From Coastline to Hometown-
On Zhang Xiao's Artistic Creation and Its Shift
Young photographer Zhang Xiao, the recipient of the second Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award (2009), has used his series Coastline to present us with his new ideas and attitudes towards photography.
The Coastline series presents the vast spaces of China from a special angle, displaying a certain unified state through photographs of various scenes scattered across China's coast. This unified state is related to the Chinese people's living space and the reality. In Zhang's Coastline, we discover that the coastline is not an abstract geographic concept, but a concrete and vivid concept brought to life through the images and activities of the people along the sea.
Photography has a unique ability to present space, and Zhang Xiao's photography has expanded the conceptual expression of space. Photography is good at capturing the "openness” of space, while Zhang has made attempts at highlighting the "betweenness" of space, arriving at a satisfactory result. In a certain sense, the coastline is a concept of "betweenness”. Though the coastline separates the land from the sea, forming the border between the two, in Zhang Xiao's photography, it is more than just a line between land and sea-it has also become a space that connects the two. Its role as a "between" space is inseparable from the activities of people along the coastline, who move back and forth between land and sea. It would be more accurate to say that the coastline is a zonal concept, one which, because of the activities of people within it, is a space of continuity between land and sea. It is because of the activities of people that land and sea have become organically connected.
Zhang Xiao's photographs, whether expressive, surreal or realistic, have put the unique charm of this special geographic space on full display. Though on the surface, Zhang’s photographs appear to be in a straightforward layout style, it is actually different from the norm of this style of photography, which emphasises neutral and distanced observation. Instead, it observes reality with warm sentiments. As a result, these photographs are marked by a very human kind of observation, one which observes both the appearance of the natural landscape and man's relationship with nature, rather than a straightforward, all-encompassing, overstretched kind of photography. With this series, we discover that the coastline is a space where people can find freedom, as well as a space where they feel their limitations, a space entangled in a complex array of elements. It is almost like a space where the land and sea engage in a tug-of-war. The sea bears the traces of human activity and intrusion, and the land by the sea also contains man's imaginations and expectations of the sea. The coastline, a space that faces ceaseless changes of the land and the sea, is a place that catalyzes humanity, and stimulates thinking about space and time.
The Meaning of Hometown as a “Place” and Possibilities of the “Photography of Place”
During and after his travel along the long coastline of China, Zhang has always maintained his ties with his homeland. In recent times in particular, he has discovered more possibilities for artistic creation from his hometown and devoted his energy to creating a new series of work. Amidst the waves of urbanisation, many Chinese people have discarded the traditional value of “staying content in one's homeland and not moving away easily”, and left their hometown to embark on a new life in the city. Yet when they have gained their foothold in the city and reaped all kinds of rewards, the homeland lingers like an ever growing longing and melancholy in their heart.
The featured works in this exhibition “About My Hometown” takes on Zhang's birthplace, “Tai Shang Village in Xujiadian Town, Haiyang City, Yantai City in Shandong Province” as the subject of reflection. It starts from the photographer's personal experience, and employs eclectic techniques and settings to illuminate Zhang's perspectives on his hometown. These series of works about hometown are relatively complex in structure and rich in artistic expression which include such formats as photograph, video tape and installation. As a result, the perspectives (“ways of seeing”) illuminated also reveal more fully the photographer's personal stance and ways of expression.
The Shift series embodies a kind of symbolism in its form. Through the deliberate transfer and assembly of material, the images from the Polaroid photos become a kind of metaphor. The state of life and living that follows one's travel, leaving home and moving is hinted at symbolically in the series. Zhang tells us that people's moving may be regrettable but necessary. It is a constant effort to restore one's memories of homeland, the result of which may be less than satisfactory. Zhang reveals a sense of resignation through these reassembled images. As illustrated in this work, his memories are only fragmented visuals, however hard he tries to mend and assemble them. In short, his homeland as a “place” has long ceased to accommodate his nostalgia.
For the Relatives series, Zhang commissioned photographers in the rural area (whom he calls “travelling folk artists of image”) to enhance old photos of his relatives with their “business” understanding of photography. These gaudy portraits demonstrate a particular kind of aesthetics of “place”. Through this act of appropriation, Zhang gains a kind of understanding of his homeland again, as well as deeper comprehension of photography as an expression of “place”.
Why does the homeland fill one with longing? It is because the homeland is a land of stories. The stories of people in his homeland have become the heart of Zhang's imagination and portrayal of his hometown. As a person's understanding of their homeland is a fundamental one that begins along with their life, they feel towards those in their homeland a deep concern that they are unable to let go of. Zhang's concern for the people in his homeland takes on more concrete manifestation in the Eldest Sister series. According to Zhang, his cousin “Eldest Sister” is an active figure in their hometown. While she has not left the place, her attire (though specifically created for the portraits) and trendiness show a woman connected with the outside world. These “Eldest Sister” photos he used were taken by local photographers. Yet they all refer to the struggle of a woman who is active in the “place” she inhabits but has no “place” to go.
Home Theater features not only images, but also pop music from Zhang's growing up in the 1980s and 1990s that has been edited into soundtracks of reminiscences, and which will be played at the gallery. The video tapes displayed on the wall have also become a memorial of the VHS recorder, an audiovisual device from a bygone era.
Eldest Sister, Relatives and Home Theater all share a common thread with Zhang's previous series Envelopes, which is the use of existing materials (images or physical objects) from real life. This method directly instills daily life into artistic creation, enriches the texture of the artworks and presents more possibilities for further interpretation of reality.
While the Living series points its finger at a kind of administrative absurdity, it also highlights the preoccupation with news and its production that comes from the creator of Envelopes. Zhang was inspired by his mother's experience to create Living. For people to prove that they are still living and to receive their pension, some local government officials came up with an idea: anyone may leave their hometown to live in another area, but they must take a photo of themselves holding the day's local newspaper as proof of their existence. A medium of news, the newspaper turns into an absurd means of proof, as it demonstrates a certain kind of absurdity. In the form of performance art, Zhang uses the act of holding up the newspaper to “report on” his own existence and illustrate the absurdity of this practice. As for the absurdity of the newspaper itself, the viewers may refer to the text and captions on the front page of the newspaper that Zhang holds up each day, and make their own judgement based on their personal experience.
These five series are separate and yet connected around this “place” that is the artist's homeland. In the end, they form a richly layered and organically linked humanistic depiction of place, which stems from Zhang's longing for as well as observation and thinking of his hometown.
In these series of works, Zhang puts aside his masterly and signature photographic technique that features in earlier series like Coastline, and shifts to a more conceptual approach to creating his new work. Zhang's photography of his hometown differs from traditionally directional photography, and reveals the homeland through indirect portrayals. The images of his homeland are indirect and second-hand, which marks a sharp departure from Zhang's first-hand capturing of imagery in his previous photography. Yet this indirectness ignites in the viewers the desire to look at his homeland more closely.
The works of Zhang featured in this exhibition also make me think that it is time to further discuss the concept of “place”, which I have mentioned in many instances in this essay.
“Place” is a geographical concept, meaning the overall physical space which has been shaped by history, culture and humanities. People live in “places”, and a place thrives or wanes for various reasons. Therefore a “place” has a life of its own, which depends on how those who inhabit this “place” to protect and nurture it. Against the greater currents of history, however, “places” are fragile and often slide into decline or even doom. Despite this, the homeland to which individual lives are tied still stirs nostalgia and sorrow. However, Zhang's works about hometown do not feature the kind of chorus that romanticises nostalgia, but embody a solid and intelligent expression that prompts us to reflect on the meaning of homeland as a “place” to the individual and society. Through this series of organic compositions, Zhang constructs his own “organised nostalgia” to explore and illuminate the changes of the “place”. He redefines the “place” and visually reconstructs his recognition of the “place”, and goes on to counter the organised destruction of the “place”.
Starting from his life and personal experience, Zhang's photography goes through the significant shift from the “surface” formed by numerous “points” in Coastline, to the probe into a singular “point” upon the artist's return to his homeland. This conceptual shift heralds an important change in his photography. Does the shift in his work also bode an upcoming change for contemporary Chinese photography?
I feel that after experiencing an expansive (or even surging, at times) “spatial turn”, contemporary Chinese photography may be on the verge of a new phase, which is how to return to a particular “place” through photography. When Chinese photographers have encapsulated all sorts of settings and phenomena in their artworks, it is probably time that they return to where they have come from to see what has happened there, if possible. That may prompt a shift in the rendering of China's tremendous changes, both in the ways of seeing and conceptual shift.
On the examination of “place”, it may already have become a necessity to truly grasp, depict and reflect on what is happening in China rather than settle for a shallow interpretation of the subject. Perhaps such photography may already be called the “Photography of Place”, and Zhang's works about his hometown can be seen as the inception of the “Photography of Place” in China.
Gu Zheng Born in Shanghai in 1959, he lives and works in Shanghai. He is currently a Professor of Journalism at Fudan University. He is a scholar of the history of photography, photography critic and curator.