Art collector and retail doyen Adrian Cheng picked the perfect moment for the global debut of “GET A LIFE!”, an exceptional show centered on the artistic and fashion output plus activism of iconic British designer Vivienne Westwood.
TEXT: Nels Frye
IMAGES: Courtesy of K11 Shanghai
The exhibition runs from December 20, 2016 to February 28, 2017 at the 3,000-sqm chi K11 art museum in Shanghai’s art deco-inspired K11 Tower. The activism side of the exhibition feels terribly topical due to the recent election of a US president who challenges the science of climate change and threatens to remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement – all while China has approved a $361 billion investment program for clean energy projects. This profound context for a show with Climate Change as a focus in the center of Shanghai underscores that China has assumed the mantle of leadership in combatting the most pressing global issue of our time.
“GET A LIFE!” was a compendium of Vivienne Westwood activism that included paintings, hand-drawn graphics, photos, videos, artworks, quotes and fashion pieces. Highlights included her hand-drawn ‘Gaia – the Tree of Life’ illustration, the ‘+5° Map’ and 60 portraits of celebrities who joined her ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign for Greenpeace that was shown in London’s Waterloo underground station in 2015. There were also pieces from the “Save The Rainforest” and “Mirror The World” campaigns and the powerful and colorful Climate Revolution banner. Showing how her beliefs impact her fashion collections was the Autumn-Winter 2011/12 Ethical Fashion Africa collection with bags “Handmade with love” in Nairobi Kenya, all strikingly captured by Juergen Teller.
Vivienne Westwood herself did not come to Shanghai – perhaps in a nod to the carbon emissions from plane travel – but her design director Alexander Krenn did and co-curated with Song Zhenxi of the K11 Art Foundation. Seven Chinese artists and an artist group, including Sun Xun, Wu Junyong, Zhang Ruyi, Yu Honglei, Wang Congyi, Nathan Zhou and Zhu Xi comprised the Chinese component curated by Song. In dialogue with the Vivienne Westwood component of the exhibition, these works of contemporary art also challenged viewers to consider their relationship with the natural environment. Though some might argue that a parallel collection of Western contemporary artists might make more sense, the differing ways of treating environmentalism – one very strident and the other more reflective – seemed also to highlight differences in traditional culture between West and East, and asked viewers to consider which approach make more sense or how to combine them.
The exhibition began with the question “Who are our rulers?” and then moved immediately to an answer scrawled by Vivienne Westwood herself: “I am against the status quo. The status quo is: A few control 7 billion. The few are killing us. They do this by means of the rotten financial system. The solution is switch to green energy.” The flagrancy of Vivienne Westwood makes her an odd figure for Chinese consumers to admire, with the fashion and her great creativity perhaps camouflaging her real purpose of disrupting the establishment. K11’s Mr. Cheng commented about Chinese audiences: “seeing their fashion icon placed in such a context, many of them were inspired to think more about our environment and what is happening to our world,” adding that the response was very positive.
From the moment she burst on the scene with “DESTROY” emblazoned with a bold red Nazi swastika, and an inverted image of Christ on the cross, on her t-shirt, Vivienne Westwood has invited controversy and celebrated punk politics. The green movement has always key for Ms. Westwood and she has done everything from starring in videos for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to appearing Westwood behind a tank, when she took the anti-fracking protest to the home of former Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron.
This attitude seems to contradict a business that profits from people buying more clothing and exhibiting in a shopping mall. Ms. Westwood has spoken to this conflict with statements like: “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.” Indeed, K11 is far more culturally sophisticated than other malls and follows a concept called “museum-retail” that has attracted admiration from mall operators across the world who all face the challenge of making their spaces more compelling for visitors who no longer simply want to buy, buy, buy. About K11, Mr. Cheng says “Not only we are facilitating this cross-pollination among different cultures, we are promoting cross-dialogue across different disciplines, such as art, fashion, design, architecture, furniture, etc.” The spirt of dialogue and cross-pollination between art, fashion and more has appeared before in BAGISM, an exhibition that explored the history of bags and contemporary Chinese art.
The three guiding principals for his brand are Art, People and Nature. Beyond this exhibition, the third principal has led K11 projects to attain high industry standards for sustainability including gaining Leed Platinum certification for construction. Urban farming and farm to table concepts are also key for K11. Most of this owes to the vision of Adrian Cheng himself. Just 37, Mr. Cheng is Executive Vice-Chairman at New World Development, a major HK-based developer and conglomerate, and he founded K11 and K11 Art Foundation in 2008 and 2010, while K11 art mall opened in 2013. Mr. Cheng is already one of the most prominent figures on the global art circuit, participating as a board member or advisor with the MoMA PS1, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, the Royal Academy of Arts, National Museum of China Foundation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Centre Pompidou and engaged in collaborations with the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Cheng has plans to bring his unique vision of retail to Shenyang and Guangzhou and recently opened the K11 Art Village in Wuhan.
Though exhibits exploring themes of sustainability and climate change are not planned at present, these are core values for K11 and their partnership with Vivienne Westwood is long-term. More exhibits will travel to other cities in China as K11 museum malls open and more consumers come to experience museum-retail and find that a shopping center can be a place for spending time and being culturally enriched. If the selfies flooding wechat and weibo of visitors to GET A LIFE holding placards that saying “revolution” and “fracking is a crime” are any indication, this exhibit has already had a great impact.
Vivienne Westwood : GET A LIFE & 桃花源‧迹
20 Dec 2016 to 28 Feb 2017
chi K11 Art Museum, Shanghai
Born in Boston, Ma., Nels Frye has lived in Taipei, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Dalian, Chengdu, Beijing, and Shanghai working as a business consultant, freelance writer and photographer, and entrepreneur. Mr. Frye developed market entry strategies in industries from fashion to aviation, packaging, and literary copyright protection. He majored in history at the University of Chicago and his interest in China was sparked by reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s major historical novels, at age fourteen.
Frye was Editor-in-Chief of Beijing-based LifeStyle Magazine from 2009-2015. He gained international recognition for his street style blog stylites.net, a valuable record of the looks and attitudes of Beijingers at the start of the 21st Century. As an independent consultant, Frye created exciting collaborations and content for Lacoste, American Rag Cie, The HUB and other clients clients. For over three years, Nels served as Lifestyle Advisor for the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. Frye has also been invited to speak on the China media and fashion environments by P&G, H&M, Corneliani and Benetton.
His latest project is a start-up that seeks to introduce secondhand fashion to China, called Pawnstar, which has a physical store in the French Concession.