Oriental Silk has been presented widely around the world. The following conversations are edited from transcripts of panel discussions, Q&A, and interviews with the artist and various contributors.
Curated by Davide Quadrio
Aurora Museum, Shanghai
28 November 2015
Rachel Silberstein: Hi everybody, welcome to the screening of Oriental Silk. I'm so glad that you can be here today. I actually want to start with thank yous, because organizing this has depended very much upon many kind people. So I want to thank them here. I want to start with Xiaowen Zhu, both for making this fantastic film and being so wonderful to work with. I really want to thank Cho Fund that has enabled us to bring Oriental Silk to the RISD community, especially Tracy Constantino. I am also very grateful to the curator of textiles, Kate Irvin for her help developing this project. I’d also like to thank Margaret Lewis, Deb Clemons, Janine Connelly, Matthew Berry, Pam Kimer, Peter O’Neill in FAV, Karen Montecalvo, Simone Solondz for her wonderful blog, Chaoqun Wang at the Design Guild who designed these beautiful posters, and Eloise Sherrid.
I also want to introduce Xiaowen. Described as a visual poet, social critic, and aesthetic researcher, she uses video, photography, performance, installation and mixed media as platforms to communicate the complex experience of being an international person and to wrestle with the notion of a disembodied identity. Born and raised in Shanghai, Xiaowen is currently based in London, UK. She is the first receipt of the TASML Artist Residency Award and Marylyn Ginsburg Klaus Post-MFA Fellowship. She is a mentor of the British Film Institute Film Academy, a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. Her work has been widely shown internationally.
I actually first heard about Xiaowen's film through a friend of mine in London, when Xiaowen screened her film at University of Westminster back in late last year. I immediately connected with a course that I teach at RISD called Interwoven Globe, which is basically all about textile from Asia built the modern world, or their contribution to building the modern world through really connecting people. I thought it would be particularly good to show this film in Providence. Like New York, Salem and Philadelphia, Providence very much built its prosperity upon the China trade. Companies like Brown & Ives, Providence’s largest merchant-importers who between 1789 and 1838 made forty-five voyages to Canton. In the last voyage in 1826 they brought back 212 cases of silks. Some of these silks entered museum collections, like RISD’s museum, which has a wonderful collection of Chinese silks. One of the things we've done here is to put some textiles to display at the Dongxia gallery, so if people are interested in being able to study those, they can go to the gallery and have a look.
The silks are part of the idea of what built the idea of China in the popular imagination and one of the things that connected China and America. In my course, we explore how Chinese silks really connected places like China and Europe, China and America, and how we can reconstruct ideas and concepts like exoticism, chinoiserie and hybridity through the textiles that brought these two cultures together.
In this film, we are going to see another side to what those silks meant. What we see is what those silks meant for one migrant family from China through the perspective of the current owner, Mr. Wong and his shop Oriental Silk.
Organised by Sukhdev Sandu
New York University, New York
11 May 2016
Presented by the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture and the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program in the NYU Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. Co-sponsored by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU. Organised by Sukhdev Sandu, Associate Professor of English , Social and Cultural Analysis; Director, Asian/Pacific/American Studies.
The screening was followed by a conversation with the director Xiaowen Zhu, Christina H. Moon, Sukhdev Sandu,
and Thuy Linh Tu.
Sukhdev: I was recommended to watch this film, Oriental Silk, by a friend of mine, Gareth Evans. He's the film curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I met Xiaowen a couple of months ago in London. I couldn't believe that she would be in the States anytime soon. I asked her, if you want, it'd be absolutely great if you might consider showing this film at NYU. I'm really grateful to you making your time in your schedule to show this film. Xiaowen Zhu is many many things, including documentary filmmaker, curator, writer, media artist, social researcher. She's born and raised in Shanghai, and is currently based in London. She's the first recipient of TASML artist residency award and Marylyn Ginsburg Klaus Post-MFA Fellowship. She was the artist-in-residence at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, also at V2_Institute for the wonderfully named “Unstable Media” in Rotterdam. She's a mentor at the British Film Institute's Film Academy, a member of the Los Angeles Artist Association, and she's also been visiting professor for media art at Syracuse University. Her works have been shown in many settings and contexts internationally in Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Canada, almost too much. This evening we'll the show the film then we are going to have a conversation between Xiaowen and Christina Moon, who's Assistant Professor in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School. Also in conversation will be my colleague Thuy Linh Tu, who's Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Director of the American Studies Program at NYU.
Moderated by Gareth Evans
Bloomsbury Gallery, London
22 September 2016
Xiaowen Zhu's solo exhibition Unrolled Silks had a panel discussion on the topic of Personal and Collective Memories at Bloomsbury Gallery London on 22 September 2016.
The following text is the transcript of the discussion, edited by Cangbai Wang, Chris Berry, Kelly Liang
Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, presenter and Film Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery. He programmes PLACE, the annual cross-platform festival at Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk and has curated numerous film and event seasons such as ‘Romany’ and ‘JG Ballard’, ‘John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet’ and ‘All Power to the Imagination! 1968 and Its Legacies’.
Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. His academic research is grounded in work on Chinese cinema and other Chinese screen-based media, as well as neighboring countries. He is especially interested in queer screen cultures in East Asia; mediatized public space in East Asian cities; and national and transnational screen cultures in East Asia.
Amy Ng is a playwright and historian. She was educated at Yale University and at Balliol College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She is an alumna of the Royal Court Theatre’s Critical Mass writers’ programme and the British East Asian Theatre writing group supported by the Young Vic, and is currently on attachment to the BBC Writersroom and Tamasha Theatre.
Cangbai Wang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Director of HOMELandS (Hub for Migration, Exiles, Languages and Spaces) at University of Westminster. His main research interests are in the areas of Chinese diaspora and cultural heritage. He is the author of Life is Elsewhere: Stories of Indonesian Chinese in Hong Kong (2006).
Xiaowen Zhu is a London-based artist, filmmaker and writer. Her work has been widely shown internationally. She gained her MFA in Art Video from Syracuse University. She was an artist-in-residence at ZKM | Center for Art and Media, visiting artist at Rhode Island School of Design, and a member of the Los Angeles Art Association. Oriental Silk is one of her recent projects.
Melissa Mei-Lin Chan is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California and USC Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow.
Kenneth Wong is the owner of Oriental Silk Co.
In the film, you mentioned finding "value in your culture." This phrase was extremely impactful to me. How can we move forward with this in mind? Is it about cultural preservation?
To answer your first question about the value in your culture, I believe that culture shapes who we are as a people - it give us our identity and values. Heritage is more important as we get older, especially if we are raising a family. We begin to understand the wisdom and thoughts of previous generations. Every developing country sees the new as exciting and is quick to adopt it and leaves the old behind. We think of the old as antiquated but as we age and become wiser we suddenly realize that the new is not so exciting and we long for the old. Modernization is alluring but it has a price. You sacrifice such things as quality, values, and craftsmanship as well as the lessons of the past. I am an American of Chinese heritage who wishes to understand my roots and where I came from.
The film seemed to tie family history with the history of the business as well as hints of Hollywood and Los Angeles. How did it feel to reflect on your family's history in this context?
To answer your second question, my father came to Los Angeles because it offered the opportunity to raise his family and have a better life. He and my mother had a laundry for more than 20 years before he retired. He did not like retiring so early in life and decided to start another business. Eventually, he settled on importing silk from China. It was made easier because of his cousin Uncle Ben in Hong Kong. Uncle Ben had access to many of his former students in China and was able to provide my father with introductions to the various silk factories in China. Because Hollywood is the center of the movie and television industry, it gave our silk business the opportunities to grow whereas it might not have elsewhere. It has turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship with the movie and television industry. We also were a source for silks for many fashion designers and interior decorators as well.
Oriental Silk is my parents’ legacy. Watching them over the years devote time and sweat to grow the business was like watching them raise another child in the family. I just could not turn my back on them when they asked me if I wanted to give up my career as a software engineer to take over the business. The business offered them a chance to show their pride in the silk legacy of China. My mother would always talk about how their generation had seen the worst in China growing up - seeing sickness, poverty, famine, and war. They relished the chance to see China emerge from all that and develop into a strong thriving country. During the seventies, China used to send people of my parents’ generation abroad to study and bring home what they learned to help China develop. My father would help many of them find housing here in Los Angeles while they were studying. He would drive them to Chinatown so that they could shop for groceries since they did not have any transportation. They would talk to my parents about how far China had come. They would say that their job was done but they would worry about where the next generation would take China.