Orange cone dress protests pollution: art engages with the world

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 The image is striking.  A woman walks through the streets of Beijing dressed in a strange gown with a long–orange–cape trailing along the ground. But wait. What is the gown made from? Well, strange to say, what at first glance might seem like ruffles, are actually plastic cones or horns.

The woman is called Kong Ning and her creation of this orange dress provides TOK teachers with a striking current story to challenge and provoke students into considering complex–and vital–ways in which the Arts function as an area of knowledge.

One way of handling this example in class is to provide an image of the orange dress (see “How Artists Are Fighting Air Pollution in Beijing”) and raise questions in roughly the order outlined below.   I have linked many of them directly with the TOK Course Book in order to provide an example that can be framed by the knowledge questions and exploration set up in the book.

1. Social and Cultural contexts–and “perspectives”

From the very “get go”, many TOK students may be reluctant to accept that there is any point at all to Kong Ning’s “art”. If art is about communicating, particularly shared knowledge what possibly can they conclude about the “meaning” of this piece of performance art?

Although TOK students in China probably will not need to be told these three facts, those elsewhere may not know them:

  • First, orange is the colour used to indicate an extreme level of air pollution in Beijing.
  • Another fact most may know, but may need to be reminded of, is that a cone shaped horn is frequently used for warning.
  • Third, according to one study, 1.6 million people a year are currently dying directly or indirectly from air pollution in China.

Armed, therefore, with this background knowledge, students will no doubt be quick to accept that yes, well maybe, here is an act of communication after all. And, more to the point, as the TOK Course Book says, “The arts communicate…. Usually the communication is from the artist…to an audience. The communication has a purpose, and is set within a perspective. ”

A first question for discussion then: for this communication to be successful how much can this particular work of art–or any work of art–be divorced from its cultural and social context? Is art “better” if it can be understood more or less universally without such an expectation?

Further, how much background knowledge should be necessary to appreciate art? In the TOK Course Book one suggested discussion is based around evaluating the following claim: “…a response that is based on some understanding of the meaning of a work within its context–the context of the culture and the context of expectations of that particular form of art–is a fuller response.” (p. 237) Our orange dress clearly provides an excellent example on which to base some thoughtful mulling.

ASIDE: This question often arises in art in relation to social satire. Many Language A1 students will know that “satire” is generally understood to involve the use of exaggeration and irony to ridicule and therefore posit a “norm”, that is, a valuable principle. As such, social satire is often linked to a particular time and place–and sometimes, therefore, seen as inferior as “art”. Does the example of the orange dress provide ammunition for exploring this question?

2. Symbolism

Any discussion following these questions could well touch on the question of symbolism and how symbols communicate knowledge–after all, both the colour orange and the cone shape are symbols that acquire their “meaning” from their cultural/social context. Not all artistic symbols need to be cultural, of course. After all, Kong Ning is wearing a dress, and what appears, moreover, to be a wedding dress. What are we to make of that?

This gives rise, therefore, to a second question: in what ways can art (including writing, dance, music and so on) communicate shared knowledge through symbols , both cultural symbols and those that acquire resonance by the manner in which the artist treats them?

Does the use of symbols as a method of communication make the knowledge claims more powerfully or less powerfully felt and/or understood than direct statement would? Does the subjective element in interpreting symbols, sometimes strong, sometimes not, weaken the communication?

3. Indirection and subtlety

By this point, some students will probably be impatient. After all, some will say, what is to be gained by beating around the bush whether through symbols or not? They will be particularly satisfied to know that Kong Ning’s art has, in fact, been misunderstood. Many passersby in Beijing apparently had no idea what she was trying to communicate!

From here, then, springs a further question in the arts: whether or not symbols are involved, how much does true artistry involve some subtlety and indirection?   Many a protest song, for example, lays its cards directly on the table. For instance, the environmental message in Tracy Chapman’s “The Rape of the World” is not exactly subtle:

We are all witness

To the rape of the world…

You’ve seen her strip mined

You’ve heard of bombs exploded underground…

She has been clear-cut

She has been dumped on

She has been poisoned and beaten up

And we have been witness

To the rape of the world.

Put that song beside Kong Ning’s orange dress and the orange dress seems more than a little indirect. Does, this mean, however, that its meaning is less valid? that artistically it has less–or more–value? that because of its very indirection it can have greater impact?

4. Subtlety and propaganda

One of the questions for reflection in the TOK Course Book is “What distinguishes propaganda from art that expresses a point of view”? (p. 242).

Students who haven’t already discussed this question in another context may find that this example can help clarify some of the issues–and one of those, most would agree, is the question of subtlety and/or indirection found in art and not propaganda.

Is it only the method that distinguishes art from propaganda, or the substance of the knowledge claims? Second, therefore, is art or propaganda more deeply rooted in truth? Does the orange dress better exemplify art or propaganda?

5. Language and diversity in art forms

 But, ah, some will be quick to point out when looking at “The Rape of the World”, part of the contrast between a direct protest song and an indirect, purely visual protest is language. (Some will point out that language itself involves a kind of symbolism and itself is subject to ambiguity and indirection. However, most will concede that any art form that uses language can most easily make unambiguous and direct statements.)

The question of language–and lack of it in the case of the orange dress—can, therefore, be a good way of illuminating the ways the whole range of art forms communicate. What, especially in their ability to make social protests, is illuminated about the ways in which art forms that don’t use language nevertheless communicate? Dance? Instrumental music? Painting and sculpture? Applied arts (architecture, pottery, weaving) and so on?

In fact, as the TOK Course Book asks, “To what extent do you think that some of the arts gain their communicative power by being free of language and its confines?” (p. 228)

The further fact that Kong Ning’s orange dress isn’t merely a kind of sculpture hanging in a gallery but, instead, being worn on city streets, raises an additional question about artistic forms: how much should artists sincere about sharing knowledge work within traditional art forms, and how much should they be respected for inventing new forms–in this case a kind of “performance art”?

Kong Ning’s creation may well provoke some considered debate in considering the question in the TOK Course Book: “Can you think of new forms developed within the past century that have extended the outside boundary [between the “arts” and the non-art] as they joined the group already inside?” (p. 227),

6. Repression and satire

The discussion of indirection in artistic expression can give rise to yet another question in sharing knowledge. If an artist who states a protest directly or explicitly can be severely punished by the government, how much is the artist most effective when protesting indirectly or implicitly?

After all, there are clear cases involving Kong Ning’s contemporaries who face imprisonment for being too blatant. (“Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts.”)

Indeed, aware of the concerns over punishment, one magazine article examining Kong Ning’s protest uses as its title, “Why China’s artists are making waves and getting away with it.”

ASIDE: In fact, this latter article provides some other examples of striking, shocking, ingenious, and provocative artists in China who, like Kong Ning, use indirection and symbolism to protest social issues. All could be used to raise most of the same knowledge questions already raised here.

As the TOK Course Book points out, “As we consider how dictatorial regimes have imprisoned or executed artists…one thing is clear: it is not only critics of the arts who recognize that artists are making knowledge claims and passing judgments about the societies in which we live.” (p. 240) How much should we expect an artist to challenge governmental policies when the result might be punishment?

7. The artist’s intentions

Consider this description of another art project in China designed as protest:

One of Liu Bolin’s most stunning scenes features the artist camouflaged within a photo of the Intrepid, a decommissioned American aircraft carrier docked in New York. The piece is an overt comment on the consequences of U.S.-style military dominance to which China aspires (Macleans)

“Overt”? Many would be inclined to stare with fascination at this photo in which the artist is barely visible because he has painted his own body to blend into the photo behind him of a huge aircraft carrier–and yet have no idea what the “meaning” of the painting is. As we saw, even the orange dress, comparatively explicit, may have no clear meaning to many.

Thus, we have yet another question about the way that art communicates shared knowledge: if an artist’s intentions are not obvious, can we say that the art’s “meaning” can be independent of those intentions?

8. Intentions and “reason”

 As the TOK Course Book points out, “In some popular stereotypes of the arts…one way of knowing is treated as though it were excluded: reason.” (p. 229)

How much and in what ways do the examples of artistic creation identified here (and in the article in Macleans) demonstrate the role of reason in planning and executing a piece of art–and understanding it? Could anyone claim that Liu Bolin or Kong Ning is simply producing art without using reason, entirely through the spontaneous expression of pure emotion or subconscious impulses?

Further ideas for the classroom

The topics and questions above provide a relatively straightforward way of handling this example of the orange dress, through raising for discussion a series of questions, or drawing the questions out of the ideas that student discussion is likely to raise in any case.

Alternatively, it could be stimulating to begin “backwards”. In other words, students might engage most directly with the issues underlying the art of protest if they were first to design their own parallel project before looking at Kong Ning’s protest. Thus, for example, they could be presented with an issue that matters to them, whether a broad social one such as religious/racial intolerance or a local/school based one. Then they could be asked to design a costume–with no signs/words–that could be worn to make their protest. They might, additionally, be asked to make their costume “artistic”–without going any further to explain the term.

An additional dimension would result if, working alone or in small groups, students then presented their costume (most easily done simply through description and/or a sketch) to the rest of the class without explaining the symbols (cultural or freshly created), their intentions, or the target of their protest. It would be up to the rest of the class to ask questions, of course, and compare the various results for ambiguity/clarity, likely impact, artistry/subtlety/propaganda and so on.

With their own attempts under their belts, students could well be in a heightened state of mind to turn their attention to the image of a woman dressed entirely in a long, trailing gown of…orange cones!


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Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jamie Fullerton, “Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinxing facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts”, The Independent, May 28, 2015.

Andrew Nunes, “How Artists Are Fighting Air Pollution in Beijing”, The Creators Project, January 6, 2016.

Charlie Gillis, “Why China’s artists are making waves and getting away with it,” Maclean’s, December 9, 2015.

Dan Levin, “Study Links Polluted Air in China to 1.6 Million Deaths a Year”, New York Times, August 13, 2015.

Image courtesy of artist’s Weibo