Bandi Camp

Mathieu Borysevicz at a Zhao Bandi fashion show


Left: Artist Zhao Bandi with collector Paul Tai. Right: Artist Zhou Tiehai. (Except where noted, all photos: Mathieu Borysevicz)

“That was the first time I sat next to people who were actually interesting at an event like this,” a Shanghai fashion agent quipped as he exited ShanghART Night, Zhao Bandi’s Panda Couture fashion extravaganza staged on a two-hour cruise up and down the neon-splashed Huangpu River on Tuesday night. “I think it was all a little over the top” a jaded socialite muttered as she swished coffee around her champagne glass. As the yacht docked, the evening’s VIPs filed slowly off into the freezing night.

The event witnessed the most recent conceptual provocation in Zhao’s long career of mainstream manipulation. After a short stint making paintings and installations, Zhao broke out of the contemporary art world’s crystal cage to engage that nebulous entity—the public—in a series of colorful stunts. It was in 1996 that Zhao established both the panda image and the use of celebrities as conduits through which he could connect with the masses, implicating them as he did in works involving subway posters, marathons, mock Olympic ceremonies, and now—fashion shows.

Zhao’s floating burlesque, hosted by Shanghart, Shanghai’s longest-standing gallery, was a scaled-down version of the artist’s inauguration into the world of haute couture just a couple months ago, during China Fashion Week in Beijing. That event had garnered a wave of media attention not only because one of the models, none other than China’s blogger-cum–sex celebrity Sister Lotus, experienced a wardrobe malfunction as she pirouetted on the catwalk one time too many, but because the Chengdu Municipal Committee (habitat of China’s last living pandas), which interpreted the entire escapade as another vicious exploitation of the beloved panda, decided to take legal action.

Left: Bandi models. Right: Contrasts gallery's Pearl Lam, choreographer Jin Xing, and writer Mian Mian.

The show this evening began with a quiet cocktail party, where the usual Shanghai art elite—including dealer/patron Pearl Lam, writer Mian Mian, and artist Zhou Tiehai—mingled with fashion folks like rising-star fashion designer Lu Kun and, of course, the stray mainstream-media pundit. It was a calculated crowd of fifty, assembled with precision to cross disciplines effectively and garner maximum exposure. MTV was there, working hard to maneuver a large camera in the tight quarters while simultaneously blocking the Chinese press corps from getting in the way of its runway shot. The dinner gave way to a pumping beat and dimming house lights, and the panda show began. Zhao’s collection was a crossbreed of the furry endangered animal and societal archetypes: Panda Teacher, Panda Student, Panda Policeman, Panda Corrupt Official, and so on. The juxtaposition of China’s chubby black-and-white bear (whose low procreation records suggests they’re the most prudish of creatures) against the lanky sexiness of the models created a surprisingly interesting aesthetic—a little like Leigh Bowery goes to the zoo.

Surrounded by his “panda concubines,” Zhao bellowed: “China has entered the age of luxury. This line represents Chinese luxury.” Then, in response to the evening’s MC (Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan) asking why he brought the show to Shanghai, Zhao recited the story of an American fashion designer who in 1936 brought the first panda to the city. “It’s time for the panda to return to Shanghai.”

Left: Bandi models with curator Biljana Ciric (middle). Right: Guangdong Television fashion correspondent Ou Zhihan.

This panda spectacle had quite the fitting postscript: an auction. “After all, what would a contemporary art event in China be without one?” noted one magazine editor. The Panda Policeman outfit, hand-tailored white leather and thin black stitching, started at an inexpensive figure, but after the MC mentioned the Chinese artist’s quickly ascending values, the bids began pouring in. One of the bidders was none other than the son of the late, great artist (and auction-record breaker) Chen Yifei. But he was left in the dust by a volley of bids that increased in enormous increments, eventually ending up at the outstanding hammer price of ¥600,000 ($83,000). Everybody looked at one another as the event got a notch more surreal. Business as usual in Shanghai.

Left: Police Panda. (Photo: ShanghART) Right: MTV's Silvia Bruni and ShangART's Lorenz Helbling.

Left: Designer Lu Kun (right) with manager Ramon Gil (middle) and a friend. Right: Florence Samson, owner of Song Fang Maison de The, with Richard Chen.