A multi-media project about touch and tactility, about craft and value, about the colors of memory
HD video, installation, textile, photography
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
Rhode Island School of Design
Beautiful articulation - thematically and visually - of the relationship between scale and intimacy.
Director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies, New York University
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.
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
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
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.