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Saatchi Gallery/ Blogon

ZHANG O AT PEKIN FINE ARTS, BEIJING
 

 — By STACEY DUFF
 
Comprising one half of her solo show at Pekin Fine Arts, Zhang O’s ‘Daddy and I’ series resembles innocent family portraits. The photographs depict Western fathers posing in various outdoor locations – mostly public parks but also backyards – with their adopted Chinese daughters. The series here at Pekin Fine Arts’ newly inaugurated space in Caochangdi mingles natural affection with shades of latent intimacy. To bring a slice of garden into the gallery, thereby recalling the various outdoor settings where the subjects posed, the artist has also created a small boxed-in installation in which to display the work.

The installation, with its one entrance, flaunts the type of fauna one might expect to find in Tahiti rather than the Catskills. Instead of suggesting the more open spaces of public parks, the small installation more closely recreates the sense of lingering just off the tiled pathway of a pleasure garden, behind a pond, and in the evening shade of an arched pergola. The photos are placed on the inside walls of the installation, either under a dangling branch or behind a trunk. To see some of the photographs, you almost have to part reeds.

The fathers and daughters pose in backyards, arboretums, parks, but never indoors (at least not in this installation). If any aspect of the series strains to become exotic, even to the point of turning unnatural, it is Zhang O’s excessive use of nature itself. Fathers and daughters cuddle under clear blues skies, hide in clusters of shrubs, squat among verdant foliage and embrace behind a generous bath of flowers – gardenias, roses, carnations, orchids, loti and violets. The litany of names, as lithe as the little blossoms they signify, lingers on the tongue. These portraits not only record families but they also suggest a prelapsarian innocence, a return to gardens where spontaneity and decorum are inseparable.

But even in the most innocent of gardens, electricity tingles the air, a hint of tensions and apprehensions – as if from the other side of a blue veil, lightning is about to uncoil. The beautiful thing about the ‘Daddy and I’ series is that Zhang O has not felt the necessity to exaggerate those tensions. The seed of conflict is present in every harmony, and she allows this conflict to penetrate the surface naturally – with organic slowness. The natural affection between the father and daughters is so tender in most of the photos that we grow uneasy. It is a human tendency to feel most dissatisfied the moment we are most content, to grow anxious the split second we feel secure. This paradox is only amplified through repeated viewings.

Family portraits have long been used to gauge the social norms of an era, so much so that we often expect portraiture to present society at face value – with an accuracy that amounts to fidelity. That expectation bears down on photography, more than on painting, with particular force. Photographers, after all, have no excuse for not presenting society exactly as they see it. In that sense, Zhang O is fulfilling a photojournalistic remit, in that literally tens of thousands of Western parents are adopting Chinese children. The project reflects a social reality.

But the artist has also chosen to leave things out – in this case, the mothers in the families. This simple omission is problematic and even artists must account for works of omission. Part of us wants to see the mothers (Mother Nature is a poor substitute for human moms since nature expands rather than fills our sense of emptiness). Leaving the mothers out of the picture amounts to a dramatic gesture, although whether that drama is tragic or comic gets lost in the theatre of our individual thoughts. Zhang O has negotiated with her audience that proverbial seduction point – even if the point is present only because it is absent. In other words, the photos resonate because the mothers’ absence has created a space to fill.

Still, in spite of the conditions she has established, Zhang O does not tamper with fidelity in order to achieve shock value. The poses are not stylized or exaggerated to the point where they weird us out. The photographs are not manipulated either. They do not rollick in kitsch as if prepackaged for nostalgic effect. These parks are basically simple, not Yellowstone or Niagara, but something far more anonymous and quiet. Many of the pictures even approach the flat and superficial, even artless, quality of actual family portraiture. The series has that kind of unadorned simplicity – a propriety and calmness of expression that allows for relaxed warmth between the subjects.

As with a newly rented apartment, we stand in this installation with both the luggage of someone else’s memory and an anxiety for own future. An unspoken tension oscillates between the reality we suspect and the reality we hope for – a warring of ghosts whose names we can’t confirm. Zhang O has thus invented an empty space where opposites – sexual, cultural, and social – echo into more echoes until the echoes implode in a final and authoritative silence.

Questions about the families and their relationships, their pasts and present, remain unanswered. At some point, these fathers and daughters cease to live in the flesh – for us, they remain images, and ultimately the images seem to veil us from who they really are. By force of repetition, print after print – veil after veil – they finally turn into types in our imagination. We then have a choice either to speculate on the details of their lives or to allow them the privacy we most certainly demand for our own secret gardens.