ART TALK – Asian Contemporary Art Week
O Zhang at Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art
— Artist Talk By O ZHANG
New York-based Chinese artist and photographer O Zhang discusses her early life in China and her subsequent travels and artistic journey. From formal state-sponsored art training in the PROC to academies in Europe and galleries in the USA this is an extraordinary story and remarkable body of work. The talk took place at Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art in Brooklyn on March 23, 2008, as part of the exhibition Out of the Spotlight: Contemporary Chinese Art (March 13 – April 7, 2008) which includes artists Ma Leonn, Liang Quan, Yu Xing Ze, Liu Liyun, Zhang Ping, and Yang Yan and is curated by Liu Jian. This Art Radio coverage is part of our partnership with Asian Contemporary Art Week 2008 and we thank Leeza Ahmady and Eunyoung Ju for their assistance.
O Zhang: Thanks for coming during Easter Holiday weekend. I will try my best to prove that I deserve your attention tonight.
In this talk, I want to do something new: I’d like to focus on the changes of my development, using my personal experiences to link up my art practices. This is a very direct and honest way, through which, you can understand better how I become what I am today.
My name is O, it is my real name, in Chinese it means Seagull. Although my birthplace is in Guangzhou, a few months after I was born, I was taken to a remote village called Jishou in Hunan province. I lived there for 6 and a half years, so from the beginning, I was a peasant girl. My parents’ major was English translation. But because of the Culture Revolution, they were sent to the countryside from Beijing to Jishou to be re-educated. They became farmers working in pineapple farms in the mountains areas. Jishou is a beautiful mountainous place that has many minority residencies, it is very close to a village called Fenghuang, which is well known as one of the most beautiful villages in China. When we lived there, there were very few Han people in the area. We were surrounded by Tujia People and Miao People. My parents didn’t have time to look after me, so they sent me to an adoptive family who were Tujia people. I only saw my parents once a week, this situation lasted 3 years, maybe this can explain why later on I began to work on the project about child adoption.
I had very cool childhood memories, the remote village in the countryside was very peaceful and colorful. This has established my aesthetic foundation, which is why my art subject has always been dealing with childhood, the power of innocence and colorful memories.
But what really made me become sensitive to color was because I had been working as a painter for more than ten years. When I went to Guangzhou the big city at the age of 7, I joined an art class in Guangzhou Children’s Palace, and began my systematical art training. I was about 13 here, you can see our art training is all about the hand other than the brain or our own personalities.
As a young girl, I thought art was all about measurement of still life and accurate training of the eyes, so I followed the route what all young art students at that time wanted to go — going to Beijing. When I was 19, I got into the Central Academy of Fine Art and started more practical training, doing more drawing and life model exercises. Which was very boring.
Central Academy is the best art school in China. This text was written by Mao Ze Dong. But in my second year in the college, I faced a big change in my life. I fell in love with Photography. In the academy at that time, there was no Photography Department. That explained why I determined to practice on this media —because it was a complete separation from my daily art training. I was fed up with classical Russian influence training and wanted to do something new, something for myself, so I self-taught myself to photography.
I would just took my pillow and duvet from the Dorm to the studio at the college, and slept in the studio after all the classmates left the room. I hired several models and locked up the studio to take photography. I mention this because my story is not the only example out there. Many young Chinese artists at the time had to fight back to anti-establishment. The so-called “contemporary art” didn’t exist in Chinese art academies. It was very different from the western art schools. It was hard for Chinese art students to do art as what they want, instead, they had to follow the rules set up by teachers. If you wanted to make something different, you had to do it outside the class or do it secretly. It was like working in an underworld. The situation has not changed much these days: young students are still struggling in art schools; they have to be taught to get what they want; they have to fight to make contemporary art. They can go to bookshops and surf on the Internet to learn new staffs but the academic systems are still very conservative and traditional. I spent long time talking about this, trying to have western people understand the Chinese art education background. It is a very different environment from that in the West, where young kids are encouraged to pursue their passion at their own will.
In 1998, I made the first series of photography called Masterpieces in My Eyes. By using slide projection, I was able to combine painting and photography in my work. I was experimenting and enjoying the freedom of making art…I didn’t show these work to anybody, no one knew what I was doing at night in the college. But I gained such a pleasure that I decided to quit painting and develop my art career in photography. You can see I had been already exploring the gender issue in my early practices.
After I got my BA from Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, I decided to go to London to study contemporary art. I wanted to go abroad to see the outside world.
I went to Byam Shaw School of Art, and had my first MA there. It was a small art school, but now is part of the Central St. Martin School of Art. I began to work on something I really liked.
I had culture shock in the first year abroad, so I was using Chinese paintings in my “Western Art” practices. Erotic paintings are banned in China, but I saw them in a catalogue in Louvre Museum book shop in Paris. I admired these beautiful paintings handed down from my ancestries, so I decided to do something about it. I bought the book, very expensive… made slides of the images and projected them onto human bodies. This series is called Water Moon. The moon represents female. Water and moon are very poetic and feminine. This series is just another way to explore my identity.
Then I realized that I didn’t want to do something too Chinese, so I just used some very basic elements for my next project called Black Hair. As you can see, it is about the vulnerability of human body, the beauty of horror and sexuality. I also paid more attention to the city environment. This one was taken after the 911 event, I was probably trying to describe the unspeakable sadness of the city.
Then I got into the Royal College of Art in London to study MA. Just like its name, it is a prestigious school, I learned a lot about photography, trying to do different projects. Somehow, the environment there was a little bit too stiff…funny enough, the more I stayed in the west, the more I missed China. So I began to plan a project related to my root in China, thus Horizon series was born.
Horizon series was made in 2004. My inspiration is from the concept of “Rebellion is the rule”, the slogan from the “Little Red Guard” in Chinese Culture Revolution (1966 -1976). By producing large format of photographs influenced by propaganda posters in that period, I try to produce a series of images that question current assumptions about the primacy of established power in my own understanding.
The installation of my photographs relays the gazes between a grid of young Chinese girls and the adult audiences.
From a remote village in central China, those innocent female children are among the most unwanted people in the country. They are in a position of powerlessness. Crouching down and staring back at the camera, the little girls’ collective naive gaze, questioning the outside world, for me, is very penetrating. Because of the village’s isolated location, some of the girls might have never seen a camera before. They dominate the frame and the spectators, offer oddly sinister and uncomprehending expression. The formation of their portraits into a grid suggests that the girls sit like a tiered group of theatre critics, looking out to the audience of strangers (mostly adults who have power), thus leaving the viewers vulnerable. By the girls’ sheer number, and by the size of the installation (4 meters high and 8 meters long), the girls, a force of hope and of rebellion from oppression, endearing alien and monstrous, will seem to impact a threat to the adults.
From Horizon project, I begin to develop a main concept in all my art practices: I try to explore the inner power of “powerless” people, Chinese girls in particular. I seek to reveal the positive potential of my models and subvert society’s stereotypes.
Having completed my MA course in Royal College of Art, I came to New York in Sep 2004, began to settle down in Williamsburg Brooklyn. This picture was taken when I just arrived in New York, looking up at Manhattan in the background and a graveyard in the foreground. I had a lot to think about: Skyscrapers in Manhattan symbolize modern civilization, I have come a long way to this place, the so-called “centre of the world”, but what does it mean? Behind all glamorous scenes there is always a dark side attaching to them. Maybe when things reach their peak, they will unavoidably face a downward side?
Then I was also fascinated by the modern multi-culture scene in New York city, specially interested in the Eastern-Western mixture situation. I thought about the culture difference and the shift of power, and thus, I was ready for my next project.
Daddy & I series was made in 2005 and 2006. Since 1991 when China loosened its adoption law, American families have adopted more than 55,000 Chinese children, almost all girls. My project targets these families in some of the most concentrated areas in the States: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Oregon. By photographing adopted Chinese girls and their Western fathers in America, I try to capture the affection between a female child and an adult male. What is the nature of this complex relationship, especially when different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are introduced? How do we look at families and gender roles today? How do we look at multicultural families in a prejudicial society? Through the relationship of the emerging feminine power of the adolescent girl to the mature father, each image explores the unfathomable relation of the two inseparable, yet often divided cultures: East and West.
On a broader level, this project reflects my interest in the change of the power relationship between East and West. I am curious about how the West sees the rapid development of contemporary China. The growing girls symbolize the future potential of China. Like the girls adapting to their new situation, China is learning from the West to grow its economy. Is its emergence from regional power to global economic force a change that will be accepted and encouraged? Or will it be seen as a rebellion against the rules that the West has established for others to follow?
Likewise, as the girls grow up, will they remain innocent adoptees under the tutelage of their western patriarchs? Or will their path to maturity disturb the balance in their present relationships?
Departing a socialist economy in a remote mountain village in China to my current situation in New York city – a center of international capitalism—I have taken a long and magical journey. The rhythm of my life has been mutable and complex. I am proud to be a Chinese artist living in an international environment. The constant changing of languages and residences has made me cherish the idea that I can live “at home” as an outsider.
It is because that I always have a world that I carry within myself. To feel free is to hold onto a sense of an open Horizon.
Thank you !