Oriental Silk

A multi-media project about touch and tactility, about craft and value, about the colors of memory

Year

2015-2017

Media

HD video, installation, textile, photography

Award

Best Documentary Film, Mexico International Film Festival

Xiaowen Zhu’s long-term project Oriental Silk is about touch and tactility, craft and value, and the colors of memory. The Oriental Silk emporium, located in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, is the first Chinese silk importing business in the United States after WWII. Having once risen within the Hollywood movie industry, the shop, established more than four decades ago, has become a productive place to reflect on the astonishing histories of twentieth-century migration and to critique the idea of the American dream.

Through the worldview of the shop owner Kenneth Wong, the beauty of silk and its wondrous craftsmanship stand for all those human pursuits that link people and places – and provide purpose – across time and borders. 

Excellently reveals the complex relationship between people and objects in "migrants' worlds" in an exquisite, rhythmical way.

Dr. Cangbai Wang

Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies 

University of Westminster

A moving and meditative exploration of what Chinese silks meant to one immigrant family, and the ways in which people use objects to make sense of the emotional past.

Dr. Rachel Silberstein

Assistant Professor

Rhode Island School of Design

Beautiful articulation - thematically and visually - of the relationship between scale and intimacy.

Sukhdev Sandu

Director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies, New York University

Exhibitions

Over the past few years, Xiaowen has taken the project in various forms to numerous places in the world, from Shanghai to London, from Los Angeles to Berlin, from New York to Beijing. 

Single-Channel Film

 

Screening: Oriental Silk , 17 October, 2018, the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Oriental Silk, 13 October, 2018, USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, USA

SURVIVE, 26 Sep - 7 Oct, 2018, Non Berlin, Berlin Art Week, Berlin, Germany

Unfold: Art in the City of Tomorrow, 2nd - 8th Oct. 2017 Church Street, London, UK

Two Films by Xiaowen Zhu, 9 March, 2017, Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, USA

Chinese Visual Festival , 9 December, 2016, London, UK 

Arthub Asia, 6-24 November, 2016, Arthub Asia, Shanghai, China

"Unrolled Silks", Xiaowen Zhu's Solo Exhibition, Bloomsbury Gallery, London, UK

Qifang Chinese Independent Documentary Screening, Dalian, Chengdu, Beijing, Hangzhou, China

The Immigrants of Spitalfield Festival, 19 June, 2016, Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK

"Necessary Frames", Saturday 11 June 8pm, 2016, Sheffield Fringe, Sheffield, UK

Whitstable Biennale, Artists' Short Film Programme, 4-12 June, 2016, Whitstable, UK

Oriental Silk: Screening and Conversation, 11 May, 2016, New York University, New York, USA

Presented by the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture and the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program

Conversation with Xiaowen Zhu, Christina H. Moon, Sukhdev Sandu and Thuy Linh Tu

Oriental Silk Screening, 27 April, 2016, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, USA

Presented by RISD Museum

Oriental Silk: Private Screening, China Exchange, 19 Feb, London, UK

Introduced by Xuhua Zhan, Curator and Co-Founder of Chinese Visual Festival

Artist Talk: The Making of Orientals Silk, University of Westminster, 11 November, 2015, London, UK

Introduced by Dr Cangbai Wang, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies, University of Westminster

Oriental Silk China Premiere, 28 November, 2015, Aurora Museum, Shanghai, China

Curated by Davide Quadrio, Founder and Director of Arthub Asia

"Chinese Cultural Heritage" Conference, 17-18 June 2015, Lund Museum of Culture, Lund, Sweden

 

 

 

 

Strong Threads

By Gareth Evans

 

 

 

When it comes to acts of witness, to testimonials of experience – lived, felt, shared or private – we tend to think first that these statements of heightened being are exactly that, dispatches snatched from the frontline (or thereabouts) of a crisis, histories oral or otherwise that have made it over the border to safety (the border, of course, might be geographical but could equally well be temporal, social, political, generational or defined around gender, belief, race and other tenets of identity: it can sometimes be as hard to survive a family as a war).

 

What makes Oriental Silk both poignant and useful is not only that it provides undeniably rewarding witness and testimony (as well as insightful responses from a soft threshold in the ongoing globalization of things) but that it reports from the counter of a single store and from the daily routine of a single man.

 

Kenneth Wong’s Beverly Hills Chinese import silk emporium (into its 40s now and inherited from his father) might not come to mind as a productive place to look to for evidence of either the often astonishing histories of twentieth century migration or the effects of international financial meltdown. That it offers both and much more besides is testament both to Xiaowen Zhu’s careful conversational style and to Mr. Wong’s own keenly felt sense – acutely aware of his role in both the long and shorter stories of international trade – that we are living at a moment of profound change in how human beings organize and prioritize both their collective and their intimate lives (in other words, their needs and their desires).

 

By looking ‘micro’ at a ‘macro’ situation, Xiaowen Zhu’s film can gently suggest where larger palette studies would feel the need to speak more loudly, or more insistently. And in Mr. Wong she has an affecting collaborator. An engineer by study and initial profession, he took the store on when none of his older siblings expressed an interest in doing so, and following his father’s decision to retire. Visibly moved when he speaks of having seen the store’s birth and the innumerable hours of labour expended to make it viable, Mr. Wong speaks to a wholly different register than that driving the imperatives – and decisions, sought or not – of almost all contemporary business.

 

In his case, the knowledgeable and sincere sale of Chinese silk in all its miraculous hues and textures is a commitment to the idea of the merchant as a joiner of disparate worlds, a conduit of the novel and the ancient-made-new, a shrinker of distances but an expander of the imaginative, a wanderer through the goods – and the good – of the world, so that those he returns to might benefit. It is not for nothing that the greatest trade route in history was called The Silk Road.

 

 

In this way, the ‘useless’ beauty of silk and its wondrous (labour- and time-intensive) hand-stitched adornments stand for all those human pursuits that link people and place - and provide purpose - across time and borders. Skilled craft, appreciated for centuries, bestows dignity and respect on the artisan, is enjoyed by and enhances the purchaser, their life and surroundings, and provides meaning for both the families and communities within which the maker and merchant reside. A thread runs – literally – from the silkworm farms of China to the television and film studios of Hollywood in this case. And attention is paid, along with the financial, at every step in the transactional process. This dedication to skill and its outcome raises the quality of the exchange and, in a very real way, the actual fibre of the human story of which it is a part.

 

 

The 2008 financial collapse – and the subsequent doubling in the price of silk – means that Mr. Wong’s store faces a very uncertain future. His own age, the steady erosion of a skilled labour base back in China, the growing contentment globally with industrially made products and the changing nature of Mr. Wong’s customers, especially in Hollywood, all suggest that Oriental Silk might struggle to reach its half-century anniversary. Another storefront vacant on Main Street – so it goes…

 

 

Well, yes, so it can go, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Mr. Wong, kind, generous, unfailingly modest, knows nostalgia when he sees it (and is surely entitled to feel it from time to time). But he also knows about priorities, and how meaning, an awareness of personal, shared and cultural history, can and should survive, to inform the present and enable a valid future. As always, it is not about establishing a turf war with Poundland but about allowing for a waterfront of possibility, a democracy to Capital and its offers that allows the craft to co-exist with the purely commercial. Market Capitalism it seemed, understood that. Finance Capitalism couldn’t care less – and arguably isn’t even aware of the concern.

 

 

 

Gareth Evans is a writer, editor, presenter and event / film producer. He is the Whitechapel Gallery’s Film Curator.

 

强韧的丝线 

作者:Gareth Evans

翻译: 朱晓闻

 

 

 

见证中的行为和经历后的感言,或身临其境,或感同身受,或切身体会,总是容易让我们以为这些不同寻常的陈述,恰是从前线(或前线附近)虎口夺食的急件,它们肩负着某种时代重任,穿越了重重危机,以口述史或是其他方式好不容易抵达安全的彼岸。(至于“彼岸”,当然既可能是地理上的划分,也可能是时间性的、社会性的、政治性的、跨年代的,或是由性别、信仰、族裔和其他身份界定的法则加以鉴别的:有时候,一个家庭所经历的重重阻碍甚至堪比在战争中幸免于难。)

 

《乡绸》这部作品既尖锐且合时宜,不仅因为它不容置疑地提供了有益的见证和阐述,同时从一个软着陆点极富洞察力地反映了全球化持续进行中的那些事儿,更有意思的是,这些有益的见证和富有洞察力的反馈,恰恰都来自同一家店铺的柜台和同一个人的日常生活。

肯尼思·王从父亲那里继承了位于贝弗利山庄的中国丝绸进口百货店,这家店已经开了40多年。如果我们要探寻二十世纪移民史上最惊心动魄的故事,或是探讨国际金融危机造成的深远影响,似乎怎么都不太会想到来这家店寻觅线索。然而,《乡绸》呈现的远远超过这两个重要议题的线索,这归结于朱晓闻仔细的对话方式和王先生自己敏锐的感受力——事实上,王先生对于自己在国际贸易短期及长期形势下的位置极具自知之明——我们身处一个巨变的时代,人们正以越来越不同的方式组织经营着集体及个体的生活方式(换言之,他们的需求与欲望)。

 

通过用“微观”的方式观察一个“宏观”的社会形态,朱晓闻的影片可以委婉地建议具有宏观视野的调查研究应该在何处大声表达,或坚持表达。而王先生则是她一位非常感人的合作者。他曾经攻读工程学位并成为了一名工程师,而当他的兄弟姐妹无人愿意在父亲退休以后接手店面时,他出面接手了,并同时放弃了自己的工程师职业。当他谈到亲眼见证了这家店的诞生和父母亲不辞辛劳的付出时,他对店的感情一览无遗,而这和当代几乎所有商业模式的使命都显得背道而驰——无论它们的目标和决定背后的基石是怎样的。

 

对王先生而言,他秉承丝绸商人把不同世界连接起来的使命,他尊重有关中国丝绸的知识,并进行诚意的销售,他真心赞叹美丽丝绸的色彩与纹理,他将自己视为一部小说的引导线,一个吐故纳新的传承人,一部距离的收缩机,一台想象力的伸展仪,一个货物世界的漫游者——货当然都是好货,世界也是好的世界。因而和他有贸易往来的人最终都可以获利获益。毕竟,历史上最伟大的贸易线路可不是随随便便被称为“丝绸之路”的。

 

如此说来,真丝“无用”的美丽和它令人赞叹、费时费工的手工刺绣装饰就代表了人类的追求——这种追求把不同的人和地理位置连接起来,提供了超越时空的意义。精湛的手艺在跨越世纪的传承中始终受到赞赏,手艺人为此受到尊敬与推崇,而精致的商品经由收藏者购得,被他们把玩欣赏,使得蓬荜生辉,让手艺人和商人的家庭、社区都能获得劳动的报酬与意义。一根丝线从远在中国的养蚕农场一路跑到好莱坞的电影棚,这就是《乡绸》故事里活生生的例子。在这个交易过程中,每一步都需要精神专注,更不用说其中涉及的财务管理。这种对工艺的奉献精神以及它的产出结果提高了不同文明间交流的质量,并且非常确实地提升了人类历史的构成部分之一——纤维的品质。

 

2008年的金融危机以及由此造成的丝绸价格翻倍,意味着王先生的店必须面临不可预测的未来。他日益增长的年龄、中国手艺工人的日益缺失、全球范围内对纯工业制品日益增长的满意程度、以及王先生顾客群体的日益变化,特别是好莱坞电影工业的日益转型,都暗示着远东丝绸店可能难以维持到它50周年的纪念日。又一间主街上的店面要消失了,就是这么回事吧……

 

好吧,是的,店面可以消失,但它并不非要以这种方式消失。王先生的为人善良、慷慨、永远都很谦虚,知道自己什么时候又在怀旧了,但又时不时地充分沉浸其中。可是,他也知道事情的优先顺序,明白代表个人、集体和文化历史的意义可以并应该被传承,用历史的经验教育现在、影响未来。这当然无关和Poundland(英国一家连锁廉价超市)争夺地盘,而是允许不同可能性有生存的空间,呼吁资本环境下的民主、可以让手工艺与纯商业模式共同存在。市场资本主义看来是理解了这一点,而金融资本主义对此则漠不关心——甚至可以说根本对此忧虑视而不见。

 

 

 

Gareth Evans是一位作家、编辑、主持人和活动策划、电影制片人,他也是英国伦敦白教堂美术馆的电影策展人

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