Monday, 31 December 2012

Reminiscing...V&A Postmodernism: Style and Subversion

Any self-respecting writer will have a library of rejected manuscripts (I remember how I cried on my first), buried inside cobweb gathering tombs of laptop hard drives, never to see the light of day and usually for a good reason.

I am not one of those self-respecting writers.

So here's an attempt at Art Review-worthy critcism from the 2011 archives. Frank feedback in the the comments box below the post would be most welcomed. The sharing icons are in grey above each post, which I still haven't figured out how to change...

I've written my fair share of embrassing, self-indulgent, juvenile rubbish, but reflection's the only way to learn right?

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Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 at the V&A

(24th September 2011- 8th January 2012)

i-D, no 28. The Art Issue, August 1985, photograph by Nick Knight, featuring Lizzy Tear.V&A

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion is one of the VA’s most exciting projects to date. Divided into 3 sections- Architecture, Style and Money, it examines radical ideas that defined the movement between 1970- 1990. Its proliferation is chronicled through stimulating exhibits- from Architecture, Art and Design to Film, Music and Fashion. It’s ambitious to showcase a hotly contested movement, one which we are arguably still living in. I fell slept through Postmodernism lectures at university, so I was curious to understand what the fuss was about.

To some, it might be synonymous with Andy Warhol soup cans and Madonna’s fashion choices- but few are aware of its anti-modernist roots in architecture. Postmodernism is portrayed as a phoenix rising from the ashes of modernism in the 1970s, a liberation from its restrictive orthodoxies of function, clarity and purity. A full-scale replica of Hans Hollein’s façade (1980) from the Venice Biennale is one of the most theatrical exhibits. Each pillar samples a period in the history of architecture, from the Garden of Eden, classical Greek ruins to industrialist Art Deco. The pastiche is deliberate and unabashedly artificial (think Las Vegas novelty hotels); playfully cutting-up-and-pasting memorable fragments from the past.

The bricologe, cut-and-paste ethos was not limited to styles and ideas. It brought unconventional materials and different processes together to create a new synergy. This is evident in Paul Astbury’s ceramic sculpture, Box(1980). At first glance it’s an unremarkable, tatty white box hastily assembled with discarded scraps. The broken fragments are actually fired ceramic tiles, individually fixed with screws to the cardboard box, an unconventional mosaic tessellation. These are accented with strokes of custom blue and brown tinted araldite, sellotape, paint and felt tip markers. The complex layers and strategic placement of colours makes one wonder how much of its appearance is coincidental or deliberate. Personally, excavated remnants of demolished Modernist architecture come to mind, eschewing progress; suggesting the present is merely an amalgam of antiquity. It’s an intriguing, tactile synthesis of everyday materials; refreshingly contemporary even for today. 
Box, 'Untitled', Paul Astbury, 1980. V&A

The music and performance (style) section is not to be missed. The set (known as ‘The Club’) recreates the electric atmosphere of an underground fetish night club from 1980s, complete with coloured spotlights, elevated stages and wire fences. The kind your parents would not approve of. David Bowie, Grace Jones and other 80s pop videos repeat (annoyingly) on huge screens- charting MTV’s pivotal role of channelling postmodernism to the mainstream audience of style conscious youths.  David Byrne of Talking Heads’ Big Suit(1983) and Grace Jones’ cubist sculptural maternity dress (made of cardboard and felt in 1979) are just some of the zany outfits on display. Colourful, exaggerated appearances conveyed dissident, self-referential personas critical to these artists’ successes.

The most extreme style statements are perhaps the male and female ballet costumes designed by Leigh Bowery for the Michael Clark Company’s production, Because We Must(1987).  Beige balaclava-attached corset bodices are covered in exquisite crewelwork, depicting pink, orange, gold and green sequined flowers- reinterpreting an embroidery technique historically used for curtains. Complete with pink lycra sequinned leggings, I imagine it would make Lady Gaga blush. The mysteriously covered faces (with just 3 holes for sight and respiration) and sexually provocative corset-bodies fetishize domination and submission. Epitomising fluid postmodern gender identities, they bring a body-conscious, androgynous ‘otherness’ Bowery’s work was famous for. 
Dance costumes for performance 'Because We Must', designed by Leigh Bowery, 1987. V&A

The last section explores the impact of money on postmodernism during the economic and consumer excesses of the 1980s to its demise in 1990. The luxury products of ‘design editing’ are enticing, a precursor to the current trend for artist/designer/high street collaborations. It marks the change when designers happily merchandised their services to mass market brands like Disney and Alessi. An iconic example is architect Michael Graves’ Mickey Mouse Gourmet Collection(1991). A tea-set with mouse-shaped handles and whistling Mickey spout cover reflect a humorous, ironic self regard that defined pop culture. One can’t help but lament a ‘selling out’ for fame and profit, relinquishing the creative freedom postmodernists fought for in the first place. Money was power, but it also tainted postmodernism with a ‘vulgar decadence’ that still niggles, whether we admit or not.

For visitors unfamiliar with postmodernism, this is a dynamic introduction to its many ‘broken facets’. The ideas radical at the time shaped and continue to influence the world we live in today – from parody, pluralism, bricolage to a return to kitsch and nostalgia. There are too many objects for one to thoroughly evaluate; leaving many questions not fully answered (Is Postmodernism dead? Does it even matter?). However, like a time-travelling rollercoaster of unsettling, sensory thrills, it’s more fun to do a David Byrne and ‘Stop talking sense’.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

On a Wing and a Prayer- Boxing Day Sales

When she said Boxing Day sales, this wasn't what I had in mind

It's that funny time of year again. Queues of bargain hunters forming outside Oxford St shops. At 6am. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Harrow Effect, Craft & Design Magazine

I am so, so proud that my article on the closure of Harrow Ceramics (University of Westminster) is featured in the latest Nov/Dec issue of Craft & Design Magazine.

You can find Craft & Design at WHSmiths and good libraries. It's packed with comprehensive advice for designers, fantastic photos and up-to-date coverage on the British contemporary craft scene. Believe me, it's well worth the rummage.

Thank you for all of the artists, staff who contributed and of course Craft & Design editor Angie Boyer for taking a chance on a novice writer like me.

You can read the article in full screen mode by clicking the following link

  The Harrow Effect by Christina Lai, Craft & Design Magazine Nov/Dec 2012 Issue no. 224

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Take 3 Shoreditch ingredients and a Sprinkle of Rain

La Maison (Image:

Bag by Toby Leigh, Maiden Shop

Bespoke Baroque Mirror by Squint Limited

Oh, fickle British weather. Last week she was in her usual sporadically rainy mood. Come weekend and we get barbecue hot temperatures. On Wednesday I happened to be hanging out in Shoreditch for an interview, with the intention of getting home asap; the skies threatening to dampen my enthusiasm. I'm glad I didn't though, and unwittingly stumbled across East London's worst kept shopping secret (all within a  mile's walking distance of Shoreditch tube station). Drawn like moth to a flame, these 3 stores gave me something to smile about, despite the weather.

La Maison
107-108 Shoreditch High Street  Shadwell, London E1 6JN

Walking into a shop first without realising is surely a good sign. Rococo, Neo-Classical junkies will be spoilt for choice. From ornate wardrobes, antique headboards to outdoor statues , every piece looks like it belonged to an 18th Century palace in France, lovingly sourced over the Channel. You'll find one-of-a-kind items to give your home that je nois se quai (and become the envy of future visitors)

188 Shoreditch High Street  City of London, Greater London E1 6HU

This teensy gift is jam-packed with guilty pleasures of quintessential British humour. It's tongue-in-cheekness 
is perfectly combined with nolstalgic comforts, such as my 90s childhood favourite storybook Each Peach Pear Plum. Stocked with very funny, unusual and well made gifts- there's no excuse for buying dull presents anymore. I've got my eye on the Ryan Gosling clouring book, purely for research purposes (obviously).

Squint Limited
178 Shoreditch High Street  Shadwell, London E1 6HU

Despite its name, it's the last thing you'll need to do to spot this gem. If the Mad Hatter opened an interiors shop in Wonderland, it would probably look like Squint. Selling crazy-colourful patchwork covered furniture and lighting, this isn't one for minimalists. It's haute-couture for home, each item hand-stitched to order. You'll want to stroke everything in the showroom while no-one's looking, especially the sumptiously flocked stag lamps

Do you know any other curiousities in East London? Drop me a line!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Discus Thrower’s New Clothes

Sui Jianguo's Discus thrower. Image: British Museum

The official fever of the London 2012 Olympics may have passed its watershed moment, but its Cultural Olympiad is set to become its most enduring legacy. Since 2008, 18 million have participated in 12000 projects across the country thus far. That’s not including the farm animals in Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony. From The World Shakespeare Festival (performing plays in 37 different languages) to Turner Prize winning-artist Jeremy Deller’s life-size Stonehenge bouncy castle, there’s been something for everyone. 

If it’s an authentic piece of ancient Olympic history you’re after however, the British Museum is a no-brainer.  Envied by museums worldwide for its stunning collection of Greek artefacts, to celebrate the Olympics it has curated Winning at the ancient Games, a free gallery trail of 12 sports -related objects. The tour includes of course, the prized Townley Discobolus, the Roman copy of Myron’s anatomically perfect discus thrower. However, inconspicuously tucked away from the Great Court’s flocks of tourists is Chinese contemporary artist Sui Jianguo’s interpretation of the Discobolus, which comes with an unexpected twist.  He is dressed in a traditional Chinese ‘Mao Suit’.

As one of China’s foremost practitioners of modern sculpture, Sui Jianguo rose to international fame in the late 1990s, for his bold Legacy Mantle cast-aluminium sculptures of ‘Mao suits’ (zhongshan jackets). A survivor of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, later witnessing the June 4th Movement, his experimental practice reflects China’s tumultuous cultural, social and political transition in the last half century. He now presides as head of sculpture at the prestigious China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing.

The Townly Discobolus is undoubtedly one of the most famous images from the ancient world. Despite its popularity, it’s actually an incorrectly (albeit skilfully) restored forgery. The head is supposed to turn back at the discus, instead of facing the ground.  Having starred in Leni Riefenstahl’s acclaimed film Olympia (1938), to the London Transport poster of Britain’s 1948 Olympic Games, it’s been a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. 

One might presume Sui’s version to be carved in marble, like the museum’s resident discus thrower. In fact, it has been cast in bronze then painted white, using the same painstaking technique as Myron did 2500 years ago.

But how did Sui become interested in Western sculpture in the first place? Is it merely a frivolous but timely statement of Chinese-Western cultural exchange? For the artist, the seeds of classical inspiration were planted during the formative years as a sculpture student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, when he first came across a plaster cast of a discus thrower. Contemporary sculpture in China was in its infantile development until the early 1990s. Studying the timeless figures by Michelangelo, Rodin alongside the icons of Chinese Buddhism-it was a time when the Western ideas were inevitably shaping China’s cultural map, a metamorphosis that is ongoing in Sui’s opinion.

In 1998, he made his first Mao-suit clad sculptures in painted fibreglass, a series titled Drapery Study. Despite the name, the collection was more suggestive of China’s long history of artistic censorship than analysing folds of fabric. This dates back to infamous burning of books by its First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 246 BC.

In an earlier Frieze magazine review this year of his show at Pace Gallery (Beijing), a critic described Dying Slave (1998), part of the Drapery Study series, as “a deliberate appropriation of the realist sculptural technique, a reference to his own educational background, but with a biting critique of the political mechanism behind a nationwide aesthetic preference”1. Indeed, if you ever get to see it, it’s one of the most haunting images you’ll never forget.

Of course the talking point, be it the early Drapery Series or the featured Discobolus, is its choice of attire. To the Western imagination, the ‘Mao suit’ is an iconic image synonymous with China’s Communist three-decade reign under Mao Zedong. To the Chinese people however, the connotations are far more ambivalent. The clothing’s restrained design seems to mirror the government’s tight control over its people, emphasising unwavering unity, respect and patriotism. Until as recently as 1990, it was a mandatory business suit worn by officials, as well as most of the male population. Like the unravelling of its traditions, its popularity amongst the younger generation fell as western influences sparked a fashion revolution.

But how does the work fit into today’s context? In terms of accepted styles, concepts and education systems, the liberalisation of art in China has come a long way since Mao’s death, along with rapid modernisation and globalization. Yet there is still progress to be made, international dialogues to be opened and Sui believes adapting Western thinking may be the answer.
Personally, the suit’s symbolism of conformity resonates (unwittingly or not), with the curious fact that the Discobolus formed the basis of the Nazis’ ‘Master Race Ideology’ in 1938. As strange as it sounds, I was subconsciously hesitant to touch the clothed, contemporary version. 
For the sake of enjoyment, I prefer to take a light-hearted view of Sui’s Discobolus. It still bears the thought-provoking ambiguity of Myron’s original. Nevertheless, to some it’s a poignant reminder of the liberties the Western societies so often take for granted.  

Sui Jianguo’s discus thrower (1 June – 9 September 2012)
British Museum

1. Quote by Carol Yinghua Lu, Frieze, 22nd May 2012,

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Christina Reviews- Collect, 11-14th May 2012, Saatchi Gallery

Shigekazu Nagae, Slipcast and glazed porcelain, Yufuku Gallery (Japan)
Since its controversial move to its Chelsea Duke of York Square premises in 2008, it’s fair to say the Saatchi gallery in London is better known for its cutting edge art and photography, rather than showcasing ‘craft’. Don’t let that put you off. Any doubts on whether contemporary craft is serious business (worth over £800 million in the UK alone) were readily eradicated after visiting this year’s Collect.

Supported by the Crafts Council, Collect is the most prestigious international contemporary craft fair in the UK. This year saw 31 gallery exhibitors, from UK, Europe to Asia, including China for the first time. This is where international collectors, major buyers, gallery directors and museum curators hunt down the finest pieces to add to their prized public collections. To indicate how serious it is- there’s even a Collect Art Fund of £70,000 where curators pitch in front of a Dragon’s Den-style committee why they should acquire their chosen item.

This year ceramics and jewellery were impressive, with works that left me speechless (in good and bad ways). In terms of pushing the boundaries of concepts, materials and techniques, the Northern European scene are evidently more fearless than its British counterparts. The contemporary jewellery scene in the Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Belgium have been well established here for a number of years now, fronted by galleries like Galerie Marzee. Jewellery is not just concerned with adornment- it can be avant-garde, wearable (or unwearable), sculptural, which seek their own identity beyond the wearer.

One must applaud the anything-goes spirit of shocking items like German jeweller Stefan Heuser’s giant beaded necklace, made from human breast milk (Galerie Rob Koudijs). Animal lovers beware- from Idiots’ dissected taxidermy bird necklace (to Märta Mattsson’s electroformed, crystal studded spiders (both represented by Galerie Marzee), nothing is too bizarre for bling.

The ancient oriental technique of laquerware saw an unexpected return this year; the refreshing interpretations by Chinese (Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong) and Japanese galleries (Yufuku Gallery and Exhibition Space) leading the way. The bar was set exceptionally high- the enamelled metal, ceramic, bronze, glass, woven metal and bamboo artists from Yufuku Gallery showing unparalleled craftsmanship and innovation. What surprised me was how radically modern the works were- nothing of dated impression of Japanese porcelain and Chinese Ming vases I embarrassedly had before. It was like discovering the unseen wonders of a foreign world.

What a pity one has to wait another year to see such amazing objects!

Collect 2012 highlights

Christina Schou Christensen, Galerie Sofie Lachaer & Caroline Van Hoek (Belgium)

Sidsel Hanum, stained Limoges porcelain, Galleri Format (Norway)
Felicity Aylieff, Clare Beck at Adrian Sassoon (UK)

Emmeline Hastings, perspex and titanium bangle, Lesley Craze Gallery (UK)

Jamie Bennett, enamelled necklace, Antonella Villanova (Italy)
Michihiro Sato, paper brooch, Lesley Craze Gallery (UK)
Tang Ming Xiu , laquer and 18th century porcelain, Hanart TZ Gallery (HK)
Idiot's taxidermy bird and pearl necklace, Galerie Marzee (The Netherlands)

The Rhizome Chair, Crook and Jones in Collect's Project Space (UK)
All photographs taken by Christina Lai with permission from gallery/artist.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

East Meets West- Design Now! At Mokspace, 24th April- 3rd May

It’s a tad cheeky, but what better way to mark the resurrection of Christina’s Anatomy than a blog post on my latest exhibition!

East meets West- Design Now! runs from the 24th April to 3rd May, at Mokspace Gallery, opposite the British Museum (one of my favourite inspirational hangouts ) The new London gallery is uniquely dedicated to promoting emerging artists from the Asia Pacific- Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau. This is Mokspace’s first collaboration with ArtsThread, the leading global art and design talent network.
Christina Lai Seeds of Sanity, 2011

My Seeds of Sanity ceramics (see links below) will be featured alongside 19 talented Asia Pacific artists, all recent graduates. Expect a dynamic range of 2D and 3D works, from drawing and painting to ceramics, jewellery, furniture, and installation. The aesthetics and philosophy of nature, in its broadest sense is the coincidental theme that draws the work together in this modest but freshly modern space.  

From abstract animal shapes, sleek, minimalist contours, dreamy animal-human hybrids to peeling, and disintegrating surfaces of nature - this is a visual feast worth brazing the tube strikes for. Without giving too much away, the ones to look out for (and feel jealous for not thinking of it myself) are the bubble gum coloured, encrusted Tropical Sea Adventure rings by Wenhui Li, the seductively shiny snow-cap glazed melting pots by Koji Shiraya and a clever interactive jewellery installation by Yenz Lin- phew!

If you want to see why the Asia Pacific is a growing hotbed for innovative design talent, or simply to experience something new in London’s overcrowded gallery scene, this is for you.

To read an interview on my Seeds of Sanity Collection visit

33 Museum Street


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