O Zhang


Zhang O makes pictures that are so straight-forward and unflinching that they might be mistaken for documentary photographs. Certainly, her two series, Horizon and Daddy and I, might be described as examining a social problem-in both cases, the adoption of unwanted Chinese girls-making them all the more likely to be confused with photojournalism. But Zhang O employs the tools of a conceptual photographer, rather than the neutrality of reportage, forcing the viewer to do much more than look on as a concerned observer. 

China Doll, My China Doll 
Little girls adopted from China are often complimented-“she looks like a china doll ! ”-as they are pushed around in strollers through the streets of America. Westerners expect these children to be demure and cute and studious and several other stereotypes, based solely on their looks. As these girls grow older, they mature into another set of stereotypes-exotic, repressed, sexually compliant- perennially directed at Asian women. It is difficult to pick up a camera without reinforcing these images about Chinese girls, so engrained have these myths become in our psyches. 

Indeed, the history of photography has only strengthened these stereotypes about Chinese women. Colonialist photographers specialized in images of erotic Asian women, subjugated subjects, often directed to turn their eyes away from the camera so they would not seem to be staring at the viewer in the finished photograph. Later on, images of Asian children sprouted up on the pages of Life Magazine, only to emphasize social ills and poverty in places like China. And then there were the images produced in China, with babies swarming around Mao and uniformed youth celebrating the glories of the revolution. 

All of these images, Western and Chinese, have influenced the development of Zhang O’s work, sometimes directly and sometimes in opposition. The little girls in the Horizon series are huge, colorful, and aggressive, staring down at viewers in ways that defy the stereotypes. They do not turn away, but glare back, inverting the relationship of observer and subject that was present in colonialist photography. Their social condition is powerful and present; the bright blue sky in every shot can be read as aggressively hopeful, far different than the pathos-filled backgrounds that photojournalists adore. And these girls are larger-than-life; exchanging places with the political heroes worshipfully depicted in Cultural Revolution posters, the babies now more important than the leaders. 

All these influences, and more, can be found in these singularly simplistic images of little girls. Their simplicity betrays a high level of sophistication rooted in contemporary photography. Like two other feminist artists-Shirin Nishat and Lorna Simpson-Zhang 0 uses the subjects of stereotypes to confront those stereotypes, entrapping the viewer in a staring contest which is far from comfortable. These little girls are no longer little or demure or cute; they seem defiant, resting on their heels at the top of a hill but ready to spring into action. Like the chador-wrapped women in Nishat’s photo projects and the black females clothed in simple slips in Simpson’s narratives, these girls are photographed  beautifully, yet they are presented in a manner that makes us scared to see them as beautiful. They do not hide or turn away. but address the viewer so intently and directly that we are afraid to even admit to ourselves the ways that they defy our preconceived notions of Chinese girls. 

It is not surprising that such sophisticated work has been created by Zhang 0, who was nominated for the Chinese Contemporary Artist Award in 2006 and a Beck’s Future Prize in 2005. The artist has studied at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing before taking graduate studies at Byam Shaw School of Art at CentrarSt Martin and completing her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art in London. But the preparation for the acute vision that embues her photographs started much earlier, as a child growing up in Hunan Province where her parents were sent for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution. It is ironic that her parents were professional translators, since from the beginning Zhang 0 had to learn the dialects of minority peoples in order to speak to her classmates. Later, first moving to Guangzhou with her family then Beijing for her studies, she had to master one dialect then another, an experience repeated again in English when she moved first to London and later New York. 

It is this isolation-the solitude of a person without a native-born tongue-that characterizes Zhang O’s work and makes it impossible to determine whether the artist identifies with or judges her subjects. To shoot Horizon, the artist returned to the rural regions of China in 2004, but went to a new province where she would not be known, to find her little girls. In their faces, it is easy to see Zhang O’s own outlook, defiant and powerful. Yet, there is also a distance between the photographer and her subjects that allows her to reveal their condition without romanticizing their lives. Adoption is never explicitly illustrated, but hovers in the background, complicating these children’s identities in ways that are different from what Zhang 0 experienced growing up in China, yet parallels her new life as an artist residing in New York. Both the children and the artist do not know what is on the horizon yet, they are forced to be optimistic since there is no alternative but to face the future. 

Daddy and I 
There is a fear factor in Zhang a’s photographs which makes viewers self-conscious about what they might be thinking as they look at the images. This subtle conflict underlying the work makes all of her pictures charged with unbridled energy, even as the subjects remain stationary and posed. It is a device that has been used by many contemporary photographers, from Rineke Dijkstra through Katy Grannan, two other ai1ists who create disturbing images by posing teenagers. But, when thinking about Zhang a’s series Daddy and ” the artist who most immediately springs to mind is Andres Serrano, notorious for embedding controversy into studious formality. 

To create Daddy and /, Zhang a tracked down preadolescent Chinese girls living in the United States with their adoptive families. She allowed her subjects-Daddy and his little girl-to choose their outfits and poses. She arranged them in settings near their homes. It all seems so natural and harmless. Yet, the resulting images are fraught with implications, both social and sexual, some too terrible to consider. Adoptions across racial differences raise one set of concerns, most often centering on the child’s inability to build self-esteem without same-race role models. Adoptions across national borders Jaise other concerns, notably identity confusion and loss of cultural heritage. But, here, in these simple family portraits, it is impossible to think of anything but the worse case scenario and once considered, equally impossible to erase the incestuous overtones in these happy pictures from our minds. 

Again, it would be difficult to determine whether Zhang a identifies with the subjects in these pictures. And, it is equally hard to know whether she approves or disapproves of these adoptive arrangements. In an interview, she insists that she liked the families and wanted to portray them positively. But, the photographs tell a different story, if only by accumulation. By sheer numbers, they show girl-after-girl-after-girl winding up in homes far from their homeland. 

These stunning images are almost painful to look at, due to their saturated colors and surrealistic settings. It is hard to read these fathers and daughters as related, not because of the differences in their features, but because of the uncanny way that they are posed which suggests something other than familial intimacy. That the subjects chose to present themselves this way makes the project even more interesting. We cannot blame the photographer for our evil thoughts. We cannot blame anything in the pictures. Yet, we think these things and can never quite find happiness in these portraits. 

Whether she intended this or not Zhang a is a very brave artist to allow these issues to surface in her work. It is all the more interesting that the photographs are taken not by a male artist or an American considering the circumstance of an “other”, but by an artist who could easily be mistaken for one of her subjects. On second glance, the girls in Daddy and / seem as powerful as the toddlers in Horizon, full of life and energy, unstoppable arid determined. Those are the exact qualities that Zhang O evokes through her work. On that level, the images and the artist merge into a bold vision of Chinese women, far different than the former stereotypes and far more prepared for the bright horizons of the future.

New York 

January/February 2007

(Chinese version)


观念摄影阜在上世纪初在西方就出现了,于六七十年代盛行这种摄影作晶被称 为”特别的摄影作品”,并在当时流行的现代主义摄影领域中赢得了大量观众的关 注。1975年座落于美国罗彻斯特(Rochester)的乔治·伊斯曼(Eastman George)的 策展人杰肯斯(William Jenkins),挑选了部分作晶,举办了名为”延展的记录” (“The Extended Document”)的展览,这是第一个介绍有关观念摄影的联展,自此在 国际上开始传播。对于从事这种摄影创作的艺术家而言,摄影对客观现实的记录与保存 的固有功能显得已不再重要了,摄影在艺术家心中视为自我观念表达的艺术媒介,或者说 是一种工具或者躯壳,而作品内容之外的观念才是其灵魂所在。毕业于中央美术学院并 旅居国外多年的年轻艺术家张鸥的摄影艺术作品正具有这样的特质。其系列作品《我 和爸爸》最为典型,主要是通过纪实摄影的方式,来探讨中国女孩领养的社会问题,通过摄 影强化此社会现实问题,引发人们对跨国界领养的关注,以及对中国女性身份和中国文化 遗失的思考。

张鸥张鸥拍摄的照片,率直而无惧,容易被误解为新闻记录。不错,她的两 个作品系列:”地平线”、”我和爸爸”都可能被解赔为是在审视同一个 社会问题一一遭遇弃的中国女孩的领养问题,从而使这些照片更可能与摄 影报道混为一谈。然而,张鸥采用的并非新闻报道的中立手段,而是调用了 观念摄影的艺术手法,这就迫使观者不仅以一个有J心人的身份去观察,而且 还不得不引发更多联想。  

中国娃娃i我的中国娃娃被领养的中国女孩坐在婴儿草内,被推着经过美国 的大街小巷,往往会引来声声赞誉:”啊,多像一个盗娃 娃!”西方人仅根据这些孩子们的脸蛋,想象她们应该是 循规蹈矩、乖巧勤奋,以及其他一些传统印象。但随着 这些女孩长大成人,人们对她们的看法又进入另一类模 王飞一一对亚洲女性一成不变的传统观念:异国情调、压 抑、性屈从。举起相机拍摄中国女孩,要想不再增添这一 类形象,非常困难,因为这类虚构的东西已经根深蒂固于 我们的灵魂之中。 

确实,摄影的发展过程就是在强化对于中国女性的 这种传统看法。殖民肘代的摄影师擅长将亚洲女性描绘 成色情、屈从的形象,拍摄时常常要求她们目光避开镜 头,因而在完成的摄影作品中,她们便不会直视观众。之 后,《生活杂志》上涌现出亚洲孩子的形象,那只不过是 想引起社会关注某些地区一一如中国的疾病与贫穷现 象。再后来,出现了中国创作的形象,那便是簇拥在毛身 边的孩子,以及身着制服的青年在欢呼革命的胜利。

所有这些形象,无论是西方的还是中国的,都影响着 张鸥的创作,时而直接,时而相反相成。”地平线”系列 的女孩占满画面,色彩丰富,咄咄逼人,用一种藐视传统观 念的目光注视着观众。她们没有避开镜头,而是凝眸反 视,颠覆了殖民时代摄影作品所表现的那种观者与主题人 物之间的关系。她们的社会状况强势而实在,照片中的湛 蓝天空也可解读为无限希望,与摄影记者所喜欢的那种 低调背景大相径庭。这些女孩的形象大于真人,与文化大 革命宣传画中描绘的举国崇拜的政治英雄互相换位。现 在,孩子们大过领袖。

所有这些影响,以及其他更多的影响,我们都能在这 些小女孩别具一格的简单形象中找到。这种简单性显示 出一种植根于当代摄影艺术的高超水平。正如另外两 位女权主义艺术家希林·尼沙特(Shirin Nishat)与洛 娜·辛普森(Lorna Simpson)一样,张鸥利用了传统主 题来对抗传统观念,将观众陷人一个绝非舒适的目光对抗 的环境。这些女骇不再年幼,不再循规蹈矩、不再乖巧 伶俐;她们显得反叛,虽然蹲在山坡上,却随时会跳起来行 动。她们的画面拍得很美,但她们所传达的态势却令我们 不敢以美视之,就如同尼沙特摄影作品中裹头巾的女人和 辛普森表现的衣不遮体的黑人妇女。她们并没有躲藏,也 没有转身,而是直面观众说话,真故意和直率的程度,足令 我们不敢承认她们是在挑战我们对中国女孩的先入为主 的观念。 

历史张鸥能创作出这类老道的作品并不令人吃惊。这位艺术家曾于2006年获得中国当代艺术家大奖提 名,2005年获得贝克未来奖。她就读于北京中央美术 学院,毕业后去伦敦中央圣马丁的拜姆肖艺术学院攻读 研究生课程,又在英国皇家美术学院获得硕士学位。不 过,她敏锐的摄影视觉训练却阜在此之前就已进行。因 父母文化大革命期间分配到湖南,她的幼年是在湖南度 过的。有讽刺意义的是,张鸥的父母是专业翻译,而她本 人却一开始要学习当地少数民族的语言,才能与同班小 朋友们交谈。后来随家搬迁广州,又因读书去北京,她必 须学讲一种又一种方言,而当她初到伦敦以及后来移居 纽约,她又学习了英语,将这种语言学习的经历又重新体 验一遍。 

就是这种孤立感,这种没有自己稳定的家乡语言的孤独感,造成了张鸥作品 的特色,也使人们无法判断艺术家本人是否就是她自己的主题人物,也无法判断艺 术家如何评价她的主题人物。为了拍摄”地平线”系列艺术家于2004年返回湖 南农村,去到一个别人不认识她的小村子去寻觅她的小女孩。在这些孩子的脸 上,不难看出张鸥本人的观点:藐视一切,宣示力量。然而在摄影师与其人物之间 还是存在着差别的,正是这种差别得以让艺术家揭示女孩们的状况而没有去粉饰 她们的生活。领养问题一直没有明说,但却一直隐含于背景之中,暗示着这些孩子 的身世不同张鸥当年在中国的成长经历,同时也比照着她作为一位生活在纽约的 艺术家的新生活。这些孩子与艺术家本人都还不清楚地平线上会出现什么,但她 们都必须保持乐观,因为除了面对未来,她们别无选择。 

我和爸爸张鸥的摄影作品带有一种令人惊骇的成分令观众面对这些形象会严生一 些拘束不安的想法。作品所强调的这种微妙的心理对峙使作者的所有照片都 充盈着难以约束的能量,哪怕主题人物都处于静态,还摆着姿势。这种手法许多 当代摄影师都采用过,从里涅克·戴克斯特拉(Rineke Dijkstra)到卡蒂·格兰 南(katy Grannan),这两位艺术家也让青少年摆出姿势,创造了一些令人不安的形 象。然而,一想到张鸥的”我和爸爸”系列,脑海里首先跳出的便是安德列斯·塞 拉诺(Andres Serrano),这位艺术家因对固守的成规提出争议话题而颇为出名。 

张鸥在创作”我和爸爸”肘,察访了许多处于青春前期、生活在美国领养家 庭的中国女孩。她任由主题人物一一父亲和女孩一一自己选择服饰和姿势,并安 排他们在家庭附近的场景拍摄。一切似乎都十分自然和谐。然而,拍摄出来的形 象却蕴含深意,既有社会的也有两性的,有些甚至令人惊骇得难以想象。跨种族领 养会引发一系列关注,主要集中在孩子在缺乏同族行为榜样的情况下是否有能力 建立自尊。跨国界领养则会引发另一类关注,最主要是身份识别的混乱与文化遗 传的缺失。不过,在这些简单的家庭肖像照片中,我们却只能考虑一种更糟糕的情 节,而一旦考虑到,同样就不可能将这些幸福照片中传这出的乱伦的弦外之音从我 们心中抹掉。 

同样,我们也难以判断张鸥对这些照片人物有无认同感,也不知道她赞同抑 或不赞同这类领养安排。她在一次采访中坚持说她喜欢这些家庭,并想进行正面 描绘。不过照片表达的却是另一码事,也许是一种累积的效果:一幅一幅画面,表 现了一个接一个的女孩逗留在远离她们自己祖国的家庭。 

这些令人惊诧的形象,因其饱和的色彩与超现实的场景,而几乎不忍细看;而这其中的父女关系也难以解读,这并非因为他们相貌各异而是因为他们摆出的姿 态十分别扭,暗示某种超出家庭亲密程度的关系。这个创作项目愈加有趣之处,就 在于这些姿态都是照片主题人物自己选择的,他们要这样来表现他们自己。我们 不能因我们这样往坏里想,而指责摄影师,也不能指责照片。但我们确实想到这些 事,也不太能感受到这些肖像中所传这的幸福。  

无论张鸥有意还是无意,她都是一位非常勇敢的艺术家,用自己的作品来反 映这类问题。更有意思的是,拍摄这些照片的不是一位”别”有所思的男性艺术 家或者美国人,而是一位很可能被误会为是主题人物之一的艺术家。再仔细观 察,”我和爸爸”中的女孩与”地平线”中的小姑娘同样有力,充满生机,不折不 挠,这正是张鸥作品所传达的品性。这些形象与艺术家本人一起融合成一个鲜明 的中国妇女形象,大大不同以往的传统观念,她们为未来光明的地平线作好了充 分准备。口