The Met’s Chinese galleries are turned out like a nightclub. The white walls are masked with dark panels, black and sleek as obsidian. Laser-point lighting in red and blue bounces off their glinting surfaces. Then there are the outfits: the designer dresses (by Chanel, Dior, Alexander McQueen) inspired by the glamorous 1920s Mandarin gown, and couture parroting the voluminous brocaded skirts of the classical Chinese court, glow in tall vitrines, interspersed with clips from Wong Kar Wai films and, of course, the vases, bowls and Buddhas of the Met’s permanent collection. It’s a bold and bracing adventure in exhibition design. Is all the flashy, ahistorical orientalism problematic? Probably. But so is the imperialist museum perspective that compresses centuries of Asian art and craft into a suite of trophies. And if the enlightenment value of the Met’s strategy for collection and display is too great to discard altogether, at least it can be made an object of play.
Pictured: Installation view of “China: Through the Looking Glass”; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.