Animated discussion

Consumption is not the problem. Consumerism, which changes people’s buying habits, is.

“It is great that fashion brands are creating new ways for a handful of people to express their childhood nostalgia,” said Hong Kong-based Chinese-American artist Ernest Chang.

He was responding to a trend in the fashion world involving luxury brands using anime characters in their capsule collections. “But in another way, they use childhood nostalgia against us to make us want new products.”

In Chang’s new exhibition, Bling Dynasty, the themes of pop culture and consumerism stand out all the more. In the studio-gallery space, neon wallpaper contrasts with the gray-tone brick wall. Lunar New Year couplets flank a gold cloth-covered table with an artwork in the middle, reminiscent of an altar. His works – layers of fading colors, distinct subject-background compositions, embroidery and calligraphy – are framed in dark brown wood.

The characters Chang borrows from famous cartoons are depicted in his works as wearing items from luxury brands. The resulting visual juxtaposition offers a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Chinese consumer power’s dominating influence on the global marketplace.

By putting Western pop culture icon into unmistakably Chinese compositions, the works reflect ubiquitous advertising by international luxury brands to suit ever-changing trends and the way the rise of younger people as a buying power has led to a similar shift in the demographics of consumerism.

Animated characters chosen from his childhood were assigned based on their character traits and how they compare with the original subjects’ traits. Family Guy’s matriarch Lois takes the place of China’s only empress, Wu Zetian, while Rick Sanchez C-137 from Rick and Morty, the smartest scientist in the multiverse, becomes China’s longest-reigning emperor, Kangxi.

Imagining what the characters would wear in real life, Chang matched them with fashion brands with similar design concepts. Some of the elements he uses include Louis Vuitton’s Damier checks and digital camouflage prints from Stone Island.

One of Chang’s favorite works, Don’t Say Anything Mean, reimagines a character from the American animated sitcom South Park wearing Balenciaga in a portrait inspired by the famous painting of Kublai Khan from the Yuan Dynasty.

With this irreverent juxtaposition of famous works from Chinese art history and a contemporary cartoon, Chang reflects on coming of age in today’s society, which is heavily influenced by mass consumerism, corporate advertising and an ever-increasing array of entertainment and streaming platforms.

People, especially children, are passive and helpless in the face of a relentless onslaught of consumerist ideas, dressed up in flashy advertisements and happy childhoods, he said.

“Our obsession with luxury goods and designer clothing creates a sense of nostalgia, as if we have wanted these material goods since childhood,” Chang adds. “As hard-working adults, we feel we can reward ourselves with these products. But we don’t usually think about the extent to which this nostalgia and desire for consumer products is being imposed on us.”

Bling Dynasty is on show at The Stallery WCH in Wan Chai until April 4.

(This article was published at The Standard on February 26, 2021: Weekend Glitz: Animated discussion )

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