The body has always been inextricably linked with clothing and identity, and this connection is perfectly captured in the nostalgic paper doll. Made of paper or thin cardboard, these toy dolls are usually printed with characters in their underwear and are accompanied by cutout clothes, shoes, and accessories that fit over their bodies. Those who play with these paper dolls can act as stylists and change the characters’ outfits as they wish. Wilson Shieh developed his Fitting Room series by combining his love for drawing characters with the paper-doll concept. The figures in this series are able to transform their identities by changing into different outfits, reflecting Shieh’s desire to break free from the past to create something new.
In 2007, after more than a decade of training in gongbi—a Chinese realist painting technique—Shieh reflected on his artistic career and was determined to make some changes. He moved his studio to Fo Tan with the hopes of starting afresh in an unfamiliar environment. He then sought out new artistic inspiration and techniques, setting himself a five-year plan to experiment beyond the gongbi style that he was already familiar with. What resulted from these explorations is Shieh’s Fitting Room series. For this series, he first used acrylic paints to create characters and costumes on canvases that measured three to four feet. He then photographed the paintings and printed them on foot-long sheets of paper before cutting out the shapes of the characters and clothes and pasting them on coloured-pencil backgrounds. For Shieh, this new artmaking method resembled the process of changing one’s clothing in the sense that he shed his old habit of gongbi and ink painting to embrace a fresh ‘outfit’ involving sketches, acrylic paints, and coloured pencils. Beneath this style change, however, what remained the same was that painting continued to be the foundation of Shieh’s practice.
Fitting Room started with a focus on famous personalities. Costume changes turn Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung into different movie characters, while Eileen Chang is transformed into the protagonists from her own stories. By putting on different outfits, these cultural icons can immediately invent new personas for themselves. These created identities, however, are separated from each individual’s true self and disappear as soon as their clothes are removed. In The Cultural Life of Wilson Shieh, however, the concept of identity formation takes on a different path, as the focus shifts from famous figures to the artist himself.
Also part of the Fitting Room series, The Cultural Life of Wilson Shieh is divided into two parts. The first part features images of several paper dolls painted in acrylic on canvas against a pink background. Near the centre of the work, a nude figure is rendered in crimson in an oval frame. Shieh’s birth year appears in the frame, identifying the figure as the artist himself. This central character is surrounded by the outfits of sixteen different people, including Chuang-tzu, I. M. Pei, Feng Zikai, Antonio Mak, Richard Lam, and Haruki Murakami. These individuals have all had a deep influence on Shieh during the artist’s various life stages between the ages of eight and thirty-nine.
The second part of The Cultural Life of Wilson Shieh encompasses sixteen drawings made with coloured pencils and printing ink on boards. In each drawing, a well-groomed Shieh dressed as the sixteen people shown in the acrylic painting appears against a coloured-pencil background accompanied by a 200-word description handwritten in Chinese and English. In one of the drawings, Shieh transforms into the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu in his famous butterfly dream.
In the text below the image, Shieh explains how this allegory subverts the logic of everyday life and ‘opens up space for imagination’, adding that this enlightening lesson from Chuang continued to make an impact on his artistic career throughout the years. In this sense, not only does Shieh step into someone else’s shoes, he drapes himself in their entire outfits in an attempt to see the world from their perspectives. Unlike the celebrity-focused works in the series, dressing up here is no longer a matter of external appearances but rather a process of shaping one’s internal thoughts and behaviour, and the lessons learned during this journey of self-discovery may have a lifelong impact.
Illustrating the shifts from external appearances to internal reflection and from roleplaying characters to constructing a self-identity, the paper dolls in the artist’s Fitting Room series are sublimated into a matter of deeper philosophical contemplation with The Cultural Life of Wilson Shieh.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 1 February 2023 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Or Ka Uen, translated by Lijie Wang, and edited by Dorothy So.