“If the Shoe Fits”: Feet, femininity and Asian women artists – book review

Patricia Karetzky’s illustrated e-book traces the motif of the shoe in the work of eight Asian female artists. 

Writer and curator Patricia Karetzky conducts an intriguing investigation on the metaphor of the shoe in her e-book Femininity in Asian Women Artists’ Work from China, Korea and USA: If the Shoe Fits (2012). The book invokes enthralling themes of femininity, identity and ancestry.

Yin Xiuzhen, 'Shoes with Butter', 1996, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery Beijing.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Shoes with Butter’, 1996, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery Beijing.

If the Shoe Fits is published by KT Press as an e-book. The eight artists discussed are:

The artists’ works do not all harbour an outright feminist agenda, rather, as Karetzky’s introduction says, they “examine the construction of a feminine identity and its ancient origins.”

The Cinderella syndrome

The story of Cinderella originated in China in the ninth century AD, 800 years before the Europeans created Cinderella. The ancient tale highlights a societal fetish with female feet. As Karetzky writes, “The allure of a woman is judged by the size of her foot; should it be too big, she is rejected.”

China’s admiration of small-footed women led to the practice of foot-binding. At all levels of society, from nobility to the merchant class to peasants and prostitutes, women bound their feet. Tiny feet and intricately embroidered silk slippers became objects of sexual fetish, considered as the basis of sexual attraction rather than physical beauty. Karetzky writes:

Given the longevity and widespread appeal of the [foot-binding] practice, it is not surprising to see a continued interest in the foot as a symbol of a woman’s identity, attractiveness and status in society.

The archaeologist and the anthropologist

Peng Wei (b. 1974, Chengdu, Sichuan) is the first artist Karetzky presents. Peng works like an archaeologist, dutifully replicating the delicate designs and colours of Chinese robes, kimonos and shoes with the traditional medium of ink on paper. Peng’s presentation, however, is strikingly modern. Using blank backgrounds, her paintings resemble exhibitions in a costume museum or ethnological display.

Peng Wei, 'Embroidered Shoes Series', 2002, Chinese ink on rice paper, 43.9 x 43.9 cm. Image courtesy the artist and KT Press.

Peng Wei, ‘Embroidered Shoes Series’, 2002, Chinese ink on rice paper, 43.9 x 43.9 cm. Image courtesy the artist and KT Press.

In particular, the lonely, isolated shoes suggest the vulnerability of the foot and the instability of life. Once the object of sexual allure, they are now disembodied, bereft of the foot. Peng said, quoted in the book:

In ancient China […] shoes have always had a connection with sex. However, when I began painting shoes, I don’t think of sex […] And I don’t consider my artworks to be fashion designs. What I paint are items from the past – lost and beautiful things.

Photographer Nina Kuo (b. 1952) met her grandmother for the first time when she travelled back to China in the 1980s and was amazed by her deformed feet. Kuo’s work can be likened to that of an anthropologist: a New York artist struggling to reach her Asian roots.

In addition to examining gender markers and sexual identification, Kuo’s work deals with the complexities of the Western gaze. She appropriates stills from early Chinese films and inserts modern commercial references into the tableaux. Mini Chi Pao Noir: Shoe Store Spam (2001) depicts a scene where the Western exotic high heel is readily adopted in China, satirising the ephemerality yet all-consuming cultural ideals of femininity and beauty.

The abandoned and the abused

Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963, Beijing, China) works with discarded clothing and shoes: according to Karetzky, “the cast off personal articles relate the transitory aspects of life and individual identity.” In Cemented Shoes (1995), she selected 25 pairs of used shoes, filled them with cement and hung them in a row from the ceiling. Karetzky writes:

The worn shoes recall the images of the long gone people who once wore them, and their transitory existence is once again in sharp contrast to the permanency of the cement.

Yin Xiuzhen, 'Shoes with Butter' (detail), 1996, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery Beijing.

Yin Xiuzhen, ‘Shoes with Butter’ (detail), 1996, mixed media installation. Image courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery Beijing.

The similarly themed installation Shoes with Butter (2006) was staged in Tibet. A multitude of old shoes were filled with yak butter, a staple of the region, and placed around a lake. The yak butter represents harmony with rural Tibetan culture, and the work suggests that

[the] shoes and the lives that were led by those that once inhabited them are now an inextricable part of the place in which they were worn.

In contrast to Yin’s worn shoes, Cai Jin (b. 1965, Tunxi, Anhui) uses pristine silk cocktail pumps, which she destroys by splashing red pigmented banana leaf patterns on them. Banana leaves, her signature motif, represent the yin or female element of the garden, while the decaying leaves evoke the fragility and transience of physical beauty. Red, on the other hand, embodies universal connotations of blood, reproduction, femininity and violence.

In Banana no. 124-31 (1997), Cai Jin hangs paint-splashed shoes from the ceiling to create a mobile installation reminiscent of amusement parks. The juxtaposition suggests a narrative of violence and pain behind the grace and beauty of the feminine ideal. As Karetzky notes:

Happy and lighthearted associations clash with the seemingly bloody and gory cocktail slippers. Mutilated by the painting process, the shoes seem used and abused […] Cai Jin’s work here relates a variety of narratives of violence and pain, inherent in both the red palette reminiscent of exposed viscera and splashing style of application of the pigment, as well as its context.

Paper cut-outs and plaster casts 

Xin Song (b. 1970, Beijing) and Korean artist Il Sun Hong both work with scissor art, fashioning their own shoes and shoe-themed tableaux using the traditional Chinese medium of paper cut-outs and Korean paper craftsmanship. Aside from using plain coloured paper, Xin’s work is particularly provocative and complex, because she also uses pages from erotic magazines. Karetzky writes:

Xin has cut traditional images, philosophical gender markers, out of the pornographic material, which is stripped of much of its lewd content, to illustrate the spiritual forces whose coupling results in the creation of the universe.

On the other hand, Betty YaQin Chou (b. 1978, Canton, China) and Korean artist Mimi Kim both work with casts. Chou laboriously cast hundreds of pairs of her own feet out of wax-flex, bee and candle and arranged them in geometrical configurations. For Chou, the geometric circles represent the continuous process of history and her foot casts are a metaphor for

the many tens of thousands of steps her ancestors took and the continuous passage of time from one generation to another.

Meanwhile, in Fetish (2001-02), Kim used processed meat to fashion a pair of high heeled boots. In doing so, she interrogates our cultural positioning of women as commodities or animal products valued for sex and procreation, denying them individuality, intelligence and spirituality.

If the shoe fits

As Karetzky reminds us in her introduction, the shoe is not just an Asian fetish but a global metaphor for inner character. This is evident in phrases such as “if the shoe fits”, “you don’t know a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” and “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes”, among others. Karetzky concludes:

For [these artists] the image of the shoe/foot resonates with a multitude of associations of ancient and modern culture, of the role of women in the past and present society, and of issues of sexuality and feminine culture. Their work demonstrates that the foot/shoe is still an intimate symbol of identity and sensuality.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: Chinese artists, Korean artists, book reviews, art and the community, paper art, found objects

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