O Zhang, New York

Young Chinese photographer O Zhang presents a strong and focused installation of photographs that both initially please the eye and reward careful scrutiny with insight into Chinese youth culture, the fluidity of language, the cultural and economic impact of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the complex relationship between the United States and China [CRG Gallery; December 12, 2008- January 31, 2009]. 

Zhang takes photographs of scenes she constructs. She poses young people in front of significant landmarks, scenes or facades throughout China. Her subjects wear t-shirts bearing slogans in the mistranslated, garbled or misspelled English, sometimes called “Chinglish ,” which often results when Chinese and English intersect. 

Conceptually, her work is premised on her fascination with propaganda, especially the propaganda of Mao’s Cultural Revolution-which, she seems to say, has an indirect descendant in the crosscurrents of marketing, publicity, and advertising that permeate the global economy. Each photograph has a caption that, combined with the t-shirt’s slogan, reveals something about the juxtaposition of the figure and the background. 

In spite of this complex, layered presentation, the works have a strong, bold visual impact. This, too, reveals Zhang’s studious preoccupation with executing her concept at every level of her work: in constructing these scenes, she has used the same tricks of composition, color, and focus that propagandists use. Her Chinese models are photographed from below, often silhouetted against the sky, making them appear taller and stronger. Insouciant, appealing kids, they seem to tower in a field of blue where they are given equal footing with the significant structures we see behind them. 

Two of the works are blown up to banner size, dominating the exhibition space. The first shows a girl whose shirt reads, ” It’s all good in the hood.” She is posed in front of Tiananmen GateTower with a portrait of Mao behind her; her shirt recalls the government’s response to student protests there in 1989, and perhaps the younger generation’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the incident as a historical fact. In the second banner-size image, the girl’s shirt reads, “Don’t fuck with us, we play hard.” The caption reads, “All the splendid views are at the dangerous summit,” an excerpt from a poem by Chairman Mao that appeared on a Communist party propaganda poster showing the Tibetan side of Mount Everest, tying the young girl’s harsh shirt slogan to the Chinese policy in regard to Tibet. 

Rather than letting one or two especially strong works carry the show, and filling the rest of the walls with slightly sketchier variations on the same theme, Zhang has here collected a group of works that are all equally well-executed and complete. Many of them draw parallels between the upbeat, spirited nonsense of the t-shirt slogans and phrases drawn from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or his speeches. Others dissect marketing campaigns or global brands. While the two large works that dominate the show are perhaps the fastest route into the territory Zhang wants to mine, the smaller photographs lining the walls are just as rewarding. 

One photograph shows a girl standing in front of a huge, three-dimensional, full-color sculpture of the five Olympic rings. She wears a shirt that reads, “It’s a vegas (sic) show with the honesty professional.” Storm clouds are gathering in the sky behind the sculpture; the girl’s face is wary, but not unfriendly. The image encapsulates the sweetly wised-up cynicism of Chinese youth culture: bombarded with advertising slogans and contradictory messages, they develop highly sensitive screening mechanisms to sift meaning and value out of worthless background junk. 

In Beijing just prior to the 2008 Olympics, much was made of official efforts to replace “Chinglish” with standard English on signs and official notices. O Zhang who grew up in Guangzhou , China, where an early version of Chinese Pidgin English developed after exposure to seventeenth-century British sea trade-shows us that “Chinglish” has significance beyond the knee-jerk response of easy laughter. It speaks of the flexibility and fluidity of language, and of the ability of youth to absorb even dark, unpleasant truths and repurpose them in the service of staying alive.