Story of O Zhang

Jonathan Mile


O was fond of Bruce Lee.

"Don't think, feel..."

"When I feel, I see things all at once, and after this I have to work things out step by step through thinking.  When I start making new work I always start from a meeting point of my imagination and memory.  It is hard to work out what that point is, but I think that we carry a rhythm inside, which in turn opens out images within us."

The work Horizon consists of 21 photographs of Chinese children crouching in the fields looking straight ahead at the camera.  There are three different horizons in the work and the look of each of the lines of children register those different vantage points.  The three spatial registers also relate to the three temporal registers that the work enacts in the form of the actuality of the present, the memory of the Cultural Revolution and a trace of the Classical period of Chinese Landscape art.  The overall configuration of the work plays off the European Modernist grid with the non-mimetic space of Chinese painting, which creates a series of disjunctive tensions and shifts.

I have an image of O returning to China and travelling to the area where she played as a child with an idea of making a work.  I can see her eyes as they scan across the fields and then close in order to catch a view of that remote time when she played and lost herself with leaves, sand, rocks and water.  Looking back at her from every point at which eyes rest there are children, until children looking back at her fill her entire visual field.  So the work Horizon is an apparition of this entire field of vision peopled entirely by the singular look of these children.  Perhaps they constitute a force field that meets us at every point.  If we might, for a moment, stand back from this level of intensity, we could say to ourselves that it is the hallucination of vision itself.

In developing the idea for Horizon there was a long process of working with children.  Sometimes they were posed together in fields, other times they were photographed standing half submerged in long grass and flowers, and finally as single figures crouching within open space.  There war within this a movement back and forward from distance to nearness in order to arrive at an understanding of how these portraits might function as a cipher for a vision to be realised.  Perhaps this process was the finding of a point between personal memory and the actuality of the life of the other captured within the here and now.  The photographs, in becoming a conjunction of these two points, represent a new mode of becoming, for each figure displays a sense of being in possession of a world.  We might attribute a common look, or feeling of collective will via the look, but at the same time each figure appears also as a form of self-actualisation and thus exhibits a strange sense of autonomy, especially when weighted by a predisposing set of attributes belonging to the genre of childhood depiction.

O says that these children sit on the edge between cuteness and monstrosity.  She calls them "my little monsters".  This feeling of ambiguity is central to the reading of this work, or at least the notion that one thing can pass into another state that might be alien to the initial state.  The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrum which means that which serves as a warning or even an instruction.  It carries a sense of bringing something from the outside, such as an omen or a directive from the gods.  I think that in some ways these photographs carry two senses: the sense of being present and then sense also of having a feeling of an elsewhere.  The apprehension of this elsewhere is what serves to undo our own feeling of stable identification so that we might start to believe that there is something ominous at the limits of these photographs.  Perhaps we are slowly being reminded that we should not "colonise" these children with the detached attribution of innocence because of how they resist being given over to the grid-like determination of our visual framing.

Returning to ways of considering the relationship of thinking and feeling, I was thinking about the difference between speech and gesture.  It is of course possible to talk about something and then, through a simple gesture of the eye, transform the whole connotation of the meaning.  Silence can be understood both as a withdrawal from speech and in turn a form of gesture.  I think that O's work is itself rich in the way we might understand the gesture of silence.  The bodies in her earlier series Water-Moon are immersed in water and light and are consequently withdrawn from speech as they make their passage into different worlds.  Even their raven strands of hair, appearing almost calligraphic in form, transcend the requirement of speech in favour of visual expressiveness.  All of these figurations point towards a mode of being that privileges gesture over direct speech.  There is of course a subtle political underpinning to this, a politics cautioned by a long history.  Mao used to say that women held up half the sky, but his gestures pointed toward the earth.  O is part of a generation whose life was touched by the final stages of the Cultural Revolution and for this reason might look at things carefully but say very little.  In a more distant context silence was the means of building up a powerful internal reserve and this reserve was seen as the source of aesthetic disclosure.

"I understand being in a place without having the language of that place.  This is strange because both my parents are translators.  When I was a child living with children of different ethnic minorities I had to live within myself much more and this was also true of the situation of coming to the West.  Also there is the fact of being a female within worlds still dominated by males.  This is why I tend not to really make claims about my work through the heavy use of language.  In China it has been old men who have governed, and so the way words are used in this context relates also to law.  Language can be used to assemble walls to stop others passing through.  When I was a child I saw a lot but said very little.  So art is in turn a way of showing."

O told me that one of her favourite artists was the 14th Century painter Ni Zan.  He appears to have painted the same landscape throughout his life.  His paintings express a detachment from this or that event, returning again and again to the point at which all difference converges.  When the Mongols invaded China, Ni Zan sold all of his possessions and spent the rest of his life travelling the waters of lakes and rivers.  Even when his life was in turmoil his painting retained a subdued tranquillity in which all things have a place in equal measure.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), established by the invading Mongols under the rule of Kublai Khan, saw the ascendancy of amateur painting because of the rapid decline of professional schools.  The great part of China's educated class stayed aloof from the new conquering class and eventually they formed what became known as "leftover subjects" or i-min.  The art of these painters have both a feeling of austerity and melancholia.  As an art the sense of withdrawal and detachment is evident but there is a dignity in this aloof posture.  The power structure appeared as absolute and overt resistance futile. Through its power of silence painting appeared to offer a posture of refusal.

"My rhythm of life is complex because I have always been on the outside.  I was born in the city and then for political reasons my family was sent to a remote part of China.  Then I moved from the countryside back into the city, then from the south to the north, then from Beijing to London, then from London to New York.  In some ways I have always been adapting to new spaces and different kinds of language.  As a result I have had to find a different centre within myself, or at least a sense of having a world that I carry within myself."

Classical Chinese painting has a quality of both emptiness and, indirectly, silence.  I was going to say that these paintings are centred on the idea that everything comes out of emptiness and then returns to emptiness, but it is closer to the principle of decentring.  In Chian Buddhism there is the sense of a doctrine that is beyond words, embodying a wordless transmission, and it was for this reason that many monks saw painting as a means of conveying the inner workings of this doctrine.  The children crouching in the field just look outwards; we do not anticipate words from them.  They simply retain themselves within their own clearing without the need to say.  In taking possession of what is given over to them they are able to confirm their sense of place through their outward look.  Their look might be read as posing a question but this question cannot be answered within the way we look back, therefore there is no symmetry within the economy of the exchange.  Almost without it being apparent the work assumes a power to displace our visual certainties.

"When I was training in Beijing I wanted to know about Conceptual Art because this represented a freedom from the very strict academic training I was receiving.  I had a teacher there who used to talk to me about the principles of Classical painting.  He used to say to me that mind and nature are continuous.  I did not really understand this but the words stayed with me.  I started to think that it was a way of understanding what is inside is always linked to what is outside.  I am not really interested in anything that becomes a dogma, so I said to myself, 'inside and outside are together' and for me this is a form of being open."

In the Water-Moon series, O explores ways of representing sexual feeling and gesture.  The inspiration came from finding a book called The Clouds and the Rain -- The Art of Love in China that was illustrated by a collection of Chinese erotic paintings from the Ming Dynasty.  Most of this type of literature has been destroyed inside China as part of a campaign to stamp out decadence.  Slides were made of these paintings and projected upon bodies immersed in water and darkness, so the body became a screen for the projection of images from another time.  The photographs of this act became another kind of flesh in which imagination, memory, shadow, projection, matter and light are conjoined in a common space of becoming.  Yet this is not a flesh representing a utopia of wholeness or completion, for it is also marked by "cuts", "crops" and "burns" emitted from the focused light, indicating vulnerability or fragility.  The spatial and temporal framing of the body is dissolved in order to create a sense of the erotic as a special means of going beyond limit.

I started to think that there is a continuity that resides in the idea of "another kind of flesh".  The body of the other merging with ominous feelings, long black hair serving as a haunting of the smooth white surface of the skin, inside and outside folded into interlocking planes of vision, secrets held within breath, space and desire commingling with memories that cut into the dark, repetitions of gestures, all of these things in a motion that defines and then redefines a condition of becoming.  So this is a work about another kind of flesh because it cannot be signified as in-itself but is rather something that is animated by signs, gesturers, memories, space and desire and thus a weave that is both materiality and immateriality.  Flesh itself could be viewed as a condition in which inside and outside are in union, and as such is a rhythm as opposed to a bodily manifestation.  There is a sense in which this imaginary setting of unfolding flesh gives rise to a host of feelings and sensations.  Fascination, fetishism, estrangement, eroticism, seduction, voyeurism, repression, freedom and all respective qualities that can be found colliding within the visual field, in turn creating an order of apprehension that is not easily assimilated.  In all of this there is a risk taken, but this is not in the form of transgression but rather a need to rearticulate our encounter within the imaginary order.

There is a way of thinking that suggests that as bodies of work both Water-Moon and Horizon are about the nature of freedom.  In an everyday sense we might relate freedom to movement and thought.  The freedom to think and in turn speak is of course paramount because this articulates our sense of passage into the world.  In turn we confer imagination as a child's place of freedom.  The erotic sphere is experienced as a zone of freedom because it is a challenge to external forms of regulation.  It appears that once source of freedom derives from an inward sense of mobility, whereas another comes from outward mobility defined by language and movement.  When we think of the posters and paintings from the Chinese Cultural revolution the look of those children is given over to the code of the Revolution and this means that this look is itself emptied of inner reserve and instead installed within the infinite horizon of the future.  We could feel that such a look marks our own exclusion for it places us outside.  Such looks are viewed as marked by loss because we take the horizon as something that we might be able to dispose in terms that we define through our disposition and inclination.  To feel free is to hold onto a sense of an open horizon, which we can take possession over in order that we can articulate having a world.  Horizon as a work might question our adult and Western sense of freedom, because the sense of certainty displayed by the children does not come from the same source by which we might derive certainty, self-possession and freedom.  This is not a case of a different way in which freedom might be defined, as in the freedom of children, but rather how we might view freedom defined by certain frameworks of language.

O writes to me from New York about a new project. She has this idea of photographing American men who have adapted Chinese girls.  On the surface there is something incongruous about this project, but at the same time it does touch a nerve point of the present, notably the sense that the destiny of the next period of history will be shaped by the relationship between, and development of, China and America.  Somehow the thought of this text hovers over the work without gaining any visible presence.  Family portraits are the most common form or genre of mass photography and thus also the one most emptied of all residual meaning, so through starting with an incongruent relationship, another form of difference might be explored.  The work overall might serve to question identity on a number of different levels.  What is it to be Chinese or American, what is it to be a child or an adult, a girl or a man, a father or a daughter, and what is it to feel a sense of unity across these fields of difference?  We might start to be aware of how and why we pay attention to difference and also the things that lay in-between difference, about the way we name things, how we scrutinise through our look, and finally how we start to be aware of signification and structures of naming.

O eventually sends me a completed series of photographs of the fathers and daughters. They are posed in gardens, which change the level of potential readings within the overall work away from social document. There is almost a paradisal feeling, or absorption into an imaginary state of union, but at the same time the garden might also serve as a vacuum, or ground that erases the social. In effect the images are strangely over-determined and so gain a force that might otherwise be only a form of curiosity. The way in which the spectator might engage with these works on the level of imagination, and then on the level of idea, appear not to necessarily concur in a way that might construct a straightforward narrative reading and it is the potential opening out of a gap which fosters a paradoxical feeling of anxiety into the process of reception. Such gaps often mobilise a sense of not quite being able to see something, or of being excluded.

Writing about emergent work always poses interesting problems because it is necessary to make a commitment both to things that you have seen and also to a trajectory that can only be anticipated.  In this sense it is a feeling about the sensibility, and indirectly the personal narrative, that is starting to inform the work.  Sometimes I wonder why we pay attention to art in the way we do.  We are probably entering a period in which the values that informed the modern project, as well as its post phase, are starting to fragment in a manner that places us in a limbo of the in-between.  One of the central problems is an overwhelming feeling of cultural exhaustion, as if the circulation of expressive means is organised within smaller and smaller loops of time or memory leading to the sense that the culture itself is closing or in a state of entropic decline.  I like Zhang O's work because it mixes elements that are very familiar with things that are perhaps remote and strange.  It is this combination that works to unsettle an over established framing that in turn anticipates easy completion.  Put in another way we think that we are in possession of the frame; only discover that this expectancy of view is turned against us in ways that are a form of unworking.  As an artist she has grasped a feeling about the rhythm in things, the meaning of memory, inner reserve and silence, pleasure, orientation in space and vision.  On one level her works might simply be direct in their response, that is the sense that they derive from wanting to photograph children, old men, or images of imaginary encounters, but then the types of attention to those subjects in turn reconstitute this direct impulse into a folded order that might alert us to a world that is turning over in ways we cannot anticipate.  There is not, in all of this, a fear in combining forms of cultural shorthand ("Don't think, feel...") with a meditative withdrawal from a straightforward or ready-to-hand viewpoint, immediacy with distance, common expression (within the contemporary world) with paradoxical inversions (from half forgotten worlds).  They also evade being viewed as being informed by theory, rather they tease at the core that might believe such works could function, if theory could be used as a cipher of meaning, and in doing so alert us to the need to employ a higher level of visual intelligence.  Ultimately I find that I am able to fulfil the venture of doing so.  Yet this is the gap that I am seeking through work.

Jonathan Mile

writer and a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art  in London

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