Kustmuseum Bern

Contemporary Art from Canton – Sigg Collection
 — Wei Zhang


In rural China girls even today are faced with traditional social conventions and prejudices, because traditionally it is the boys who will ensure continuation and safeguard the family’s tradition. In contemporary Chinese society these concepts are challenged, but they remain a highly sensitive issue. In her work Zhang O approaches these stereotypes. She has taken portrait photographs of young girls in a remote Chinese village. It is easy to think about these social issues. However, when one is faced with all these young peasant girls’ portraits, their eyes are suddenly more powerful than all our preconceived notions.  

Each portrait shows a girl squatting on a small mound. Zhang O has placed her camera so that it looks – so that we look – up at the girls. Standing in front of the Horizon photos, the viewers become outsiders forced to accept that these girls are looking down on them. Our right as outsiders to observe or judge these village girls is questioned. The viewpoints are reversed; it is the viewer who is exposed to scrutiny. By communicating with these girls, any value judgment shifts to a new level and perspective. By changing the context, Horizon forces us to change our perception and appreciation of other people.  

These girls have little to offer in material terms. The clothes they wear are really rather shabby and the little girls are neither stylish nor even remotely fashionable. Their gaze, however, tells us that they are down to earth. Studying the portraits of Horizon and the girls’ eyes, I can suddenly feel their energy, which is stronger than anything I may initially have expected from them. Their gaze tells me that their situation is far more complex than I could have imagined, and that it cannot be simplified. I still cannot understand their gaze. I can say nothing more about them, apart from what they inspired me to imagine. And yet, these images have changed the way I look at other people and at myself.