Written By Olivier Li
The journey started with a (tiring) flight, but at the destination was embraced by sea breeze from the wide blue yonder.
Situated in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, China, Aranya, a local resort complex, is the site that has witnessed Aranya x Local Landscape Fashion and Art Festival, in which the likes of fashion designers, progressive musicians and emerging artists share their true visions with viewers from all over China. Aranya beach is what people may call Gold Coast and has housed many expectations before people get here to revel. It is a main site for the fashion shows, panel talks and installations, along with a swimming pool, rehearsal hall, theatre, art centre that have held other shows and events. To the Festival organisers, they would want to make it China’s first fashion and art festival by the seaside, and to enable fashion and art activities in varied formats to interact with the sites on the pretty stretch of coast.
ARANYA COMMUNITY HALL
The first stop is at Aranya Community Hall, an iconic building on the beach which would resemble a chapel, where a performance by conceptual sound artist Li Yilei takes place. Featuring clean, white-tone musical paraphernalia, the performance has seen the artist kneel-sitting on the sets for 10 hours (with some preparatory breaks) playing the sound device, accompanied by a bass that is played by a machine-operated, white-painted twig. Some equipment wires are plugged inside pottery, flowers in pots at the side, and twig remnants at the front. Backing on to the ocean, all of these are conveying connections with nature amidst the ambient yet experimental sound by Li and inviting the audience who sit at the front to gaze at the performance and beyond at the ocean.
THE LONELY LIBRARY
In the meantime, the founder of Aranya, founder of Local Landscape and director of Another Design studio are having a panel talk on the vision of this Festival in The Lonely Library on the same beach, moderated by the director of creative studio MÖBIUS HUB. Ma Yin, Aranya’s founder, who is an avid lover of aesthetics, surprisingly expresses that he does not understand the fashion and art in this Festival, has no clue about what is going on, and is not into the visual system throughout. Being passionate about beauty and design (a personality that is reflected in the direction of the construction of the complex and design details of numerous elements), Ma is willing to support realisation of creative vision in this complex, trust the creative talents, and to explore unconventional effects of the interaction between a wide range of creative activities and Aranya sites. An interesting businessman.
OBJECTIVE GALLERY X EWE STUDIO
Objective Gallery X EWE Studio is another destination. The gallery brings Future Relic to the beach, presenting the Mexican design studio’s works in a showroom inside a rehearsal hall. Partitioned by French windows, the gravel relic in the exhibition and sand on the beach seem to flow into each other on the sites - the relic seems to be part of the beach, while the beach reveals relic in a modern space. On the barren gravel is seemingly crude furniture (from the future), such as rock benches, stone tables, podiums and magma floor lamps, hand-made and limited-numbered by the studio. But in such a contemporary environment, they are decisively imbued with artistic textures and sleek charisma. These works of art genuinely reflect the studio’s dedication to the advancement of Mexican artisan heritage. Before heading to the next event, I am told by Ansha the gallery curator that Objective is going to present Rick Owens furniture exhibition in Shanghai next year. Much anticipated.
At night, sound and light studio N-APE STUDIO presents a multimedia show that invites the audience to trek through a bush wetland to experience the show. The site is a spacious plot in the woods, where the studio has set up a light installation of which the DJ station is in front. For half an hour, the audience is enjoying an avant-garde sound performance, visually strengthened by graphic lighting on the screen, beams from the projector and lasers ejected from the installation which create a supernatural effect amid the interplay of the artificial intelligence-style lighting with wild nature in the dead of dark. The lighting projection of a colossal compass (or spiritual guide map), together with staff credits of the Festival on the screen, is a lasting thought that the viewers can take home.
On to the next day, I am immersed in fashion shows. Sweetpotato Chiu, a Chinese art director-turned-designer who is profoundly enamoured of Chinese traditional drama, stages in a theatre a fashion show that revolves around the adapted story of earlier episodes of the 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West. The Cantonese-born designer has been immensely inspired by Chinese classic beauty, garden landscape and traditional craftsmanship, and been seeking to integrate, chiefly, ornamental foliage and florals and opera costume elements in his work. Such ethos is aesthetically reflected in his embroidered floral tulle, sequined tassel ornaments, jewel beaded taffeta… all imbued with a romantic fairy touch. Seated in the theatre, the audience is enjoying instrumental Chinese opera music and lighting effect in an Oriental brocade shape, when, curtain open, light up, the Monkey King is leading his monkey fellows to go out to the Banquet of Peaches held in heaven. Halfway, models in fashion looks by Chiu walk out on to the runway. They seem like Gods in the mythology fashionably dressed to go to join the banquet with everyone else.
Elsewhere, a natatorium is about to see a fashion swimming that breaks fresh ground. OUDE WAAG, with its founder and designer Jingwei, has organised two sections in the space for the viewers who are asked to dress in branded bathrobes to enjoy their party night. In an ambient reddish orange environment, at one side, the audience is watching the performing silhouette of a female synchronised swimming team projected on a white curtain. The curtain draws up, and a quartet of swimmers jump into the water, taking it as the runway to showcase the body, splashes (which echo the name of the natatorium Splash Pool) and fashion. It has all been live-streamed by an underwater motorised device which synchronises the show on a large area of the wall at the other side, where there are abstract body-shape sculptures, two of which are dressed in the designer pieces, in an empty pool.
For the second part of the show, Berlin-based Chinese music producer RUI HO DJs avant-garde electronic music to empower the viewers to dance amid this conceptual discussion about “body” in different formats. The designer shares the story behind this experiment.
“[I have been inspired by] such artists as Zao Wou-Ki and Francis Bacon, and directly influenced by Helaine Blumenfeld, whose sculpture work Il Vento has had a crucial impact on me. In it I see the paradoxical state of interdependence and inter-restraint between people and garments. Also, her intuitive way of creation has had a great effect on me,” says Jingwei. “OUDE WAAG rarely creates based on a proposition. When we were invited by Aranya x Local Landscape Fashion and Art Festival, we first chose the launch space Splash Pool, a natatorium that was not yet open. It was this intuition that led us to create our work. And it was also the spatial conditions of the venue that inspired us to do an experimental 'non-fashion' presentation in Aranya, a place that felt virtual and artificial.
After the idea of the swimming pool, we naturally thought of swimwear and a synchronised swimming team. The larger yet shallower pool at the other side seems like a sunken exhibition space. The synchronised swimming performance represents The Original Body, and the body sculptures reflect The Imperfect Body. During the pandemic, I went to an Aranya music festival, which was a special experience for me to rave with friends from all over China on this dissociated site. Also, I just watched again the film The Fifth Element. Then I had the notion of having queer producer RUI HO incarnated in the perfect female character Leeloo, which would translate into the final part The Perfect Body.”
The designer reminds us of an installation work that seems to have been overlooked by most people. “We placed two messages on the mirrors in the men's and women's locker rooms, respectively, which people must enter before they attended the show. ‘PAUSE-PASS, HOW WONDERFUL I AM’ is for men’s. ‘POSE-POST, HOW BEAUTIFUL I AM’ is for women’s. We use these two mirrors to play on the different attitudes the genders have towards their appearance.”
VIEW FROM ABOVE ARANYA ART CENTER
Fashion shows still predominate on the last day. Taiwanese-raised designer Peng Tai takes his exploration of Chinese heritage and relationship between humans and nature to an art centre where he stages three fashion shows at three different times, each evolving to the next, in this round venue.
Collaborating with Li Daiguo, a multi-instrumentalist whose work makes frequent use of polyrhythms that sound electronic, Peng Tai invites the viewers to observe the fashion ritual performed by actresses and actors that looks into identity and origin.
“[I have been influenced by] books on psychology, semiotics, sociology, Taoist culture … which discuss relationship between people and surroundings. But I am more enlightened by books about Taoist thought - The Secret of the Golden Flower, A Brief History of Taoism, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and The Thousand-Mile Manuscript of Destiny. In a narrow sense, we are all individuals; nature, animals, and any matter are independent. But in a broad sense all things in heaven and on earth are of the same origin. In the Western context there are atoms, molecules and electrons, and in essence we are the same as everything else. In Taoism, everything is the same substance. Through the mutual transformation of Nothing and Existence and interactivity of Difficulty and Ease, things evolve into distinct formats. This translates into the concept of my fashion performance ‘Person, People, Crowd’ (Person: single, individual; People: directionality, temporality, contrast, mutuality; Crowd: via People, Person becomes Crowd).”
In the show, the viewers are feeling the tension and balance between the performing dancers and surrounding building, connected by white and dyed infinitely elongated fabric, accompanied by the Eastern interrogating spirituality from the music by the producer. To Peng Tai, garments can be a medium which he uses as an induction system to convey the feelings and feedback about the current world. “[I have been inspired by] Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski, Jannis Kounellis, Gutai art movement, Butoh, Tehching Hsieh, etc. In spite of different genres and styles, they all examine time and reflection of the current era,” he says, “what do we lose in it? Consciousness about life? Sensitivity to surroundings? Recognition of ourselves? I hope the wearer of my garments can slow down at that moment to experience the “relationship” and in turn the environment, self, time, etc. They are quotidian elements that we have forgotten.” To me, Peng Tai’s garments bring out the beauty of body via the dancers’ meditation on motion and blend it into this clean, ideological yet experimental field.
MODELS LINE UP BACKSTAGE AT XANDER ZHOU
Another alternative show is taking place by the seaside. Xander Zhou, based between London and Shanghai, puts on a film show that closes the Festival. The film, titled me(re)me, shown on a screen installed on the beach, delivers shifts between virtuality and reality of Xander Zhou and Aranya and tells a story of achieving virtuality tasks on the sites of Aranya. In recent years, the designer has been infusing Chinese traditional clothes with technological features and sci-fi styles in a highly innovative manner. Perforated dragon motifs, synthetic patches, LEDs on cheongsams are signature to his aesthetics. Chinese classic elements are idiosyncratically programmed into functional fabric and futurist silhouettes, presented on computerised models in a variety of films brimming with coding languages. Admitting that his creation has rarely been influenced by contemporary artists, Xander Zhou draws inspiration from sci-fi films and novels and videos on social media platforms.
XANDER ZHOU PERFORMANCE
Speaking of the motive in combining the traditional with the futuristic, the designer says, “this is actually not what I originally set out to do; it has been a natural process of intersection. For example, I have gradually discovered the interdependence between Chinese medicine's acupuncture points and human body's energy points, and between Eastern philosophy and quantum theory.” So much so that the Oriental thinking presents unconventional new possibilities in high-fashion formats. Carrying such ethos, the designer invites the audience to the juxtaposition between his conceptual film of coded virtuality and the serene, tasteful beach, with high-energy beams of light shooting up into the firmament, closing the Festival journey as darkness settles in.
VISIONAIRE'S OLIVIER LI AT ARANYA#aranya