Critics’ Picks

View of “AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES: A Shanzhai Lyric,” 2019

View of “AIL PALACES ARETEMPORARY HALACES: A Shanzhai Lyric,” 2019

New York


Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
October 24–November 24, 2019

Regardless of whether it’s “high” or “fast,” fashion shouts (or dog-whistles) its way through the crowds with branded signifiers. But the linguistically opaque garments gathered here are shanzhai: Chinese counterfeits of branded merchandise, and often hectic amalgamations of homely graphic design, queerly philosophical lamentations, and grammatically errant versions of trendy political statements. Operating as an offshoot of Display Distribute, an “itinerant artistic research platform” and occasional exhibition space based in Hong Kong, Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky—the duo that make up Shanzhai Lyric—archive images of such clothes on Instagram or contextualize them through essays. And now, they have brought a feast of mistranslation and liberated nonsense to two humble wooden structures at the Abrons Art Center, one installed downstairs and the other displayed upstairs in the main half-rotunda. Each functions as a rack for long- and short-sleeved T-shirts printed with text, and on one of the plywood bars of the upper-level piece, The Incomplete Poem, 2017–, is a low-hanging fruit, a grape-and-teal-striped number over which is printed in a black, all-caps font: “WE SHOUL ALLB FEMINIS.” Hung above this, a white tee with interlocking gold C’s is boldly labeled “CNANEL.” And just like that, the statement T-shirt loses its laughable earnestness and attains the surreal levity and unnerving presence of found poetry: ambiguous, with facets of parody and stabs of poignancy.

Pinned to the wall by The Incomplete Poem is a half-page of typed poetry, Endless Garment, 2015–, an edited transcription of the shanzhai shirts’ text. Here, redundancy matters, insofar as it speaks to the global pileup of the unnecessary; yet it can also be a détournement of cultural excess and runoff, especially when the prospect of authorship has been foreclosed. The word shanzhai can be translated as “mountain hamlet,” implicitly identifying the bootlegger with the role of the sansculotte, a provincial outsider of creative industries, engineering their permission-less products in what’s ironically a center of production for many Western designers and auteurs. Sadly, this abundance of creativity isn’t so good for the planet anymore. However, the anonymous designers of these garments still manage a paean to Earth’s wonders—on a Kelly-green shirt, one can read: “The world seen powdery pink to shades of green is dressed in joy.” Hear, hear.