice Biennale.

Goldin, on the other hand, is left with the aftermath of social alienation. As drug habits turn into drug addictions, Goldin lays claim to the casualties of a life lived in the margins. In Goldin’s Trixie on the Cot, New York City (1979) (fig. 3), flashes of red dance around the composition, centrally on the floral embroidery of Trixie’s dress, and among a red-hued filter haphazardly fixed onto the studio light hanging above Trixie’s head. This sensuous red contrasts with her ghostly white skin. Affixed to her is a flowing dress, with one arm strap falling below her shoulder. She crosses her legs, drawing attention to her tattered black shoes that highlights the disjunction between figure and environment. The destitute interior and Trixie’s passive demeanor anticipates the drug overdoses that would eventually curtail the scene. As such, Goldin’s work embraces a retrospective mourning that accommodates her incipient political activism.

The ramifications of drug abuse are suggested rather than expressed, however, allowing viewers to discern for themselves a link between Goldin’s past exploits and her current activism. The improvisational aesthetic of Ballad belies to some degree the possibility of consequences. Goldin does not romanticize drug use. She documents her reality, like a diary. And now, with P.A.I.N., she cautions against its aftermath. Rather than erasing the evidence of disorder in a narrative punctuated by the pleasures of parties and love affairs, Goldin incorporates the trauma and violence’s that she and her friends faced. Goldin’s friends risk danger for connection. Even a successful artist can’t escape the grip of her past.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, 1983(fig. 4) Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983
image courtesy | Museum of Modern Art

Goldin’s political transformation invests The Ballad of Sexual Dependency with relevance and allows the old to flourish with new meaning. Consider Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983) (fig. 4). Nan lounges with her then lover, Brian. A calm yellow light filters through the window, covering the two figures in the warm hues of a setting sun. The figures lie in a characteristically destitute interior. Brian sits in profile looking out the window with a cigarette locked between his lips. Gentle wisps of smoke spill out around him. A single print hangs tacked to the wall above the bed frame. It is of Brian, cigarette again dangling from his lips. This time he stares directly at the viewer. What else can the audience think, but of that menacing stare, of Goldin’s crumpled body huddled at the opposite end of the bed, and therefore of Brian’s eventual betrayal? In the months after Goldin published Ballad, Brian battered Goldin. She would later document her injuries through the camera, as a way of preventing herself from returning to him.

Unlike Goldin’s early photography, her politics take a sharp stand. Therefore, the theme of transformation can be interpreted through Goldin’s leap from photography towards activism. While photography as an art form is meant to be taken as autonomous form, activism, as it rests in the realm of the political rather than the cultural, is didactic. If Goldin’s art produces an aesthetic response, then her activism produces an ethical one. Goldin engages in a form of auto-didacticism in which she interprets her past for a new generation at the forefront of a new epidemic.


[1] Nan Goldin, “Nan Goldin by Stephen Westfall,” interview by Stephen Westfall, BOMB Magazine, October 1, 1991,

[2] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation (New York: Picador, 1966), 14.

The Specter of Humanity: Sally Mann Photographs the South

maria j. bastos-stanek

Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985(fig. 1) Sally Mann, Jessie Bites, 1985, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Consider the precarious uncertainties of childhood life. Many children grow up in the security of their parent’s loving embrace, vigilance, and care. But even among the most ideal family relationships, the primal struggle between a child who desires autonomy and a parent who desires to keep their children safe play out in everyday life. The emotional difficulties of growing up and the unique family relationships that inform them is one of the themes that American photographer Sally Mann explores in her most recent exhibition, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings. Now on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the exhibition presents the work of her over forty-year career. Mann combines experimental techniques with challenging subjects to create photographs which are deeply in tune with the history of photography and challenge the limits of spectatorship.

Those visiting A Thousand Crossings expecting to see the works that made her famous—images of her childrenwill encounter them in the first few rooms of the large exhibition. Only by advancing through the show will viewers discover Mann’s own transformation, one marked by her growing awareness of the racial divisions in the South. Curators Sarah Greenough and Sarah Kennel divide the exhibition into three sections: photographs of Mann’s children in their remote home in Virginia, landscapes that capture the Southern Gothic obsession with tradition and history, and photographs that mine Mann’s personal history and identity to explore the public complexity of race. Mann allows her audience access into her own process of introspection. In doing so, she asks her audience to consider the complex factors that inform how we see the world.

Mann has received both praise and criticism for her series Immediate Family, produced between 1984 and 1991. In the series, Mann’s photographs her three small children at their family farm in rural Virginia—a picturesque setting along a river in the Shenandoah Valley. Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia play, sleep, and swim at their leisure, often nude. While the works depict with sometimes unsettling candor the innocence of childhood, anyone who has participated in family life is likely to be familiar with the scenes in Immediate Family. Indeed, it is this feeling of familiarity—of the universal qualities of childhood—and Mann’s unseen presence from behind the camera which lend to the disarming honesty of the series, even when many of the photographs are carefully composed. No child is ever truly independent, or is rarely left alone. Mann acts as a an unseen presence among her children. She infuses what may otherwise be straightforward photography with a subjective framework rifled with emotional intent.

2001.199_ph_web-1(fig. 2) Sally Mann, Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | Guggenheim Museum

Mann’s presence from behind the camera shapes how her subjects react to being photographed. In Emmett and the White Boy, 1990, (fig. 2) two young boys seem to suspend their play in order to accommodate Mann and her camera. Leaning against a tree with his arm stretched high above, Emmett seems to wait confrontationally like a child who is vigorously at home in his surroundings. The other boy identified only by skin color looks on at Mann hesitantly. With his hand covering his mouth, he seems uncomfortable posing in front of a camera (despite a bicep tattoo that suggests otherwise), while Emmett boldly asserts himself despite the intrusion of his mother’s advances. Even in photographs that convey a deeper sense of anxiety or melancholy about growing up, such as in Jessie Bites, 1985, (fig. 1), Mann’s presence is never far away.

Once her children reached adolescence, Mann turned her attention to issues of identity and place. In Lexington, Virginia, the site of the memorial of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the pastoral landscapes of her own childhood harbor half-hidden histories of the Antebellum South. In the series, Battlefields, Mann utilizes vintage cameras with damaged lenses to capture the locations of Civil War battles in an antiquated style. Using a soft-focus or out-of-focus rendering of otherwise innocuous woodland territories, Mann imitates the pictorialist style of the nineteenth-century. The resulting photographs do not so much render the past as they do render Mann’s own personal connection and exploration of that past.

Sally Mann, Battlefields, 2003(fig. 3) Sally Mann, Battlefields, Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

In her Battlefields series, Mann returns to an early theme in the history of American photography. One of the first wars to be photographed in the United States was the Civil War.[1] Photographers of the nineteenth-century were prohibited from depicting battle scenes by the laborious process and long exposure time it took to produce collodion-on-wet negatives. Instead, they avoided the chaos of a dangerous battlefield and created carefully staged images of camp scenes, empty battlefields, and even dead soldiers.

Like the war photographers, Mann utilizes the nineteenth-century equipment. In Battlefields: Cold Harbor (Battle), 2003 (fig. 3), Mann intentionally photographs the landscape with flawed lenses that create an extra layer of marks, scratches, and blurry corners. These imperfections lend the photograph an aura of antiquity. Mann turns back the clock at Mechanicsville, Virginia to the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. Although we can’t see any uniformed soldiers outfitted with rifles and bayonets, the white marks that dot the landscape fly by like whizzing bullets across the length of the print. The chaos of battle may be taking place not far beyond the edges of the photograph—and Mann places the viewer in the center of the action. The chaos of the battlefield unsettles an otherwise undisturbed, if not eerie, land. In doing so, Mann attempts to unearth the suppressed histories of the Antebellum South.

Mann attempts to understand the racial trauma embedded in the land that many Southerners, and indeed, the rest of America, may try to forget. In Deep South, Untitled (Bridge on Tallahatchie), 1998, (fig. 4), Mann photographed the Tallahatchie River, the site of a Civil Rights-era hate crime. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi by a group of white men after being accused of flirting with a married white woman. His attackers were acquitted, sold their confession to Look Magazine, and the woman who originated the claims later confessed to fabricating crucial details about the event. Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral for her son to expose the world to the epidemic of lynching in the South and the culture of racism that fueled it.

Sally Mann, Deep South, 1998(fig. 4) Sally Mann, Deep South, Untitled (Bridge of Tallahatchie), 1998, Gelatin Silver Print
image courtesy | National Gallery of Art, Washington

The murder of Emmett Till presents a doubly difficult event to photograph because his death has already been politicized through a visual narrative. Till’s mother allowed his body to be photographed and those images to be distributed among black-run newspapers and magazines to bear witness to the racial violence that killed her son. To depict the body of Emmett Till would likely distort and misinterpret the photograph’s original intent. Those who have previously done so have been met with harsh criticism.

In Mann’s landscape of the Tallahatchie, the viewer will find no body. Mann engages with the hate crime through her personal connection to the land. She infuses the Tallahatchie landscape with a narrative, one that cannot be seen as evidence on the land itself—but one in which every Southerner knows and may feel a personal relationship to. The enveloping darkness around the edges of the photograph seem to slowly encroach across the breadth of the river, engulfing every tree, branch, and leaf in the stillness of contemplation. The raindrops that dot the surface of the water highlight the loneliness of the encounter. As Mann takes to the camera in an attempt to understand an event that shaped her experience of living as a white woman in the South, she does so on a solitary journey.

A Thousand Crossings succeeds at immersing the audience into Mann’s world. We as an audience bear witness to her introspection, and in turn feel compelled to turn inwards and examine our own relationship to race, history, and the power of the land we call home. Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA through September 23, 2018, and will be traveling to several other venues across the U.S. and Europe throughout the next year.


[1] Department of Photographs. “Photography and the Civil War, 1861–65.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2004).

Vincent Van Gogh: “Off the Wall”

caroline f. riley

van-Gogh-Self-Potrait_1889_1890Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889-1890, detail
image courtesy | Van Gogh Museum

During Van Gogh’s prolific ten year career he produced over two thousand works of art. This number includes nine hundred paintings and one thousand one hundred drawings and sketchings.[1] Despite selling only one work of art during his lifetime, Van Gogh sustains his legacy as one of the most celebrated artists by contemporary society. His unique painterly style and life story has since made his works some of the most replicated in the history of art. Van Gogh prints, jewelry, stationary, kitchenware and luxury items litter museum gift shops and online stores, made readily available for purchase anywhere in the world. This commercialization of fine art becomes a paradox in itself. By assigning an everyday function to these works of art they become an object for use. Thus, losing their artistic significance and becoming another commodity, for disposal. This process was recently expedited on August 3rd, 2018, through a partnership between the clothing company Vans and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The Van Gogh Museum has increasingly sought out opportunities for capital gain outside of the experience of viewing Van Gogh’s works. As stated on the museum’s annual report, “the Van Gogh Museum traditionally secures its revenue from ticket sales, its own events and activities, governmental subsidies, donations from private benefactors and, problematically, partnerships with the business world. To an increasing extent, the museum also relies on commercial activities.”[2] The first floor gift shop offers visitors myriad souvenirs for purchase celebrating their favorite works in the collection. Museum patrons, or any art lover, can now enjoy the works in the collection with a twist: functionality. These entities negate the original purpose of Van Gogh’s work; a purely aesthetic experience.

Vans-x-Van-Gogh-Museum-Capsule-Collection-51Vans x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans

In 2018, The Van Gogh Museum announced its partnership with the popular clothing company Vans to release a line of iconic slip-on sneakers inspired by works in the museum’s collection. Visitor favorites from the museum’s collection such as Skull, Almond Blossom, Sunflowers and Van Gogh’s self-portrait are digitally printed onto the canvas upper of the shoes, packaged, ordered online and shipped right to the consumer’s home. Due to the overwhelming popularity, the collection is currently sold out on the Vans website, but is still available for purchase at select locations and third-party wholesale retailers.

These shoes embody the current trend of bringing fashion and fine art together. The Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is not the first of its nature. Last year, Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons introduced a collaboration entitled “Masters,” in which iconic examples of Western oil painting were reproduced on the sides of handbags and backpacks. The acquisition of a “Masters” bag offers consumers the opportunity to, in a sense, possess the artwork itself.

The price of the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration is significantly lower than that of “Masters” handbag. However, both of these collaborations alienate consumers from their products in different ways. The “Masters” collaboration estranges potential buyers as a result of the cost. Louis Vuitton is, of course, well known for its astronomical costs, in fact, for the most popular style in the “Masters” collection, clients can expect a $2,800 price tag. However, the Van Gogh Vans alienate the consumer by obscuring the product of Van Gogh’s labor. Both pairings of high art and commercial product divorce consumers from the original artists. The art, the fundamental aspect of the designs themselves, is disguised in the form of another everyday object. The shoes blend into the life of the consumer and the artistry is ignored. The availability of the shoes filters them into the mainstream and they become a trend, and people begin to want them because they are in vogue, not because of their representations of the illustrious career of Van Gogh. Following the pattern of elitism, the shoes themselves transform into symbols of status, and are sought after for what they signify socially.

ob_786abc_louis-vuitton-jeff-koons-masters-campaLouis Vuitton x Jeff Koons, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Louis Vuitton

In 1987, Sunflowers sold at auction for a record $39.3 million dollars to two anonymous bidders.[3] Today, the value has tripled. Cynthia Freeland addresses this issue in the fourth chapter of But is it Art?, writing:

The irony was grotesque in light of [Van Gogh’s] own poverty and despair over being unable to sell works during his lifetime. The thought that a work like the Mona Lisa is ‘priceless’ makes it difficult to see and appreciate as art (when one is lucky enough to get a second to stand before it). Can we ever again see Van Gogh’s works as art rather than as huge dollar signs?[4]

Assigning a monetary value in the tens of millions to a piece of art inevitably changes it in the process. The piece can no longer be assessed on artistic merit alone. A monetary value this high transforms the art into a symbol of status. Thus, this collection of Vans obscures the labor of the artist in favor of the social value they project.

However, the Van Gogh Museum is no stranger to capitalizing on their namesakes’ art and legacy. The museum’s website is extremely transparent about their development strategies. Their mission statement, outlined in their strategic plan for 2018-2020, reads, “The Van Gogh Museum makes the life and work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible and reaches as many people as possible in order to enrich and inspire them.” Directly below the mission, the museum’s core values states, “The Van Gogh Museum is leading, excellent and inspiring. These core values function as an ethical compass and are at the heart of corporate culture at the museum.”[5]

Absent from this mission statement and core values are any type of learning outcomes for the visitor. The art is indeed accessible, boasting a seventeen euro ticket cost (free for minors), as a result of the relationship it shares with corporate culture. The branding of these works of art in the collection grant recognition, thus more “accessibility” to the visitor or everyday consumer. However, the focus of the museum has shifted from a place of learning and meditation to a place of consumption, as shown by their ever popular collaborations. A positive museum experience is no longer about the connections formed between the art and visitors during their trip, it becomes about the photos they took of themselves with works and the items accumulated in the gift shop. The museum visit can not stand on its own as a positive experience, it must be supplemented with tangible takeaways in order to feel meaningful.

44e08022-51e5-4ac7-8bb9-478e352af8b2-7661-amsterdam-skip-the-line-combo-city-canal-cruise-heineken-experience-and-van-gogh-museum-01The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands
image courtesy | MyLittleAdventure

By giving these works of art an everyday use, what was once available to only an elite demographic––through the purchase of expensive oil paintings––is now attainable by all. This accessibility is inspiring, but the methods in practice are questionable. Distribution of items through e-commerce distances the consumer from the artistic nature of the product even further, as they can purchase merchandise from anywhere in the world without having to step into the museum, or see the original piece. Connections between visitors and art no longer happen in a gallery space, they take place on a screen; thus, removing the museum from the experience altogether.

The purpose of these items makes the artistic aspect of them easier for people to ignore. Instead of being a work of art that makes the viewer feel and connect emotionally, the object becomes just another pair of dirty sneakers in the back of a closet or a broken coffee mug. On the subject of the culture industry, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer write, “For consumers the use value of art, its essence, is a fetish, and the fetish––the social valuation which they mistake for the merit of works of art––becomes its only use value, the only quality they enjoy.”[6] Due to the popularity of Van Gogh following his death and the availability of these mass produced items, the actual works of art become objectified, and fetishized. The meaning of the artwork apart from the function is void. When art transforms into a commodity, people reject it. The meaning becomes secondary to the “use value” of the object. It is no longer an object to meditate upon, it is something to have and dispose of. x Van Gogh Museum, campaign photograph
image courtesy | Vans

Upon the release of the collection, Vans made a statement conceptualizing the purpose of the collaboration between their brand and the work of Van Gogh stating “By uniting Van Gogh’s iconic artworks with iconic Vans styles, our partnership brings Vincent’s art “Off The Wall” and into the world to a new audience outside the museum.”[7] The goal of the partnership is to make Van Gogh’s art accessible to patrons who perhaps cannot travel to Amsterdam to see his works. This is a wonderful mission, as visitors should be able to enjoy these works of art for the emotions they trigger and the empathy they elicit. However, the commodification and commercialization of these works is troubling. The commercialization of these paintings nulls them of their original meaning and context. Monetary value replaces emotional value as the works are disassociated from their art historical context, and given yet another price tag. Vincent Van Gogh was not an interior designer, fashion designer or a shoe maker, he was an artist who wanted to depict the world as he saw it. These reappropriations of his work detract substantially from that meaning and turn them into an object completely separate from his original intention. Why is the work not enough in an aesthetic sense? The message that these companies are sending to consumers is that art is not enough in its meaning, it has to have a functional objective. Assigning a “use value” to these works of art creates an entirely different object in the process.

Select proceeds from the Vans x Van Gogh Museum collaboration will contribute to future funding and preservation of the works in the museum.[8] The museum’s annual report boasts upwards of two million visitors annually since 2016, making it the most visited museum in the Netherlands, and one of the most visited museums in the world. Ticket revenues, special programming, private donations and e-commerce generate sufficient profit for the museum. During his lifetime, just over a century ago, Van Gogh experienced very little recognition and success. He was deeply discouraged by the lack of support for his work. Rather than benefiting a huge corporation such as Vans, Louis Vuitton or The Van Gogh Museum, the true spirit of Van Gogh’s work can be upheld by supporting artists that are producing work today.

note about the author

caroline f. riley holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and psychology from the university of massachusetts, amherst, and is currently working towards a master’s degree in modern and contemporary art, criticism, and theory. her professional interests include improving museum education, and working to ensure museum accessibility for everyone, regardless of demographic. she previously held a museum education position at the institute of contemporary art in boston, ma.


[1] “Vincent Van Gogh on Artsy.” Artsy, accessed August 18, 2018,

[2] Van Gogh Museum, 2017 Annual Report, accessed August 18, 2018,

[3] Francis Klines, “Van Gogh Sets Auction Record,” New York Times, March 31, 1987.

[4] Cynthia Freeland, But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 107.

[5] Van Gogh Museum, 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, accessed  August 18, 2018,

[6] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” The Dialectic of Enlightenment (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1944), 94-137

[7] “Vans Partners with the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.” Vans USA, accessed August 18, 2018,

[8] Ibid.

SEM TÍTULO Republished

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SEM TÍTULO has exciting news to share: we have been republished by an outside source!

The Arrival Magazine, an online culture publication founded on the streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has taken our article Mona Wu: Apolitical Politics and republished it for their audience. It is The Arrival’s goal to spread the contributors’ vision and passion for art and culture. Their publications take myriad forms: “flash fiction stories, poetry, editorials, restaurant reviews, fashion columns, podcasts, short films, and any other creative exploration that can be tapped in [Winston-Salem] and beyond.”

You can view the article in its original context here, or on The Arrivalhere.

Maria and Nicholas are confident this is the first of many opportunities for the duo to have their writing disseminated further.

Mona Wu: Apolitical Politics

nicholas p. fernacz

1658448_10203185350505352_842159496_oMona Wu at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art
image courtesy | Mona Wu

Chinese art and politics are often inseparable. While propaganda immediately comes to mind, so too do ink landscapes which covertly address political animosity. However, some artists intend to employ technical skill and aesthetics in order to express a complex emotional interiority. Mona Wu, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based artist, does exactly this by drawing upon her extensive background in both art history and practice in order to explore surface design and aesthetic beauty. Her work, although declaratively apolitical, proclaims rather politically that contemporary Chinese artists are not required to rely on State critique––criticism of one’s government––to create meaningful works of art. All of this considered, Wu’s refusal to follow trends within contemporary Chinese art, in addition to her identity, index their own political statements to her work. Through this, Wu further highlights the inherent politicization of Chinese art and art history, and pushes for more within her cultural heritage. In doing so, the viewer is pleasantly treated to beautiful prints that reference Chinese culture, art history, and poetry.

yellow-mountains-remembered-2(fig. 1) Mona Wu, Yellow Mountains Remembered, 2002, reduction woodcut
image courtesy | Mona Wu

Wu is a beloved member of her local arts community. In 2003, she received the Artist of the Year Award from the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, a community arts school where she teaches Chinese painting, calligraphy, and printmaking techniques. This is an unlikely story for the Macau-born artist who, after moving to Hong Kong to study nursing, could only practice art-making in her free time. In Hong Kong, Wu enrolled in Chinese painting and calligraphy courses, copying and learning the styles of the dynastic master ink painters. She immigrated to the United States in 1970, ultimately settling in Winston-Salem. In 1996, after a career in healthcare, Wu earned a Bachelor’s degree in art history at Salem College with professor Penny Griffin, a specialist in East Asian art. During her undergraduate career, she followed her passion for printmaking and took several courses in the medium. Upon finishing her degree at Salem College, she continued to audit with professor and master printmaker David Faber at Wake Forest University for the next eighteen years.

In order to gain a critical understanding of Wu and her work, I arranged a studio visit and interview at her home in Winston-Salem. Upon entering her house, a two-story colonial at the end of a cul de sac, it becomes apparent that art permeates every aspect of her life. To the left of the foyer, a large 16th-century dynastic ink painting depicting a drunken yet contemplative scholar hangs as the centerpiece ensconced among white furniture, crisp white curtains, and glass décor. Wu mentioned her intentionality in designing this room in order to complement the painting. In the living room, flanked by two panels of her own prints, even her fireplace becomes a triptych. After a tour of her home, Wu led me to her basement gallery and studio space. She showed me various artifacts including ink paintings, prints, and books. In her studio myriad scraps of prints, blocks, and acrylic cut-out shapes littered the room, all employed by her to achieve variations on similar themes within her oeuvre.

wang-ximeng_rivers-and-mountains_1(fig. 2) Wang Ximeng, One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, 1113, ink and colors on silk, detail
image courtesy | National Palace Museum, Beijing

Wu’s work emits a strong sense of antiquarianism––a fascination with history and artifact. She thoughtfully references blue-green landscape painting (青绿山水) and 11th-century Chinese bird-and-flower painting. In Yellow Mountains Remembered (figure 1), she employs a visual language established in the blue-green landscape painting genre popularized in the Tang dynasty and subsequently practiced until the end of the Qing dynasty. In this print, she incites the past through memory. Wu reinvents the bygone painting traditions of blue-green landscape paintings and bird-and-flower paintings through a minimalist design aesthetic that avoids political issues. While Chinese landscapes are generally allegories for political strife, using landscape elements as metaphors for emotion, she says that her art allows her to “escape from politics as a safe space.” This sets her work apart from the common trend of State and political critique within contemporary Chinese art.

While some Chinese landscape painting historically addressed inner political struggle, often represented by the distorted trees and bleak wintery mountains of rural China, Wu focuses her attention on aesthetics in order to pay homage to her visit to the Yellow Mountains in the Anhui Province. Yellow Mountains Remembered, through its design and aesthetics, employs the same strategies as paintings such as Wang Ximeng’s One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, painted in the Northern Song period (figure 2). Sinuous clouds evoke Gu Kaizhi’s iconic feminine adornments, and mountainous peaks and valleys invoke the emotional excitement of a rollercoaster (figure 3). However, the solitary red temple Wu places amid the Yellow Mountains instills a calm amongst the thrill. She manages to achieve an emotional upswelling within the viewer, despite refusing to invoke political drama for the sake of creating meaning. Despite this rejection of political discourse within the work itself, Wu succeeds in expressing an enriched emotional interiority turned outwards.

1200px-Ku_K'ai-chih_001(fig. 3) Gu Kaizhi, Admonitions of the Court Instructress, c. 5th-8th-century, ink on silk
image courtesy | British Museum

Another work, Farewell Moon , draws upon 11th-century bird-and-flower painting (figure 4). The artists working within the bird-and-flower genre typically created displays of anatomically correct flora and fauna, with myriad-sized life in order to compare the size and scale of a cricket in relation to a turtle or lotus flower. Works like Huang Quan’s Birds by Sketching Life , painted in the Song dynasty, exemplify the scientific accuracy inherent to these paintings (figure 5). Farewell Moon features two minimally depicted clownfish and a turtle within a body of water. On a separate perspectival plane appear a maple tree and a bar of coral disjointed from the surface of the water, thus retaining atmospheric perspective––the fogginess elicited through receding ink wash largely associated with Chinese ink painting.[1] However, through this minimal depiction, Wu reinvents the bird-and-flower genre by rejecting its scientific nature. The poem, composed by famed Southern Song poet, Xin Qiji and overlaid through a ghost print, poses questions to the moon such as “Is there another world, where you will rise in the west?” and “Is there another planet, to where long wind will take you?” Although not a particularly political genre, Wu’s reimagined bird-and-flower prints further prove her ability to employ genres of dynastic Chinese art, while refreshing their associated meaning in order to serve her own purposes––the joy of art making and display of technical mastery.

_ABC4964(fig. 4) Mona Wu, Farewell Moon, 2015, Chinese ink on woodcut
image courtesy | Mona Wu

While Wu’s work is arguably apolitical, there is often an inseparable intersection between politics and Chinese art. The 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art represents the seminal conceptualization of the relationship between art and politics in twentieth-century China. There, Mao Zedong famously said “there is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake… art that is detached from or independent of politics.”[2] Mao suggests two ideas through this quote: 1) that Chinese artists employed their art for one of two purposes, to help or hurt the Chinese communist party, and 2) that art is a political commodity. The underlying implications illuminate a sentiment of artists possessing ulterior motives, thus proposing that Wu in fact does harbor political ideologies within her work. While she did grow up during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s politics did not affect her as much in the colony of Macau. Since moving to the United States, she has enjoyed the freedom of expression, a right still unavailable to many Chinese artists living and working within the region. Therefore, the function of covert political messaging is not pertinent to her work. In fact, if she insisted on criticizing Chinese politics, it would perhaps serve her better to do so overtly.

HuangQuan-xiesheng-l(fig. 5) Huang Quan, Birds by Sketching Life, c. 907-960, ink and colors on silk
image courtesy | China Online Museum

While not overt, Wu’s works do indeed take on their own covert political messaging through their apolitical nature. Because she focuses on formal innovation and technical experimentation, as they service the aesthetic likeness of her works, she offers a counterpoint to the highly politicized nature of contemporary Chinese art. While other contemporary Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun have permeated the art market with their State critique, Wu offers her own political statements on the condition of the Chinese political landscape by avoiding just that––obvious political criticism. Must Chinese artists exercise their freedom of expression by criticizing the communist leaders of China? Wu references a history of politicized art in dynastic China, offering her audience a link between the past and present. She reveals Chinese art to be an inherently politicized genre and asks more of her history. Wu’s work feels refreshing and light-hearted, allowing for the appreciation of technique and design rather than contemplating and romanticizing either a communist or anti-communist sentiment.

In addition to political statements regarding the state of Chinese art, Wu’s identity is another politicized facet of her work. The United States Census Bureau reports that two percent of the population of Winston-Salem self-identifies as Asian and roughly ten percent are foreign-born.[3] Her work diversifies the arts community and enriches the culture of the greater Piedmont Triad region––an area in north-central North Carolina marked by three major cities: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. However, by boldly asserting her Chinese identity within a majority white space, Wu’s art inevitably becomes politically charged. Despite her having lived in the United States for nearly fifty years, her work is still heavily influenced by her cultural heritage and the education she received in both China and at Salem College. In the catalogue produced for her 2003 Artist of the Year Award, Billy McClain writes “[Wu’s] work continues to exhibit her interest in combining Oriental techniques and imagery in western printmaking processes.”[4] This quote highlights Wu’s cultural hybridity as an immigrant, which truly sets her apart not only as a general Winston-Salem resident, but as a Winston-Salem artist.

While many Chinese artists produce very powerful works of art that critique the government of China, Mona Wu sets a very different tone. Her work offers a delightful distraction from the atrocities of the world and allows the viewer to turn inward, a skill forgotten in many of our world leaders.

Collage-Ode-to-Chrysanthemum-II(fig. 6) Mona Wu, Ode to Chrysanthemum II, 2009, collage
image courtesy | Mona Wu

If Mona Wu’s work interests you, you can see more here, or in person at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on view from October 18 to November 18, 2018.


[1] R. M. Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

[2] T. Cheek, “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art.” In Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions, 112-17. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[3] “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Winston-Salem City, North Carolina.” United States Census Bureau. Accessed August 4, 2018.

[4] P. Griffin, D. Faber, and B. McClain, Mona Wu: 2003 Winston-Salem Artist of the Year. Winston-Salem, NC: Sawtooth School for Visual Art, 2003.

An Outsider on the Inside: David Wojnarowicz at the Whitney

maria j. bastos-stanek

DW, Self-PortraitDavid Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren, Self-Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84, acrylic and collaged paper on gelatin silver print, detail
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

On July 13, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York staged a posthumous retrospective of the New York-based artist and writer David Wojnarowicz. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” chronicles the artistic life of a self-taught artist who mined his personal life to create formally innovative and deeply moving works of art. Known to many as an extreme polemicist of the Reagan administration and outspoken AIDS activist, much of Wojnarowicz’s art often gets overlooked in favor of his AIDS activism and anti-censorship battles. The Whitney honors Wojnarowicz by compiling the development of his art in the context in which it was created: the Downtown scene, an art scene and cultural explosion that evolved around lower Manhattan in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. The Whitney presents a portrait of the venerated activist as how he most intimately saw himself, an artist.

DW, Rimbaud in New York(fig. 1) David Wojnarowicz, Rimbaud in New York, 1978-1979, gelatin sliver print
image courtesy | Whitney Museum of American Art

Before Wojnarowicz aspired to be an artist, he aspired to be a writer. He published his first book, Sounds in the Distance, a collection of transcribed interviews with his friends and neighbors, in 1982. The Whitney’s retrospective includes early works which merge his literary inspirations with his artistic ambitions. In his first commercially successful works of art, a series of photographs titled Rimbaud in New York from 1978–1979, Wojnarowicz photographed three of his friends around New York wearing a life-size mask of the face of Arthur Rimbaud, a nineteenth-century French poet. Wojnarowicz may have felt a connection with the young iconoclast, who openly proclaimed himself as an outsider and engaged in tumultuous romances with other men. In Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz updates Rimbaud’s significance for 1970’s New York. In one photograph, Wojnarowicz depicts Rimbaud wearing the standard DIY punk outfit, a denim vest and white t-shirt standing outside of the Times Square-42nd street subway station (figure 1). Across the street, a line of movie house marquees recede into the distance, recalling the notorious era when Times Square was home to another class of outsiders—hustlers and drug dealers; pimps and sex workers.

IMG_5785(fig. 2) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Metamorphosis series, 1984, collage paper and acrylic on plaster
image taken by author

Other works in the show emphasize Wojnarowicz’s participation in the Downtown arts scene. The show’s curators David Khiel and David Breslin re-staged his 1984 exhibition at the East Village gallery Civilian Warfare (figure 2). Wojnarowicz created a group of twenty-three personalized plaster-cast heads as a post-colonial critique of conflicts raging in Central and South America at the time. Wojnarowicz created the heads as allegorical representations of the outsider. He originally displayed the heads along a wall below a painted bull’s-eye. At the Whitney, the curators set the heads on podiums of different heights, in rows, receding into the corner of a black-walled space. With the added depth, the plaster heads resemble less of the foreigner than that of the ancient Greek herm—stone pillars topped with carved heads used as boundary markers or milestones. Indeed, as a viewer, the further you cross into the receded space, the fewer the visitors surround you, and the further you travel into Wojnarowicz’s world.

IMG_5787(fig. 3) David Wojnarowicz, exhibition view of Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1988–1989, eight gelatin silver prints
image taken by author

While it is tempting to consider Wojnarowicz a standalone, if not anomalous figure in the art world—as much of an outsider as the subjects of his art and writing—Wojnarowicz established himself among a rich network of artists, intellectuals, and activists that made up the Downtown scene. Much like the axiom of equality, a concept in mathematics that states a number is always equal to itself, so too does Wojnarowicz possess this reflexive quality. No matter the injustices he faced as a gay man and later as a person with AIDS, Wojnarowicz was met with success in his career. The curators remark:

Wojnarowicz’s work documents and illuminates a desperate period of American history: that of the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explore American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.[1]

Wojnarowicz survived an abusive father, an absentee mother, homelessness, welfare hotels, child hustling in Times Square, cross-country freight hopping, anonymous men with hostile intentions. During that same time, Wojnarowicz achieved an alternative education through the writings of Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud, moved to Paris for a time to pursue a career in writing, showed his art at East Village galleries, published a memoir, and exhibited a survey of his work all during his short lifetime. Wojnarowicz understood the potential of his unconventional life, and built a political persona around his perceived differences to smack people in the face, to assault their senses, and get them to accept the Truth as he saw it.

DW, Sex Series, Train(fig. 4) David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, from Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), 1989, gelatin silver print
image courtesy | New York Magazine

What was the Truth as Wojnarowicz saw it? Towards the end of his career Wojnarowicz gained notoriety for his direct, potent, and militant AIDS activism—but much of the work he created during this late period in his life carries a deep ambiguity about AIDS in the gay community. The demands of his public persona as an activist did not allow him to express his feelings of isolation from within the community that he aligned himself with. Wojnarowicz would have felt ostracized from the gay community due to his HIV positive status. His art allowed him to express his feelings of vulnerability and of tensions towards the gay community, while allowing him to remain a strong and uncompromising figure in the fight to end AIDS.

Perhaps Wojnarowicz revealed his vulnerability most strikingly in his Sex Series (For Marion Scemama), a series of eight black-and-white photomontages, or composite photographs, created between 1988–1989 (figure 3). Each untitled image consists of two components: a large pictorial field in which smaller circular images are set. Large images of man-made structures mix with small images culled from pornographic magazines or newspaper photographs. Many of the smaller images are difficult to identify. Far more discernible than images of intimacy are those of police brutality, such as in Untitled (train) (figure 4). Wojnarowicz resists the dominant ideology which positioned gay men as sick and dying, victims of their own promiscuous lifestyle, but he does not wholly celebrate his sexuality either. He politicizes his grief and makes public his personal desires—not using his noted anger, but through the layers of complexity of his lived reality. So too does the Whitney give rise to these tensions. Wojnarowicz embodies the spirit of resistance precisely because of unique perspective as an artist.

Wojnarowicz became an artist to feel less isolated, and in viewing his retrospective, so do we as an audience. “David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, New York through September 30, 2018.


[1] Museum label for David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake at Night, Jul. 12–Sept. 30, 2018, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.