The Macro and the Micro Worlds in the Photography of Zhang Xiao
“About My Hometown” is the third solo exhibition of Zhang Xiao at Blindspot Gallery. In 2012 we presented his iconic series Coastline; in 2013 we exhibited the earlier series They. Completed in 8 years between 2006 and 2013, the two series garnered Zhang various photography awards and exhibition opportunities in China and overseas. This new exhibition, “About My Hometown”, showcased Zhang’s new works from 2012 to present.
In his early works Coastline and They, we see Zhang's distinctive snapshot aesthetics, and the adoption of ordinary people and things from daily settings as his subjects. The images reveal a sense of surrealism that precisely captures the absurdity in the country due to rampant economic changes. All this stems from the artist’s unique understanding of today’s China.
In the past few years, Zhang has shifted his focus from rendering macro views of China and the lives of its people to zooming in on his hometown in his works. Or, more precisely, his experience of homecoming after a prolonged absence. The themes of Shift, Eldest Sister, Relatives, Three Sisters, Living and Home Theater centre on Zhang’s experience of growing up, and his family and memories of his homeland.
Zhang is a sentimental and sensitive artist. While reflecting on the impact of China's rapid development on the society, the creation of Zhang's early works Coastline and They mainly emanated from his reflections on the state of his own existence and others’. In his artist statement for Coastline, Zhang says, “The sea is the beginning of lives and dreams. At the same time, I am looking for the homeland in my heart.”
Like many young people in China, Zhang left his hometown with an eager heart in his youth to study and work in other cities, in search of a new life. Photography took him farther on the road. For the making of Coastline, he travelled the 18,000 kilometres of coastline of China. He then returned to his birthplace - his hometown – to reacquaint himself with the homeland that had become unfamiliar through photography.
The focal point of the exhibition, Shift is a photography series created from black and white instant films. The works depict random and mundane settings in Zhang's hometown, Yantai in Shandong province, such as the apple farm (Yantai being China's largest cultivation area of cash apples), common objects and his family. In making the photo collage, Zhang lifted the emulsions off the instant films and reassembled them on a separate piece of white paper. He calls the manual creation a process of detachment and reassembly that mirrors his relationship with his hometown. These emulsion lifts which have been detached and reassembled are mostly fragmented in places, and the visuals are indistinct. The black and white images make it difficult for one to determine whether it is an old photo or a new one, and if the setting is contemporary. Perhaps Zhang’s memories of his homeland have become blurry or even splintered, and yet the artist sets out to restore them.
For the three series Eldest Sister, Relatives and Three Sisters, Zhang commissioned some peddling photo editors in the rural villages (commonly known as “drifters of image”) to put images of his relatives on the body of a model or film star, or against a stock background image to create composite portraits, or to decorate their wedding photos with fake diamonds. As the techniques in use are rudimentary, the composite images are visibly flawed, or even totally distorted in angle or proportion. To many, these composite portraits fail to meet any professional standards and they are far from being beautiful. However, this practice was once widely popular in the rural villages of Northern China. On one hand, these portraits (“creation”) illustrate the ideology shaped by consumerism, pop culture and the media, as well as the villagers' desires for a more sophisticated way of life. On the other hand, Zhang reflects on the relative nature of aesthetic standards through enlarging these portraits and showcasing them in the gallery setting.
Living was inspired by the experience of Zhang's mother. In order to receive her pension, she buys the local newspaper from her residing city and takes photograph of herself with the newspaper, then send the photo to the authority in her hometown to prove that she is living. Zhang transposed the current circumstances of his mother's life and his hometown to his creation, and took a daily photo of himself holding the day's newspaper to prove his existence. While Living contains performance element, Home Theater is an installation comprising images, objects and sound, to recall the bygone childhood memories of the 1990s.
The works featured in “About My Hometown” stem from the artist's personal experience, and yet they reflect a larger social reality that lies beyond the individual to resonate with others. Zhang reveals the state of existence of insignificant figures through his macro-portrayals of landscapes and presences, and illuminates the present reality of China with his micro-depictions of ordinary people and settings. This is a common thread running through Zhang's artistic creation. As for technique and medium, his new works mark the shift from the singular use of photography to the incorporation of other mediums for storytelling. The exhibition revolves around the theme of hometown, while the return to his birthplace also symbolizes a turning point in Zhang's artistic creation.