”Chinese stools – made in China copied by Dutch” is a work that dutch artist Wieki Somers finished in 2007 and was added to the permanent collection at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern art in Amsterdam in 2009. The work is the result of a one month long project that Somers spent in Beijing, China working with the expertise of local craftsmen in their traditional workshops to create products inspired by the city itself. Somers found inspiration in customized seats used by people such as security guards, street vendors and rickshaw-drivers that had undergone improvised repairs and modifications by its respective creators. In Somers own words she ”couldn’t do it better” than the original creators of the seats and therefore purchased some of them, used traditional casting techniques, made replicas of the original seats, with the ”final” version being in aluminum with red (or blue) metallic car lacquer finish. When Somers chooses to completely copy the work of somebody else she explains it as making a comment on the prejudice of ”China” copying European designs and works.
The subject in Somers work can be closely compared to the work “Bastard Chairs / Sitting in China (2002)” of photographer Michael Wolf. While both Wolfs and Somers work portrays and comment on the democracy of design, DIY-culture they still become works of cultural appropriation despite of and even because of their seemingly sympathetic intentions.
The complexity does not only come with the European artist portraying something of a culture that is not his/her own. It also comes when Somers only spends a month in Beijing, a city of almost 20 million and talks about preserving the memories of the stools, memories that are not hers, and describes the red coated finish of the stools as a reference to ”the other side of Beijing”. ”The other side” meaning to her the ”modern side” where she explains that ”pride and prosperity is displayed with a sparkling extra layer”. Through this she defines the city by implying that the city might only have 2 sides and maybe she even gives us insight on her view on taste in the ’the modern Beijing’.
The same complexity becomes apparent when Michael Wolf refers to his work as a “great symbol of the Chinese people’s thriftiness and resourcefulness”. In the artists own description of their works and in what others have written, you constantly see a clear Eurocentric perspective and interpret an almost condescending, even if not intentional, tone (as in Wolfs quote above). When Somers comments on copying Chinese designs she infarct copies something created by ”regular people” while the prejudice she is commenting on is of Chinese designers copying European ones. This creates a situation where Chinese design isn’t being taken seriously and in which Somers uses her position in the cultural hierarchy by pointing out the ”cultural treasures” of a culture that isn’t hers. And by doing so she implies that the people of that particular culture cannot see or simply do not understand what she does.
Cultural appropriation is in itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers. And the relationship east and west/orient and occident is in itself complex. Whether the culture has been colonized or not the western perspective is post-colonial in how it puts the west, right on top of the cultural hierarchy.
CA still often becomes a hard concept to grasp.
One reason is how culture is never created, lived, consumed or appropriated in a vacuum.
It is explained by Cynthia Freeland when talking about “cultural crossings”; “No culture is homogenous or has gone untouched by the world. The purest-seeming instances of cultural values are often products of complex strands of interaction”
Another reason for CA being hard to grasp for many is how ‘the west’ is so used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return. Not thinking of how using someone else’s ‘cultural symbols’ to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is in itself an exercise in privilege.
Pierre Doze refers to Wieki Somers work describing it as ’cultural play’ and goes on talking about the risk in employing elements that are ’deeply emblematic’ of a culture. Doze continues; ” This affinity for symbols that are (apparently) exhausted, vulgarized and have become difficult to handle since they have already been exploited and miss used by ‘Mass Culture’ illustrates the designers recurrent approach”. Dozes text coming from the Studio Wieki Somers own book
’Out of the ordinary’ lets us know the designer isn’t fully unaware of the complexity in this issue.
Complexity doesn’t mean that ‘cultural play’ or cultural exchange can never happen, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.