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Shanzhai Lyric exhibition Henry Moore Leeds bootleg t-shirt
Courtesy of Shanzhai Lyric

This new exhibition finds meaning in meaningless fashion knock-offs

Starting life as an Instagram and poetry project documenting nonsensical bootleg slogans tees, Shanzhai Lyric’s latest installation has landed in Leeds

“What does it mean to break the English language apart and build something new?” asks Alexandra Tatarsky. She and collaborator Ming Lin are the duo behind Shanzhai Lyric, a poetic research project and archive “working in the idiom of laundry, scroll, runway, and heap”. The focus of the New York duo’s body of work is the almost-but-not-quite English language t-shirts born out of China’s ‘Shanzhai’ culture. In modern parlance, Shanzhai is taken to mean counterfeit, but its original meaning is closer to fortress, hinting at Shanzhai’s place outside the boundaries of societal norms and its ability to shelter subversion and hold cultural hierarchies at bay.

The archive’s audience is invited to engage with it across different mediums: an Instagram account documents the t-shirts in a ‘street style’ context, a continuously updated longform poem collates phrases from the t-shirts and tasks the reader with grappling with the meaning, rhythm and perhaps original intentions of the phrasing, and site-specific installations developed in collaboration with architectural collective Common Room add new meaning to the t-shirts.

The latest installation is located at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, as part of the gallery’s new exhibition The Weight of Words. Entitled Incomplete Poem [Hedge], it was developed to reflect the part of England it’s displayed in. To create it, the duo researched historical themes in Yorkshire and across the North of England around the establishment of private property, Luddism, and co-operatives. 

The installation also sits seamlessly amongst the other pieces in the exhibition. Words Come From Ears by Shilpa Gupta is a flip board which randomly creates “unstable poetry” echoing the nonsensical language on the Shanzhai t-shirts, while a pile of newspapers strewn on the floor entitled Floor with All Existing Words was designed by Mark Manders to use every word in the English language once, regardless of order. Say Parsley by Caroline Bergvall plays voices pronouncing and mis-pronouncing words to words to comment on how language can be, and historically has been, used against people.

To make their statement, the Shanzhai Lyric artists designed their broad, boxy structure as a manifestation of the hedge structures that were used to divide up land which had previously been shared. T-shirts tied and draped across a wooden structure may appear to be as chaotic as the language on them [“Be So Rooted In Yourself That Naomhetu Absence Or Presence Can Disturb Your Inner Peace”, “The stay on clothes/Ilution of the environment makes the bees fly to our”, “LIMTED/MAKE THINGS WORSE BUT COOL”], but they have been carefully chosen communicate these broader themes. 

“One thing that was a new experiment for this particular one was that we use the colour green – like a leafy hedge – to dictate which items were selected, along with the different themes we had been exploring,” says Lin.

“The colour palette guided our arrangement of some of the garments and then as you go round to the back, there’s some of these same ideas around the boundaries of private property,” adds Tatarsky. Key stops on the pair’s trip from the US to the UK included Huddersfield, where there is a celebration of Luddite history [“we’re learning more about how it’s really workers rising up together to protect their livelihoods,” says Tatarsky] and Rochdale, where the first successful cooperative store was established.

On the surface, an exploration of the history of Luddites or the success of 19th century co-ops may seem far removed from t-shirts emblazoned with mostly nonsensical slogans, but there are clear-cut overlaps. The principles of the Rochdale cooperative were replicated in the cooperative housing movement in New York, which was largely led by garment workers, while discussions of ownership and property are echoed in the flagrant unlicensed use of luxury branding and logos on the Shanzhai t-shirts. Examples in the installation include “MISSONE fashion”, “BUR ESTABLIS ERRY BURBERRY BURB”, “GHANEL COCO”, “CEILINE” and “Colvin Klein”.

Lin and Tatarsky suspect that the bootlegs may well be produced in the same factories that make the official products, which is telling of how brands manage to uphold perceptions of a social and logistical chasm between luxury, mass market, and counterfeit where it might not truly exist. “It points to the revelation that real and fake are themselves often arbitrary categories, and they have a particular function which is to protect a few people or corporations’ rights to far too many of the resources,” says Tatarsky. “These kind of discoveries, that often supposedly bootleg items are made in the same factory as the original things, are delightful chances to reflect on real and fake themselves being invented.”

“Shanzhai stems from a kind of Chinese Robin Hood tale called the Water Margin that describes a situation of outlaw bandits taking goods from the empire to redistribute them among the people in the marshy confines of a protected mountain hamlet” – Ming Lin

“When we have had the opportunity to ask people, and perhaps inform them that the shirt doesn’t say what they might have assumed, [the response] is really one of irreverence. People don’t really care. It’s the shape or the colour or the style that is more desired. If it says something wrong, it doesn’t even matter,” says Lin. The two like to call this response “radical indifference” and that may well cause discomfort to an English-speaking audience who would seek to mock the wearers, led by a preconception that English is the dominant global language and that not understanding it should be cause for embarrassment. Just as the speakers of Latin-derived languages can and do treat Chinese characters [and Japanese, and Cyrillic, and Arabic, and…] as decoration for tattoos and branding, so too can others treat an approximation of English as a tool for a desired aesthetic. 

Another point of reference for the UK installation was the tale of Robin Hood. “Shanzhai stems from a kind of Chinese Robin Hood tale called the Water Margin that describes a situation of outlaw bandits taking goods from the empire to redistribute them among the people in the marshy confines of a protected mountain hamlet,” says Lin. “We’ve been collecting these different tales of the noble thief, so Robin Hood is obviously a very iconic one we wanted to learn more about.”

In the room next to Incomplete Poem [Hedge] at the Henry Moore Institute is a piece by Tim Etchells called Little Thieves. Wooden letters hanging from rope read, “Little thieves are hanged but big ones escape”. The phrase chimes with another line from an English poem which the Shanzhai Lyric duo quote: “The law locks off the man or woman who steals the goose from off the common but leaves the greater villain loose who steals the common from off the goose”. “It’s a really evocative way to talk about how property is designated and who gets punished for transgressing those arbitrary boundaries,” says Lin.

In the case of Shanzhai and the wider fashion industry of course the counterfeiters are the ones who would be punished while the luxury brands, who hog resources, hoard intellectual property which has been ‘inspired’ by many cultures, and create artificial demand for out of reach social signifiers are let loose.

Just like the trends and brands they mimic, Shanzhai t-shirts have a shelf life. “We felt it was really important to archive them because while they seem ubiquitous, trends churn over really quickly, just like garments go to landfill really quickly,” says Lin. “Even in China this is a phenomenon that is fast disappearing perhaps due to the fact that there’s been a shift to prioritise more homegrown brands and Western ideals have less prestige around them. So, this becomes a document of a transitional moment.”

The t-shirts documented by Shanzhai Lyric show that luxury brands can be circumvented by non-official makers and cultures, but they also show a reverence of sorts of their existence and dominance. Counterfeits may be a thorn in luxury’s side but perhaps their decline would be a worse fate.