Hubert Burda Media

Inside K11's Bagism exhibition

That most stalwart and stylish of fashion accessories, the handbag, gets its own exposition at an art space in Shanghai. We get a look behind the scenes.

The Bagism exhibition at Shanghai's chi K11 Art Museum

I would never reach into your purse – that’s taboo!” says Elisabeth Azoulay, the curator of Bagism at Shanghai chi K11 Art Museum. “From the exterior, a handbag is something we show off, a status symbol. But from within, it hides our most personal possessions and secrets,” the Frenchwoman says, as she explains the baggage – physical, emotional, historical – that surrounds one of the most ancient and universal human inventions.

The three-month Bagism event, which runs until October 9, 2016, is billed as the world’s first bag-themed crossover contemporary art exhibition. Displayed across 3,000 square metres beneath K11 Art Mall on Shanghai’s boutique-laden Huaihai Road shopping street, it presents more than 300 vintage purses that showcase the evolution of the handbag over the last four centuries. Creatively curated alongside the bags are related works by 15 contemporary Chinese artists.

A Louis Vuitton bag designed by Chloe Wise

The theme is clearly a popular one among the Shanghai fashionistas who swarm the venue on opening night. With new-season Chloé Faye satchels posited across chests and studded Valentino clutches tucked under elbows, they jostle for iPhone-snapping vantages around highlight works, such as an original signed Birkin and Carina Lau’s custom Louis Vuitton cosmetic trunk.

But beyond the fashion, this exhibition aims to dig deeper into the proverbial bag. At the entrance, a grainy video of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their 1969 press conference in Vienna reminds us of the origins of the peculiar exhibition name. Intended as a protest for peace and against the cult of celebrity, Lennon and Ono veiled themselves behind a symbolic bag in an attempt to more clearly communicate their messages, coining the term “Bagism”. In an even more image-obsessed era, event organisers reassessed the term to explore its underlying concepts and contradictions.

Artfully curated, the space is styled in meandering fashion, enabling visitors to explore different themes devoted to history, feminism, celebrity and art. The sartorial evolution begins in the 1400s when humankind’s first personal bags were androgynous, in the form of small drawstring purses that were attached to belts. Even at this time, bags were intricately embroidered and strung with precious stones as a gauge of wealth and status. Some purses, known as sweet bags, were filled with sweet-smelling herbs and flower petals; an early form of eau de cologne.

Around the 17th century, male garments began to incorporate sewn-in slots, and subsequently men were relegated to stuffing their belongings into their pockets. Women’s bags, on the other hand, became entirely more exquisite and closely reflected fashions, inventions, discoveries and social trends of their time.

A stroll between elegantly lit glass boxes reveals this progression. European industrialisation in the late 19th century-influenced new styles. Slinky metallic mesh purses with elaborate jewelled silver clasps and fringes were later replaced with cheaper, lighter plastics, which allowed even greater scope for design creativity.

Carina Lau's Louis Vuitton cosmetics bag

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 sparked a trend for exotic Egyptian motifs. Later, in the 1930s, art deco-inspired vanity dancing purses with inbuilt slots for cosmetics and mirrors were produced by Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Boucheron.

Fashion enthusiasts will enjoy the contribution by Elsa Schiaparelli, a trend-setting Italian couturière working between the two world wars who is credited with many fashion firsts, including the versatile wrap dress. Her personal bag, featured in the show, is adorned with a bamboo handle – some 40 years prior to the Gucci Bamboo bag.

Her fashion rival, Coco Chanel, stands alongside with her own history-making designs. “Not only did Chanel create a new vocabulary for bags with her use of quilting on leather and long chain shoulder straps, but she was also the first to give a birth date to a bag,” explains Azoulay. The Chanel 2.55 was created in February 1955, yet its design remains truly timeless. The famed double CC lock was an addition by Karl Lagerfeld in the 1980s during the era of luxury- brand-logo mania.

Other famous women made handbag history as muses, most notably the British actress and singer Jane Birkin, for whom the iconic Hermès Birkin was created in 1984. Her signed black Birkin is on display at Bagism, as is another crowd-drawing piece by a Gucci muse – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ personal Jackie bag.

Bagism’s dialogue between fashion and art also extends to fun novelty pieces, including a “Louis Vuitton” bag in the form of a peanut butter and jam sandwich by Chloe Wise and an architecturally inspired rendition of a bucket bag designed by the late Zaha Hadid, which looks like it could easily morph into a tower. An interactive photo set lets visitors monogram their own image onto a life-size Lady Dior bag. Cue more iPhone snapping frenzy.

One corner of the exhibition is devoted to what lies within a woman’s bag. Watercolour paintings are displayed from Petite Anthologie de Sacs, a series by French artist Nathalie Lecroc, who asks women to empty the contents of their bags and illustrates every object. Firecrackers, a hula dress and lettuce are among the stranger objects she has encountered. Irina Volkonskii’s work Inner Beauty reveals an open clutch filled with a gaudy assortment of “old boiled sweets, a handgun, make- up, unsavoury creatures ... all those things that usually remain hidden, suppressed even. It’s alive and it speaks of a woman’s life,” the artist notes.

Delving deeper into the Bagism theme are abstract works by Chinese artists. From a whirling installation of barbershop poles by American-Chinese artist Adrian Wong (a piece from the same collection hangs in K11 founder Adrian Cheng’s living room) to a confronting photography work of a naked man wrapped around his personal belongings by Shanghai- born Pixy Liao, the pieces aim to provoke thoughts on aspects of desire, society, gender and consumption.

Adrian Cheng at the Bagism exhibition

Adrian Cheng at the Bagism exhibition

Since opening in Shanghai in 2013, K11 Art Mall has established itself on one of China’s favourite shopping streets, displaying quirky styling that includes concierges dressed in feathered hats and patent pumps, an esoteric soundtrack and the chi K11 Art Museum, which has hosted high-profile exhibitions, including Master of Impressionism – Claude Monet and Media – Dalí.

“The concept of K11 is to bring creativity into people’s daily lives through enjoyably curating retail, art and culture,” explains Adrian Cheng, the young scion of Hong Kong’s New World Development and the driving force behind K11, at the exhibition opening. “We’ve done a lot of avant-garde art shows but now we want to explore a dialogue between fashion and art.”

Capitalising on fashionable culture, the Bagism theme continues throughout the upstairs retail spaces with brands offering discounts on bags and accessories, artisanal window displays, design workshops and a collection of Bagism totes, phone cases and souvenirs. “We don’t expect everyone to understand. Some people will simply come for the Birkin. But it’s like a treasure hunt where visitors can discover and ponder and learn,” says Cheng.

In that respect, K11 has this one in the bag.