The Last Days of Disco

The 1970s emerged as a distinctly sexual decade in reaction to the extreme militantism of the 1960s. Will the same happen in the 2020s?

Decadence and glamour at the Studio 54 1978 New Year’s Eve party, Credit: Robin Platzer:Twin Images — The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Maria Bastos-Stanek

We are advancing on a new sexual frontier. Like on any uncharted terrain, we face a different set of dilemmas than our predecessors. This is not a controversial statement. The Western legacy of sexual guilt has been receding for some time. A new, more expressive system for governing sexual behavior has replaced our puritanical prudishness. Once outlawed behavior is now celebrated. Self-congratulatory media on topics from sex positivity to queer politics has convinced us of our own liberation. Yet, we who feel differently know that chronology is not the same as progress. The loosening of social convention is more duplicitous than liberating and threatens to undermine our own radical potential. As artist Daniel Buren, champion of institutional critique, told the Times, “today everything is nice, everything is accepted . . . and nothing makes any sense.”

With the birth of social acceptance comes the death of culture. Now freed from the burden of historical consciousness (the crushing weight of history) we face a fiercer foe—our own collective self-consciousness. Despite feminist struggles and gay liberation, self-expression is our primary casualty. We’ve learned to represent ourselves as something apart from ourselves (because of the internet)—as signifier without referent. We learn to spin the smallest tufts of recognition into long lines of prized wool. This new system of governance breeds alienation, anxiety, and a self-awareness caught between self-aggrandizement and belittlement. The crisis of self-consciousness reveals just how little we’ve progressed. Lest we ignore the incels, our civilized society risks relapsing into the barbarism of sexual guilt.

Kate Julian, a journalist at The Atlantic, penned a cover story asking “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” Julian delivers a series of startling claims about what she calls the “sex recession.” Among them, young people are having less sex than previous generations, they’re waiting until later in their lives to start having sex, and once they do they often abstain for long periods of time. Julian blames a decline in couplehood (in favor of casual hookups), the advent of the internet (and its ability to gratify basic social and sexual needs), and to the rising agency in women who feel emboldened to refuse the piggish sexual entitlement of predatory men. The article reads like a blameless exposé, hopelessly trying to dissuade the typical boomer reaction of millennial-bashing, but naively also trying to pull the wool back over the babe’s eyes. Perhaps inadvertently, this approach proves cannily erudite about the bleakness of millennial life. Sex, which was once used as an endlessly generative resource for coming-of-age rebellion, is revealed as just another casualty in the broader reorganization of social, political, and economic life following the 2008 financial crisis. 

Has the sexual revolution taken a new form or has it simply broken down in the digital age? Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “knowledge is fatal. It is the unpredictability of human emotion that charms us.” The internet thrives on skepticism, cynical irony, wild conspiracy theories, and dramatic narrative—all of which can be generously understood as attempts to temper the tides of provocations that regularly flood the online reading environment (which regrettably includes Twitter) into manageable crystallizations of knowledge. It takes a shrewd reader to filter respected writers of authority from the purveyors of click-service journalism when they deliver the same opinions. All of which is to say: online optimism has never seemed more irresponsible. Yet, authenticity and transparency are championed as the greatest value in the digital world. Is the same true in real life? It may be too obvious to say, but online life only resembles reality, not the real thing. What happens on analog time is infinitely more compelling and more unpredictable. The more the digital world encroaches into everyday life, the more fraught the topic of sex gets. 

The integration of personality with viral marketability diminishes our capacity for real, impassioned self-expression. It does, however, make it easier to turn ourselves into brands. The personal matters we seek to streamline through the convenience of digital technology are always secondary to the prerogatives of the advertising economy. Today it seems that no one can go online without risking a part of themselves. As those feelings of unease multiply, dating websites and apps that favor the photogenic encourage strangers to find commonality in the straightforward matter of appearance. No longer just a novelty, these apps promise freedom from uncertainty. We are still in the early days of the internet and its tidal wave of consequences are just starting to reach our shores (goodbye, democracy!). Take away the risk of rejection and you also diminish the excitement of the pursuit. These concerns don’t stay within the tidy parameters of a phone screen; they spill out into reality. As dating services become more ubiquitous, once common in-person seduction or on-the-street cruising feel unthinkable today or downright predatory.

The dissatisfaction that many of us seem to feel about sex forces us to confront issues that once seemed behind us. If we have long since eradicated sexual guilt and stigma, why is sex still such a fraught topic? If dating is hard work now, where is the pleasure? Pleasure is the feeling of possibility. It’s the feeling of having a future. That future is not in technology, new devices, or startups. It’s in public life. It’s going out and meeting people. It’s the prospect of gratification that pulls us into the covert world of the night. Past our apartments, down the block, the steely shriek of the subway deliver us to the unmarked doors of bars and clubs in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, promising intimate pleasures far away from our humdrum lives and the prying eyes of instagram. I don’t mean to say we should abandon social media (participation on the internet has, ironically, allowed us to feel more human). However, there are other avenues for sex and dating. An entirely different social landscape once existed. The old model offers new ways for connection unencumbered by the social rules dictated by Silicon Valley. 

John Baldessari, Hands Framing New York Harbor, 1971, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes the achievements of the past so endearing in the present is the shared now-ness of the events. The success of the young and of each new generation is their ability to break the stronghold of conservatism that grips the eternal past. What each generation shares is the pushing away of what came before them. The rebellious cultural norms of youth combined with the particularly American lack of historical memory makes the past an eager site for continual rediscovery. No better example of rule-breaking and pleasure-seeking exists than in the period following the social expansion of the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. The changes of that era were most enthusiastically welcomed in dense urban areas with already established cultures of tolerance. Chief among them was dark and decadent New York City.

The liberation decade has its roots in the 1960s. Not since our current period has the world felt so many profound cultural, social, and economic changes than in the anti-establishment youth-oriented counterculture of the 1960s. During a time when nearly every aspect of American culture was exploding in some way, young people rallied around the most damaged zones of human activity: war, civil rights, free speech, women’s rights, and sex. On the precipice of great change, grassroots social movements advocated for the protection of all people; equality for the benefit of all populations; non-discrimination for the betterment of all communities. The fraught topic of sex and sexuality made fertile ground for a social revolution. When all sex outside of marriage was considered taboo, nearly everyone was culpable or presumed culpable. A larger range of populations risked the danger of sexuality for its immense power. 

The 1970s also represented the first decade of full-scale women’s sexual liberation. Women enjoyed gains garnered in laws and governance of the previous decade starting when the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. The Supreme Court granted married women the legal right to use birth control in 1965 and later legalized birth control for all citizens in 1972. One year later, Roe v. Wade gave women the legal right to abortion. The pill and abortion did more than allow women to easily and safely manage their reproductive lives. Reproductive autonomy gave married and unmarried women alike the freedom to participate in all aspects of society. Legal access to birth control remains the single most influential factor in enabling women to enroll and matriculate from college to this day.

The wanton, sometimes depraved edge of the 1970s came only after the totalizing violation of the idealism that came at the end of the 1960’s. An especially sinister end came to the political protests that galvanized American youth. On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of unarmed students protesting the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War at Kent State University, killing four students and injuring nine others. The United States Armed Forces’ shocking indifference to human life both at home and abroad did little to unclench fists and forced many to question the ability of American leaders to steward the nation into a new era of lost innocence. Watergate would soon begin in 1972, making visible the corrupt stain of American governance and marking the beginning of a long deterioration of propriety in American politics.

The 1970s emerged as a distantly sexual decade in part because it occupied a brief window of time between the invention of the pill and the advent of HIV/AIDS. The “pill” separated sex from reproduction, and thus rendered heterosexuality obsolete, or at least, obsolete as a tool of social control that organized nearly all aspects life as in the past. The gay liberation movement that followed wrought dramatic changes to the availability of sex and in the creation of institutions for the protection and appreciation of sexual minorities. Unlike today, no one could satisfy their most basic need for connection on the internet; they were compelled to live a public life. Then, more than ever before, one felt the possibility of casual self-indulgence. A new culture of promiscuity became possible, one that involved non-monogamy, experimentation, and encouraged men and women to value being both the sexual agent and object; being desired and desirable.

Much of the decadence and glamour associated with the era stemmed from a reaction against the counter-cultural militantism of the 1960s, which in time had come to represent the youth culture itself. Activists felt freer to loosen the grip of their radicalism just as their groups were starting to fall apart. The broad-based social movements of the 1960s fractured into the narrow identity-based formations that still persist today, ushering in a partly reactionary nostalgia for the high-gloss glamour of 1930s and the golden age of Hollywood. Likewise, the city of New York fared poorly during a decades-long economic disenfranchisement in the post-war era and almost went bankrupt in the middle of the decade. What resulted for a brief period of time in the 1970s was more discerning culture, greater promiscuity, and wide-open (and affordable!) city to enjoy. 

Leon Levinstein, Street Scene- Woman in Shorts Leaning into Window of Parked Car, New York City, 1970s, Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

What would you risk for freedom? In another era when an entrenched sexual hierarchy seemed less likely to budge but was nevertheless slowly beginning to crack open, sexual subcultures tolerated higher rates of the kinds of abuses that have fanned the flames of #MeToo. This sense of danger can give sexual encounters an erotic thrill. The more extreme the prohibitions are, the greater the pull. Sexual intent thrives in exactly this type of environment, yet there is a tendency in the #MeToo era to dismiss sexual advances as predatory if those advances involve even mild forms of inequalities. Unequal sexual contact is not all equally or necessarily horrible, unimaginable, shameful. In a culture of sexual openness, one may encourage handsiness, invite touching, groping, and initiate frank sexual approaches. This is sex for the sake of sex. Sexual freedom does not always align with a sense of shared security.

Any yet, what is good for a culture may be bad for its people. Sex does not burden men the way it does women. Sex, we say, is imposed on women. When it involves a man, it can never be sex for the sake of sex. It’s either a declaration of power or biological, and as such is too serious to be made casual. It can seldom be enjoyed, not while it clings to a puritan morality. An invitation for sex must be carefully negotiated. Otherwise a woman’s refusal invites retribution. While most people may not actually think in this maladroit way, the public debates sparked by the #MeToo movement disallow nuance. The sex-positive movement may enjoy over-representation in the media, but the same media tells us the risks have not abated. They say women are turning to desperate measures. Some have taken to wearing Apple AirPods at all hours, which go for upwards of $199, in an effort to curb the attention of street harassers (because predators are so deterred by the status symbols of the upwardly mobile). There may be legal protections, but the cultural scaffolding that allows women to enjoy sexual autonomy is still stuck in a pre-liberation mindset, leaving sex today in a contrarian position. 

The #MeToo movement breaks down the debate about progress and circumscribes the limits of organizing around sex. We’re still stuck on the most basic question: have things gotten better or worse for women? How much better? No one can decide, yet we still alternate between two extremes of oppression and liberation. The reality is more complicated. These days it may be easier to ruin a man’s career, but abuses go on as before. Powerful men continue to exploit, demoralize, and dehumanize others, especially women, in profoundly damaging ways that have nothing to do with sex and go unchecked because their crimes do not involve deeply perverse sexual habits. The infamy of a sexual degenerate has as much to do with public fascination as it does the crimes themselves. In the workplace as on the street, the roles of the abuser and the victim are contextual. The power changes the person.

In the 1970s, loose-livered libertines of all stripes were fighting the same war in a different theater—the public theater of the night. The Nixon administration’s full-frontal assault on the political idealism of the 1960s had people longing for relief. Disco promised deliverance from the suffering of political concerns in the form of a good night out. In the early days of movement, considered by esteemed ambassadors like David Mancuso and Vince Aletti to be just that, the music retained the peace and love ethos of the 1960s. Early DJs envisioned themselves as a unifying force. They played records as elements of a continuous whole rather than as discrete stand-ins for a live performance. They understood their audience and catered to the dynamics of the dance floor. Clubs like the Loft, 12 West, and Paradise Garage placed a high priority on freedom and were naturally attended by majority black and gay audiences. Not until the mid-1970s did Disco cross over into its short-lived era of hyper-commerciality, bringing attention to sex, decadence, and, later, the ire of white men. 

It was more than music. DJs crafted an environment impossible to experience anywhere else. Writing in his memoir Before Pictures, critic and curator Douglas Crimp writes about going to clubs in the 1970s, “what all of these places had in common are traits of pariah culture: they were located in out-of-the-way neighborhoods in quickly refurbished spaces with the palpable feeling of being susceptible to a bust at any moment.” Here again, the erotic pull of extreme prohibitions enables a culture of promiscuity. Extreme inequalities metamorphosize into life-affirming qualities vis-a-vis the democracy of the dance floor. In the novel Dancer from the Dance, writer Andrew Holleran writes of these possibilities for communion wrought by dramatic imbalances: “the boy passed out on the sofa from an overdose of Tuinols was a Puerto Rican who washed dishes in the employee’s cafeteria at CBS, but the doctor bending over him had treated presidents.”

Bill Bernstein, GG’s Barnum Room, Ava #2, 1979, Credit: Aperture Foundation

Andrew Holleran’s epochal novel, Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, chronicles gay life in 1970s New York and the decade of disco. The book charts the life of handsome Malone, a mid-Western lawyer who makes a break in his life, moves to New York, and embarks on a decade-long journey into the suddenly not-so-underground gay culture. As Malone sheds his former self and descends into gay life, he experiences more in a single decade than most do in a lifetime. Burned by a love gone wrong, he vows “to sleep with everyone just once” and eventually turns to hustling, pimped by the distinguished Sutherland, a drag queen and face about town, who arranges to “marry” Malone off to a wealthy and reserved Princeton graduate. The plan dissolves one summer night on Fire Island when Sutherland dies of a drug overdose and Malone mysteriously vanishes. Who better to chronicle his life than an unnamed narrator who frequents the same bars, clubs, and parks as Malone, seduced by his handsome features and disarming charm, rebuffed by an aura of inscrutability, and forced into the role of a spectator—the perspective from which legends are made.

Holleran claims the book to be a satire on gay life in the 1970s. The exaggerated emotions and extreme lifestyles all lend to a melodramatic form. He describes a group of men ruled by aesthetic values whose goals include getting laid, dancing, summering on Fire Island, and not much else. Malone flies head-long into drug-fueled encounters on the dance floor. Malone and Sutherland move deftly between New York high society and a delinquent underground—rubbing shoulders with Halston and his model muses at the opening of a new club and provoking a gun wielding lunatic in a seedy East Village cinema in the same night.

Satire is perhaps one of the few literary genres which is written for an intended audience. This poses a problem for Dancer from the Dance in the post-AIDS era. The substance of the character’s lives and the places Holleran writes about are nearly unrecognizable to a young reader. Writer Fran Lebowitz has spoken on the devastation of AIDS on the arts culture in an interview with Francesco Clemente, saying “the first people who died of AIDS were artists . . . It decimated not just artists but knowledge. Knowledge of a culture. There’s a huge gap in what people know, and there’s no context for it anymore.” Holleran may have written the book as satire, but the quality of life the novel speaks to has been so thoroughly wiped out that, at least at first reading, the novel appears as something more like a historical document. 

This lack of context cannot extinguish what Walter Benjamin calls the “poetic significance” of a work of art, which is less about the meaning of a work and more about the idea or feelings that the words invoke. Lives lived on the margins often escape the confines of convention. Combined with the high stakes of surviving everyday life, those lives start to appear more like melodrama. But at a time when living a gay life meant being thrown out of your existing life, or of having to make a break with the familiar world it’s no surprise that upon landing in New York some might live their lives with such an intense singular focus that it radiates from the novel to this day. Gay lives were not easy-going lives. Disco disseminates the potential of gay life lived off the grid, so to speak. Holleran writes of men who, at great economic sacrifice, leave their former lives behind and disappear into economically and culturally dead zones of lower Manhattan that harbor a secret vitality for those in the know. Only once they abandoned their reputations did a secret world of opportunity begin to blossom, chiefly in bars, clubs, and parks. Holleran invites us to step into this perspective. When we do so, we do so without the risk, but stand to gain the energy. Illuminating the fervor for the dance floor, Holleran discloses in an interview:

Everybody who got to New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s was coming out of a really, really repressive, witch hunting cultural climate . . . So it’s understandable that everybody went a little crazy. They just were suddenly free and New York was kind of empty then; nobody cared what was going on.

Gay people in America enjoyed an expansive downtown that existed in both literal space and in the collective imaginary. Downtown was, of course, downtown New York City, which during the 1970s barely registered culturally as a deindustrialized, pre-gentrified wasteland with an exacerbated criminal element. The city in crisis cast the anonymity, invisibility, and indifference needed for a gay subculture to flourish. I don’t want to downplay the risk or the danger that gay people faced in the 1970s. But there comes a certain energy with the boldness of putting your own body and sometimes life on the line. It also speaks to the fun of going against the grain; of a love for the illicit and forbidden.

Cover of Dancer from the Dance

What’s at stake regarding the future of Dancer from the Dance is the issue of representation. As told by Craig Owens in his essay “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” post-structuralism emerged in France in the aftermath of the 1968 student riots and grew out of a growing distrust of humanist discourse, which proposed a “universal” Western European man as the center of culture (to the marginalization of other cultures, races, and women). In the 1970s and 1980s post-structuralism emerged as a framework to speak of the ways in which representation could be used as a weapon of domination and control. Owens writes that, unlike humanist Erwin Panofsky, who proposed the purpose of the humanities is to reconstruct and reanimate the past, post-structuralists are less interested in subject matter than they are with truth content. This constant state of asking questions, of critical self-reflection, is the hallmark of post-structuralism. 

Holleran’s account of gay life in the 1970s goes far beyond a literary stand-in for lives that have already been lived. Perhaps Dancer has an allegorical structure. Unlike, say, metaphor, which requires no or very little interpretation, an allegory must be explained. One is reminded of Lebowitz’s words. Holleran’s world needs context in order for it to be meaningful for an audience beyond the people it satirizes. What’s more, the allegorical structure conceals as much as it tries to represent. 

The unique structure of Dancer—that it is bookended by a series of first-person letters, while the narrative story is told in the third-person—engages in two distinct modes of representation. Craig Owens writes about these two modes. First is the artist as the viewer—one who stands before the pictured or written world. In this “window” view, the artist represents things as he seems them. The window is authoritative; it establishes truth. Second is the artist who describes the world as he sees it, known as the “mirrored view.” This intertwined view reveals the representation apparatus by confusing the subject from the scene of representation.

A post-structuralist critique of representation contests the epistemological value or truth value of art. It’s subject matter exposes reality as fiction but lays claim to the history. Dancer fits within a post-structuralist mode even with a coherent narrative structure precisely to bring attention to its own illegitimacy. Post-modernists exploit the value of truth telling. Images come to mind. In the works of Cindy Sherman, for example, she exploits the cinematic modes of photography to expose their apparatus for creating an idealized image of femininity. 

The letters which introduce and conclude the novel occur between two friends reflecting on the decade, one of whom retreats to the South to pursue honest work among the dirt and dogwood. But few can so easily break with the sexual liberalism of the 1970s and he goes on to write the very novel contained within the pages of Dancer. Private letters sent between two friends can be otherwise interpreted through a literal mode, if we are to take what the two write to each other as having truth content. Holleran exploits the truth value of the letter format to compete with the other dominant mode of representation in his novel, the narrative structure. The story is told as a fiction, an unwritten manuscript, set within the pages of a literary work of fiction. The novel secures a rarefied position in literature, mainly that it is impossible to forget the novel is a novel.

The letters also render visible invisible mechanisms that control the legend making apparatus of Malone’s life. Holleran merges specular images of homosexuality and their symbolic meaning with the literal. For example, Malone’s virtue comes from, at least in part, his incredible success in the downtown scene, his dazzling dancing abilities, and his excessive handsomeness. Dancing may be a ripe activity for satirization, and yet to do so would diminish the poetic significance of Malone. Holleran positions Malone as new to the gay scene, though in time he becomes an indispensable figure. Malone functions much like the “dancer from the dance,” indistinguishable from the other dancers, and in his anonymity he lays outside the point of reference. He remains outside of reference because he literally disposes with identification with his former life. When he arrives into gay life, he has nothing to identify himself with besides his own beauty. The life Malone is reluctant to claim is a trope, an image, an aesthetic. That he eventually does claim it forces him into the role of a sand-in for many gay men of the decade. But Malone is not happy in this position. He mimics a subculture he can never fully commit to in part because of his outsider status, as reference in his notorious reputation for being hard to get and even harder to know on an elemental level. 

The only pitfall of this strategy, as Owens remarks, is the complicity of mimicry. The strategy in which the denunciation is made necessarily means that one must participate in the culture in order to denounce it. But in order for deconstruction to work, one must come from inside the frame, so to speak. Malone frequently expresses disappointment in what he sees as a gay tendency to value asethetic over substance. Yet, he commits to the subculture for over a decade before vanishing. 

If it seems strange that a gay author might denounce his own people, especially one he spent some time living in, Holleran is less interested in what representation says than in what it does. Malone rarely speaks for himself. An unnamed narrator tells his story in a supposed manuscript whose author is quickly identified as of the same social circles, but is no longer within it, having decamped to the South. Malone is as neutral as a person can be. It is frequently the feeling while reading that we cannot generally come to know Malone in his subjective, unique voice. Perhaps because his life is documented through the eyes of an anonymous viewer. But also because of an undercurrent of melancholy that always threatens to reach the surface until the tension evaporates just as he does. We cannot know that he is truly happy in his life, even though we know what he has sacrificed for participation in that subculture. 

Just as Malone never feels exactly at home in his life or happy with his choices, we may never feel satisfied with the progress of sexual liberation. Better it should be this way, so the power of sexuality can continue to propel us into new directions. The culture of promiscuity that rode a crest in the second-half of the last century may have landed in muddy waters just as the tides of the new millennium begin to rise. To remember and to learn from the underground gay culture of the 1970s is to understand that even in the ruins, a great vitality runs just below the surface.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. 1955. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. Reprint, Boston: Mariner Books, 2019.

Brewster, Bill, and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: the History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999.

Colacello, Bob. Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up. 1990. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 2014.

Crimp, Douglas. Before Pictures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Holleran, Andrew. Dancer from the Dance. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978.

Holleran, Andrew. “Interview: Dancer from the Dance Author Andrew Holleran.” Interview by Ali Gitlow. Red Bull Music Academy Daily, November 9, 2015.

Julian, Kate. “The Sex Recession.” The Atlantic, December 2018

Lebowitz, Fran. “The Voice: Fran Lebowitz.” Interview by Francesco Clemente. Interview Magazine, March 11, 2016.

Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. 

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Yablonsky, Linda. “The Guggenheim Outcast Who Laughed Last.” The New York Times, 20 March 2005.


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.