The ‘Asiancy’ of Asian American Fashion: Thinking with the Objects and Subjects of CFGNY’s Collecting Dissonance (2021)
In the context of fashion design, the clash between incompatible elements inherent in the word ‘dissonance’ would seem to defy the logic of careful categorisation that ‘collecting’ implies. Yet this contradiction is central to the ethos of Concept Foreign Garments New York (CFGNY). In their latest project, the design collective juxtaposes a wide array of materials – from velvet to cardboard – and mediums – including sculptures and photographs – to embody the (im)possibility of curating an art exhibition that simultaneously sells and subverts the expectations of Asian American fashion, a genre of clothing whose success has capitalised on and contested stereotypical tropes of Asian-ness. The collection pays homage to Commes De Garçons, a fashion house by the well-known, avant-garde Asian designer Rei Kawakubo that, according to Asian American studies scholar Dorinne Kondo, plays with unfamiliar shapes through fusing ‘exaggerated padded shoulders’ with ‘the sexy styles that characterized the fashion of the period’ to highlight the impossibility of achieving the ideal female form derived from the anatomy of white women.1 Like Commes De Garçons, CFGNY (also known as Cute Fucking Gay New York) uses fashion to challenge the white-centered perspective that underwrites most of the consumption of and appetite for Asian designs and designers in the West.
CFGNY’s political edge is sharpened by their experimentation with cute prints, textiles, accessories and commodities. Cuteness may first come across as a problematic choice for the exhibition, especially given cuteness’s notorious status as both a result and mode of perpetuation of objectification. But as Pierre Bourdieu points out, newcomers in the fashion industry use youthful aesthetics to challenge traditions in an industry that is governed by seniority.2 Cuteness, then, is perhaps an apt choice for the group to evoke in order to connote the diminutive and seductive dimensions of their merchandise.3 Though avant-garde fashion is imbued with subversive potential, it cannot be assumed to be a radical genre. To interpret it that way is to neglect CFGNY’s concerted effort to challenge the status quo in the fashion industry, one that, as Jean Baudrillard has famously said, is a ‘pure sign that signified nothing’.4 For Baudrillard, fashion is an exemplar of commodity capitalism that draws on what is already available within the system, and hence any reactions against it will further entrench the system. Following Kondo, Bourdieu and Baudrillard, I too wonder, what is radical about Collecting Dissonance, a show that deliberately exhibits cute fashion items and merchandise that are meant for sale in an art space? Thinking more deeply about cuteness may perhaps begin to offer us an answer.
Cuteness as an aesthetic category activates a complicated psychic life in the part of the onlooker. The cultural critic Sianne Ngai argues that a sinister relationship exists between consumers and cute objects in the mainstream enjoyment of cuteness. Her work calls attention to the way avant-garde Japanese art, cartoons, and their related commodities represent such violence graphically by visualising the masochism that underwrites consumers’ perception and enjoyment of squeezing and pitying cute objects.5 Ngai’s analysis focuses on the disfigurement of cute objects like Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s Dr. DOB and Yoshitomo Nara’s painting of wide-eyed, round-faced teenage girls, who always appear either wounded or violent. With these cases, Ngai makes the astute observation that cuteness is more than a passive object of attraction. Cuteness’s presence, particularly when the cute object is held under duress, amplifies the said object’s neediness in the perceiver’s mind and hence asks for more of the consumer’s caresses. Seen in this light, violent representations of cute objects lay bare the masochism that the consumer’s cooing and cradling respond to and necessitate in their engagement with the cute object. The cute object’s hurt therefore reflects the consumer’s implicit aggression, which is hidden in their purchasing desires and their longing to protect and nurse delicate commodities like toys, mementos and accessories. This duality of the cute object – as both an innocent-seeming oriental plaything and a deliberate turn-on that lubricates the consumers’ desire for the needy – is the paradox that characterises CFGNY’s conceptualisation of cuteness in Collecting Dissonance, a show that displays a series of material and medium contradictions.
When approaching the exhibition, visitors will first be greeted by a synthetic wall that is broken open in the middle. This wall is the first contradiction of the show: the wall is covered with cupboards, into which are embedded a clock, a few cute teddy bears, and a patchwork of leopard prints and multi-patterned blankets, including squares cut from a velvet blanket featuring a cartoon wolf. This wall materialises the melting of softness (represented by the fabric) and hardness (embodied by the cupboard boxes). Inside the exhibition is an installation of two large decals of CFGNY’s fashion, both directly installed into the wall. These decals feature a cast of models comprised of all members of the brand, including Daniel Chew, Tin Nguyen, Ten Izu, and Kirsten Kilponen, wearing an assortment of clothes. A checkered piece inspired by the traditional Vietnamese design ao dao particularly stands out. Also striking is a four-piece unisex set, comprised of a dress and shirt made of a baffled quilt, a pair of brown pants, as well as a shawl tied around the shoulder. Set against these two decals are several garments dangling on children’s chairs. Worth noting is the way some items in the pile echo patterns in the fashion items worn by models in the decals. For instance, one dress shirt is made of the same checkered textile featured in the ao dao piece that Kirsten Kilponen wears in the decals; sewn onto a black blouse in the pile are white appliques of cartoon hands with faces on them, mirroring the animated pink hands on the one-piece black, hooded cardigan and dress worn by Ten Izu in the decals.
This transpositions of cute prints, objects, and textiles embody Ngai’s and Kondo’s theories about avant-garde fashion and arts’ criticism of Asian objectification. The constants here are cute clothing pieces and cartoon prints, while the variables are the models, walls, and chair sculptures. Obviously, the models are distinct from the wall and the chair. However, the obvious line that separates the subjecthood and objecthood, human and inhuman, is blurred, especially when read in context with the current racial connotations of the pandemic. For instance, the poverty in NYC’s Chinatown, which has been on the rise since COVID-19, is brought to mind by the cupboard, functioning as a synecdoche of cupboard boxes that shelter the houseless. The fetishisation of Asian women and femmes, as exemplified by the Atlanta massage parlour shooter of March 2021 claiming sex addiction as the reason to kill six Asian women, implies that Asian bodies are sexual objects. Considering the background narratives which unfolded as the show was in creation, Collecting Dissonance throws into relief white culture’s inability to make distinctions between Asian American bodies and things, subjects and objects.
Indeed, critiques of Asian objectification have been made by CFGNY in previous shows. For instance, in a video of their 2020 show Synthetic Blend V at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, commissioned by the art and literature magazine Triple Canopy, closeups of Asian models are followed by scenes that directly cut to shots of oriental furniture like vases and urns, piecing together a story that exposes the objectification of Asian-ness in the collection of American decorative art bequeathed to RISD by one of America’s most well-known antique collectors, Charles Leonard Pendleton (1846-1904).6 In comparison to Synthetic Blend V, Collecting Dissonance achieves more than just critique, theorising what Tina Chen calls ‘Asiancy’, or ‘an acknowledgement of how Asian American material contexts, practices, and objects produce a differentiated and differentiating form of agency’.7 By immortalising the bodies of the Asian models through the decals installed onto the walls, while bringing alive the cute patterns and accessories that they once wore and made, CFGNY invites viewers to think of Asian-ness as ubiquitous, embodied by both bodies in print and art on display. Conventional imaginations of agency in Asian American culture and cultural studies are often centered on the human subject as an agent. The curators of Collecting Dissonance dissent from these conventions by their intentional gathering of cute sartorial objects that take the place of a person in soliciting thoughts and feelings. Collecting Dissonance left this viewer with lingering discomfort after thinking with CFGNY about the contradictions that underwrite Asian fetishisation, a psychic complex that desires Asian bodies because of their thingness. Still, CFGNY turns Asian fetishisation on its head by representing Asian bodies and commodities as equivalents, hinting at the contradiction in the fact that the success of their Asian American fashion is contingent on the type of self-objectification that it works to overcome. Contradictions like this are just one of the many that remain irreconcilable about the show, just as intended by its designers.
In their interview with Min Char, Daniel Chew and Tin Nguyen note that their fashion dis-identifies with the fashion and art industries; they choose fashion because it is the most accessible medium through which they can engage with race, class, gender and sexuality.8 Perhaps because of such double dis-identification, Collecting Dissonance can be understood as an art show of fashion that does not pretend to exist beyond the economy of commodity capitalism, but very much works within and on it. On one hand, it showcases and sells CFGNY’s design items while on the other hand, it performs a heady theoretical move that foregrounds the collaboration between objecthood and subjecthood in the process of Asian American designers’ articulation of their identity, and promotion of their artful fashion.
Taken as a whole, the ‘Asiancy’ or the ‘non-subjective agency’ of Collecting Dissonance comes from strategically placing objects in close proximity – and in turn fusing multiple binaries: from art and fashion, from Asian bodies and Asian objects – not to resolve them, but to ask about the thin line that separates them within and outside the context of the show.9 Tina Chen would qualify this type of ‘Asiancy’ as an ‘inter-objective agency’ that coalesces when ‘exteriors collide or come into proximity’. CFGNY facilitates such ‘Asiancy’ to orchestrate a collection of dissonance by fashioning an art space as a boutique and by transmogrifying cute objects into textile prints and show accessories. In so doing, the collective invites visitors to think anew what Asian American fashion is and can do.
Kai Hang Cheang is an assistant professor at Portland State University in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and is cooperating faculty with Pacific Islander and Asian American Studies. Kai specialises in Asian/ American literary and cultural studies, with interests in popular culture, queer theory, and transnational studies. Kai has published on Asian American comics in the journal of MELUS, the queer dimensions of the postcolonial Hong Kong diaspora in GLQ, and Langston Hughes’s visit to China in Alif. In addition to traditional publications, Kai has written reviews on a range of cultural productions including books, exhibitions, and theater performance for Criticism and Asian American Literature Fans. Kai attributes their passions for thinking about the inner workings of myriad art forms to their training in ballroom dancing during college.
1 Dorinne Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater (London: Routledge, 1997), 128.
2 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1984).
3 “Collecting Dissonance | CFGNY.” Auto Italia South East, 2021. http:// autoitaliasoutheast.org/projects/collecting-dissonance/.
4 Jean Baudrillard, L’echange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 144.
5 Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (2005).
6 Triple Canopy. “CFGNY: Synthetic Blend V.” YouTube Video, April 8, 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPqH9qdMn28.
7 Tina Chen. “Agency/Asiancy.” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, ed. Rachel C. Lee (London: Routledge, 2016)
8 Mar Chan, interview with Daniel Chew and Tin Nguyen, August 21 2019, New York.