Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving

Li Qian
A patron of modernist kesi, a technique of Chinese silk weaving, Linda Lin is trying to smash its antiquated image and revive it as a modern day Chinese luxury.
Li Qian
SSI ļʱ
Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

Linda Lin delivers a lecture.

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

Kesi artwork based on a painting by Chinese contemporary artist Liu Ye is displayed at the Being Art Museum.

Linda Lin is weaving a modern-day silk road with an eye to cultural exports.

A patron of modernist kesi, a technique of Chinese silk weaving, she is trying to smash its antiquated image and revive it as a modern day Chinese luxury.

It's not a casual decision.

Lin was brought up in Jiangnan, or regions south of the Yangtze River, where silk production is a tradition, and years of overseas study in Europe opened her eyes to a vibrant arts scene. Out of China's dazzling array of intangible cultural heritages, she found kesi provides a perfect introduction.

In fact, kesi itself is a vivid manifestation of East-meets-West cultural fusion. After it was introduced into China thousands of years ago, the craft of making tents was carried over to the realm of art. As it, in turn, went westward, it became a sought-after luxury.

Like many other traditions, kesi is a dying art. But in recent years, it has seemed to reembrace a boom after 100 years of bust and is making its way to be a classic of the times thanks to Lin's relentless pursuit of a renaissance in kesi.

Over the past 14 years, Lin has been working with internationally acclaimed Chinese contemporary painters, such as Liu Ye, to produce designs, a way that she believes will allow kesi to become aesthetically acceptable to modern tastes.

Last October, a kesi work based on Liu's painting "Girl with Mondrian" was sold at a Poly auction for 3.22 million yuan (US$496,846), beyond many experts' expectation. Buoyed by an optimistic buyer market, she has sounded a confident note that modernist kesi will progress.

She seems to have found a way to grant an old tradition a new lease of life.

"We can't rely too much on governments to preserve and pass on intangible cultural heritage," she said. "They should live in the marketplace, and it requires innovation."

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

"Girl with Mondrian"

Almost like an accident of nature, kesi has been developing with innovations and renovations.

Originating in ancient Egypt as a type of material used in weaving tents, kesi first arrived in China in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) through the ancient Silk Road. As it gradually spread from the far west to the central plains, it changed.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) is considered as the heyday of kesi when it was used to make replicas of paintings and calligraphy works.

Emperor Huizong, a fatuous king but gifted artist, even established many highly skilled dye-houses for kesi artworks. For example, the blue dyeing workshops at that time could mix out 24 kinds of blue colors, while red dyeing workshops even had 36 varieties of red.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), kesi spread to the West where the priceless works of art from the Orient, were in demand.

Europeans hired buyers, most of whom were missionaries, to hunt for made-in-China kesi artwork.

Today, many contemporary galleries and museums in the West treasure kesi collections from China, mostly made in the Yuan Dynasty. They include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, co-founded by Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

A kesi loom

According to Lin, kesi has the best artistic value. Admired for its lightness and complexity of pattern, it is known as valuable as gold.

This summer, one kesi artwork from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was sold at Poly auction for an amazing 241.5 million yuan, the most expensive of its kind with a value per square centimeter of US$690.

This is a turnaround from the turn of the century when kesi was a lost art form in both China and Europe.

Frenchwoman Marie Cuttoli led the revival.

In 1936, she gathered dozens of offbeat artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse and Joan Miró to create original paintings for kesi and took these works to the United States for a touring exhibition. Lin is now doing the same. It might be pure coincidence, or God's plan.

"When I saw her (Cuttoli) story, I had been doing it for 10 years," Lin said, describing it as fate. "At that time, she received much more skepticism and criticism than me. But she stood up for her way. Now, these priceless works are treasured in major museums in France. From her, I can see a woman's unique artistic taste. She's like a beacon."

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

A kesi artwork based on painting by China's contemporary artist Ding Yi

For the revival of kesi, Lin gave up a secure government job after she returned from the Netherlands in 2005.

The next year, she tied with the Suzhou Silk Museum and opened a kesi workshop. In the third year, she started working with contemporary artists.

Shanghai-born Ding Yi was the first to receive her invitation for collaboration.

When Lin reached out to him, he was already a world-leading pioneer of abstract art. At that time, Hermes had retained him as the first Chinese artist to design its iconic scarves.

But Lin managed to impress him by a sample with each centimeter of latitude having about 50 silk threads and each centimeter of longitude 80 to 90 silk threads.

"The sample Hermes gave him also only had 16 colors, but we had 76 colors," she said. "It made him to plump for collaboration with us."

As their first collaborative work "Cross" debuted at an exhibition, people raved out it. Many praised it as authentic Chinese luxury.

It was so heartening Lin launched a kesi artwork series named "Contemporary Masters," which is visually very different from traditional ones. To date, she has brought in nine of China's top contemporary artists including Liu Ye, Zhang Xiaogang and Zhou Chunya.

Last year, both Zhang and Zhou shattered their own records in the auction market. Zhang's "Bloodline: Big Family No. 2" fetched US$12.6 million at Christie's in Hong Kong. And Zhou's "Spring is Coming" was sold for US$12.45 million at China Guardian Auction.

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

A kesi artwork based on painting by Chinese contemporary artist Zhou Chunya

Whilst this might sound like a truism, the revival of intangible cultural heritage is nevertheless a crucial problem to address. Citing Zhang, Lin offers two solutions: either sticking to the tradition or popularizing it as a modern medium.

It's widely recognized that kesi artwork with historical value is better displayed in museums or treasured by collectors. But there has been some misunderstanding about how to revive it in today's context.

"Will you buy a replica of emperor's dragon robe weaved in kesi about 200 years old?" she said. "Or will you spend 30,000 yuan on a run-of-the-mill wallet just because it is weaved in kesi? You won't because the former is not collectible and the latter is not a patch on luxury. Good design and storytelling are required."

In addition to collaborating with artists, her workshop has also taken bold moves to innovate kesi skills.

Craftsmen retain the back threads of kesi, which were cut in ancient China, to maintain the sense of handwork and also to make these artwork look like abstract paintings from a distance.

While aiming to restore the glory days of kesi, she also works to make it accessible to ordinary people by running DIY classes.

Replacing silk with wool while retaining the weaving craft enables people to make their own kesi works. It just takes several hours and costs maybe 200 yuan, but it greatly promotes kesi to the public. In a recent event held at the Being Art Museum, she was happy to see young women were truly enchanted by ancient weaving crafts.

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

A worker at a loom

However, like many others who devote themselves to reviving intangible cultural heritages, she faces the same problem – a lack of skilled and qualified craftsmen.

Compared with its "siblings" – embroidery and brocade – kesi is far more difficult in crafting diverse colors. In particular, it's more than a reproduction of paintings. The weaving process itself is a kind of creation.

Craftsmen transform a drawing into a woof, a shift in materials, which strengthens substrate, color and technique from original paintings. In short, kesi craftsmen are also artists, she said.

There are about 300 kesi practitioners in China. However, most of them are older, less-educated people living in the countryside. The situation is better in Lin's workshop as many are high school graduates with some art background.

It's a different story in the West where highly educated craftsmen are numerous. They usually graduate from art majors in universities and have their own workshops. They also have a high reputation, and they don't need to struggle as there are always orders from the upper class.

France even has kept kesi as a state-level asset having developed many workshops after the French Revolution. One was located in the center of downtown Paris, and the road in front of it was named after it. In time, it has developed its own training school and even a museum. It has become a cultural brand of France.

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

Linda Lin

Lin is optimistic because the country is paying greater attention to cultural preservation and promotion.

"I believe we will soon have our own kesi artists, and they will make some real artworks," she said.

At present, she is talking with the Suzhou Art & Design Technology Institute about the possibility of introducing kesi into the curriculum as optional modules.

"It's just in its infancy, and we are calling for more support," she said.

She has got to the root of the problem. Education is important. But aesthetic education in China needs great improvement, which, according to her, is holding back kesi from becoming a world-known luxury like Hermes.

"I found that our fine arts institutes in general use textbooks imported from Russia or the US," she said. "So, from education, we have to nurture the young generation to have capability to appreciate our own culture."

As a result, many Chinese designers just chant slogans like renaissance chinoiserie and add so-called Chinese elements into their design, while they may not have a good knowledge of Chinese culture.

"They fail to see the essence of our culture, they just drift along with foreign trends," she said. "It's sad that many are still favoring something like the hot fiber, a kind of art from France that is obsolete in France already. Our kesi is better but they just turn a blind eye."

In fact, China has realized the need.

In 2019, the Ministry of Education released a guideline requiring higher-education institutions to provide students with more opportunities and better aesthetic courses.

Under the guideline, they are expected to have made a breakthrough in aesthetic education by 2022, with better teaching staff and facilities, and remarkable results achieved in aesthetic education reform.

A diversified and high-quality aesthetic education system featuring socialism with Chinese characteristics should have been established by 2035, it said.

(Yu Linxia contributed to this story.)

Author champions modernist Chinese silk weaving
Ti Gong

Lin (center) with her book about kesi

SSI ļʱ

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