Female Artists and O Zhang’s Art

Kathy Battista


The 1970s saw the rise of the women's liberation movement in western countries. In the US, Canada and Europe, women became increasingly unwilling to accept disparity between the sexes, especially in regard to pay, labour rights and domestic duties. A new awareness of gender, and alongside that sexuality, was born as well as a reclaiming of the female body. Many artists during this period, for example Mary Kelly, Judy Chicago and Carolee Schneemann, examined what it meant to be a woman, both biologically and sociologically. Much of the work produced during this period was confrontational, and dealt with issues around the famous feminist slogan "the personal is political". Suddenly previously taboo topics such as menstruation and rape became valid topics in art.

Work around gender and women in particular became less overtly personal and more about a universalised female experience during the 1980s, when artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer used cliched tropes of femininity, as well as language and pithy statements to undermine male dominance in western society, especially in the media. These artists often avoided using their own bodies in the work, or in Sherman's case, used it as a fictionalised character constructed to reflect a theme in women's experience.

Younger artists today continue in the vein of these earlier examples by examining the female condition in both western and eastern cultures. One need only think of Shirin Neshat's early series Women of Allah, Sarah Lucas or Elke Krystufek's confrontational self-portraits, or Tracey Emin's excavation of her personal tragedies to understand how feminist visual culture has become implicit in contemporary art made by women artists. However, for these artists the main point of departure is their own experience as females. What about the next generation of women, who are still children today? How will their lives differ from today's generation of women? O Zhang's recent work examines these notions, in the particular case of Chinese girls. In series such as Horizon and Daddy and I Zhang presents young Chinese girls, living in both East and West, in haunting images that provoke a multiplicity of responses.

Zhang currently lives in New York, after four and a half years in London, including a two-year stint at the Royal College of Art. However, she was born in China to parents who were English translators. During Mao's Cultural Revolution her parents (as intellectuals) were re-educated as peasants on a pineapple farm in Hunan province, where Zhang lived between ages one to seven. She sees her childhood experiences in Jishou especially the breathtaking landscape and the dialects of the minority people as the basis of her aesthetic development. Her series Horizon reflects Zhang's early years in the remote rural province and her own experience as a little girl under Mao's regime.

Zhang returned to China to make this series. She said "I felt the need to go back to my roots, to make art, and to consider the political aspects. Relating to my early childhood memories, I have gone back to a remote Chinese village to take pictures of innocent little girls." She chose not to use her own village, but one nearby, so that she would experience it as an outsider. This meant as well that she could not speak their language and was in essence a stranger to the girls.

The series consists of 21 photographs of young Chinese girls set against the rugged Chinese landscape. They are arranged in three rows: the uppermost shows the girls set against a bright blue sky, squatting in the landscape; the middle row shows the girls placed in a field of green grass; in the lowest row, the girls sit on their heels and look up at the viewer. Thus, the viewpoint of the girls in relation to the camera (or viewer) changes in each row, as does the horizon line. The photographs are striking for several reasons. First, the girls seem almost ghost-like in their haunting appearance; though clearly poor and in places dishevelled, Zhang's young subjects directly confront the viewer with a confidence that seems to confound their tender age and powerless condition. Second, the images are overly saturated with colour, which make them exuberant and slightly surreal at the same time. One almost feels that they are not real children, but ghosts of the lost girls of Mao's regime, lost to waves of abortion and adoption that swept China during the one-child policy. That Zhang identifies with these girls, born into rural poverty in a male-dominated society, is obvious.

Zhang's most recent series again reflects her own peripatetic experiences in a life that has seen her displaced from her homeland. In Daddy and I the artist creates images of young Chinese girls, in this case living in America. The girls are pictured with their adopted American fathers, creating implausibly intriguing couples in the photographs. At first glance the photographs seem almost inappropriate to viewers who are conditioned by the media to be suspect about middle-aged men and young children. For one doesn't immediately read these as photographs of fathers and daughters. The racial incongruity of the couple highlights our own assumptions about what constitutes traditional familial and gender roles. Zhang places the daughters in intimate proximity to their adopted fathers, either on their laps or huddled close. Most of the photographs are sited in gardens, which almost seem unreal. These cultivated landscapes contrast with the more wild, untamed landscape of Horizon.  One photograph features a girl in a yellow dress with blue detail while her father wears a Hawaiian style shirt with pink flowers; these figures seem to become part of the manicured foliage. Does the garden reflect the nature of these constructed families? Another image shows the daughter in a cerise Qi Pao, standing defiantly while her father sits beside her clutching her hand. It's evident that the it is the precocious young girl who is in control of the family.

In another part of the series Zhang photographs the couples in the girls' bedrooms, which bare witness to the luxuries of the capitalist west so denied under communist China: fluffy toys are scattered throughout. Zhang deliberately plays with the power of the young girls. Even the title of the series Daddy and I seems to take the girl's subjectivity as the starting point. These girls, once at peril in Chinese culture, are clearly revered as princesses by their western fathers. One can assume they will have everything that they desire in life, from fluffy toys to a proper education and a powerful career in the future. Zhang says: "To me, those adopted girls symbolize the future of China. Will it be a rebellious force to the west or simply remain as an innocent adopted posture (as adopting capitalism)?"

Zhang's work in both of these series examines personal female experience. However, rather than using her own body in her work, as previous and current generations of women artists have, the artist instead projects her story on to others. This has the advantage of creating a distance, the result of which is that we read these works not as a self-revelatory confessional practice, but as more of a sociological reportage approach. In today's global situation, in which China is a leading economic power, Zhang's girls will play a pivotal role. No longer confined to a position of vulnerability the next generation of Chinese women will hopefully have all the advantages of women in the west. Zhang no doubt will continue to depict her own experience, and those of other Chinese women in her practice. The ambivalence of her photographs, which oscillate between the sentimental and the disquieting, is no doubt a reflection of the range of stories from turbulent to triumphant of women in the Chinese diaspora. Zhang is documenting a piece of history that is at once fascinating and inspiring. 

Kathy Battista

director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art Contemporary Art department and was a guest curator for Tate Modern. She is the New York correspondent for Photo Icon and is on the editorial board of Art and Architecture Journal

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