When “Made in China” Becomes a Poem

I first found out about the New York City-based artist collective Shanzhai Lyric a few years ago, after asking a passerby in Dimes Square about his “GHANEL COCO” shirt. He had purchased the $10 garment on Canal Street after attending a poetry reading at MoMA PS1, where the collective’s partners read a sample of prose from their Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing). That installation features a selection of garments predominantly made in China drawn from their archive of more than 400 pieces and counting, which documents and transforms mistranslated logos and slogans into the “poem.” The nonsensical pieces range from sneakers that read “TODAY IS A VERS GOODDAY Laughing girl” to a sweatshirt splashed with “NICOTINE YOU’RE WORSE THAN DRUG YOU’RE WORSE THAN ALCOOL.” Though they are undeniably comical — my favorites are “Carpe Die ThisTooShall PassAway” and “”PUN CH ME INTHEFACE” I NEED TO FEEL ALIVE:)” — I felt unsettled by well-educated American artists aestheticizing mistranslated text on garments produced in China, as if intellectualizing the phenomenon rather than addressing the underlying systemic issues at hand. But I was also fascinated by their intentions. Seeking answers, I connected with Shanzhai Lyric’s founders to unpack the paradox of their work. 

Founded by born-and-raised New Yorkers Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, Shanzhai Lyric is based on the concept of “shanzhai,” literally “mountain stronghold” in Chinese. During the Song dynasty (c. 960–1269), the term came to refer to communities of bandits on the outskirts of the empire who stole goods for redistribution, an act they felt was morally justified because it evaded the networks of corrupt authorities. Updated for the 21st century, the term implies a form of counterculture that might not technically be illegal but subverts the intent of the law and governing bodies. TikTok is a prime example: It is, depending on who you ask, either a transgressive space that democratizes content creation or a subversive form of government warfare. 

Copy of DSC00244 2
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)
Copy of Henry Moore Institute The Weight of Words Installation View High Res 25
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)
Copy of Henry Moore Institute The Weight of Words Installation View High Res 29 1
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)

Lin and Tatarsky joined forces in 2015, when their research expertise merged. “I witnessed a lot of retail spaces in China that had garments with really exciting, experimental text,” Lin, whose background is in urban and art history, told Hyperallergic. “And it made me wonder what forces produce the text, and how it interacts with its landscape.” Meanwhile, Tatarsky, who has a background in poetry and performance, was researching the multilingual poetics of different diaspora. “Our interests coalesced, so we went to Beijing to transcribe the nonsense found on garments and follow how that text travels through the world,” Tatarsky said. That kind of Chinese-English hybrid is commonly referred to as “Chinglish,” but “there’s mockery embedded in that terminology,” Tartarsky added. “It doesn’t capture the beauty or process of the phenomenon, which we began calling ‘shanzhai lyrics.’”  

I grew up bilingual, so I am attuned to these clunky and garbled translations from Chinese, which often fall short because of the vast grammatical and conceptual gulf between English and Chinese. As someone who thinks in English when speaking in Chinese, leading to frustrating lapses in communication, I can only imagine the additional difficulties of the reverse, since English is the dominant language of the Western consumer, to whom these goods are catered. When it comes to mistranslated text on made-in-China fashion, a whole world of reasoning is hidden from the Western shopper and artist alike. In addition to the linguistic barriers, these so-called mistakes could be a product of the global race to the bottom for labor. Shein’s factory workers, for instance, produce hundreds of garments over 17-hour shifts at a $20 daily salary that is docked to $14 with a single mistake. Or, those mistakes could be due to a stark cultural disconnect between garment producers, who lack fluency in the West’s specific breed of logomania. I felt conflicted about New York-based artists and consumers celebrating “a radical disregard for the rules of English,” in Tartarsky’s words; it struck me as tokenizing a broken tongue deeply entrenched in a larger geopolitical power structures to be enjoyed by a larger Western audience. Shirts that read “FREEDON” and “PEOPLE YOURSELF” almost hurt to read when I think about their journey to the consumer, as much as they do make me laugh.

Copy of Henry Moore Institute The Weight of Words Installation View High Res 23 2
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)
Copy of Henry Moore Institute The Weight of Words Installation View High Res 31
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)

“Whether or not their mistranslations are a mistake, the garment workers we’ve talked to have no interest in orienting themselves to the correct version of English,” Lin noted. But could such mistakes be a vehicle for the creators of these garments to use mistranslation as a form of resistance? Though this was an initial motivator of their research and is one of the most frequent questions they get, Lin said, they have diverged from such investigations: “We are trying to move away from identifying individual authors and ascertaining their intention.” Now, it’s “more about a collaborative celebration of this new language.”

Though this could be read as the duo sidestepping the important geopolitical systems that undergird the pieces they collect, it would be equally presumptuous to suspect that the creators of the garments are motivated by resistance when they are the very victims of the garment production industry whose mistakes cost their livelihood. Shanzhai Lyric recognizes that we — as the consumers driving the Shanzhai phenomenon — are inherently in a position of privilege. Instead of asserting the creators’ intentions from our skewed perspective, the collective acknowledges and provokes further research about the unknown by training attention on the artistic value of these texts as relics of our contemporary material culture. The luxury counterfeits lining Canal Street reflect the rise and fall of luxury names faster than any trend report — from them, you can glean that while Chanel and Gucci are constants, the Goyards of the 2010s have been replaced by Balenciagas, and now, Loewes. Similarly, the text that adorns them functions as a metatext: it mirrors consumption culture while serving as a vehicle for the very paradigm. A 2019 find, a t-shirt that reads “Welcome to The Recession Forecas Interest Rates Financial Crisis Capital Investment Anxiety Deepens,” feels just as timely as “THE SUNSHINE TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER FASHIONO.”

“For us, exhibiting Shanzhai takes the form of publishing, displaying, and creating a growing archive of garments in different spaces,” Tatarsky explained, creating spaces for the art to provoke dialogue about the stakeholders involved in their creation. Lin and Tatarsky do hope to go one step further. “Ideally, when we feel ready, we will extend our research to where the production actually takes place in China,” Lin added, “and we can really see the people and place behind the mistranslation. Where the Shanzhai is conceived into resistance.” Now that they’ve started the dialogue, it feels necessary to take action. 

Copy of image 1 2
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)
Copy of image 3 2
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)
Copy of Shanzhai Lyric Incomplete Poem Chenyue Dai MIT 2023
Installation view of Shanzhai Lyric, Incomplete Poem (2015–ongoing)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top