Zhang O: In Transit

Patricia Karetzky


Zhang O, a young photographer who emigrated from China to London, produces work that frankly portrays the human body. Her art functions like a fulcrum: one side reflects the visual language of contemporary art while the other mirrors the great artistic traditions of China. Though not always readily apparent, this heritage has had a determining role in the evolution of her practice. For Zhang O, as for many other contemporary Chinese artists, this heritage is the art of the literati, a centuries old tradition of creation for love, not money, and for sincerity of personal expression, not conspicuous virtuosity. 

Modern events, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), have had a significant impact on Zhang O. Although she was only a small child at the time of the revolution, her life was marked by continual relocation and adaptation to startling new environments. Not only did she suffer the turmoil of being uprooted, but, from an early age, she also had to learn new language skills and make new friends. Zhang O continues to live the peripatetic life of an urban nomad, and her art operates from the point of view of a detached observer. In her writings, Zhang O speaks in idyllic terms of her childhood in the countryside, to which she (at the age of one) and her parents were transferred as part of the re-education program of the Cultural Revolution. Present also in her work is the desire to recapture this tranquility: 

"From the age of one to seven, I was brought up in a very impoverished and remote little village in Jishou in Hunan province. During the Cultural Revolution, my parents as intellectuals (English translators) were sent to Jishou to be re-educated as peasants on a pineapple farm. Life was hard, but as a young girl I appreciated my time there, for Jishou has some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes in China. I played with leaves and sand, instead of with city children's toys. I remember talking to trees and fish and drawing in the sand while my parents were working. From that moment I began to love nature. My friends in kindergarten belonged to the Miao and Tujia minority peoples and I spoke their language (which now I have forgotten) and learned much from their culture. These precious childhood experiences have been the basis of my aesthetic development. "

In 1983, Zhang O's family was relocated to bustling Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong. It was there, at the age of seven, that she began her artistic career, studying diligently at the Children's Palace (where children have art education at an early stage) and continuing on at the Affiliated Middle School of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. Having gained entry to the prestigious Beijing Central Academy of Fine Art, she resettled in the national capital and learned the Beijing dialect. During this period Zhang O felt estranged from the academic artistic milieu. Bored by the limitations of the traditional academic program, which stressed the acquisition of technical skills rather than individuality or self-expression, she turned to photography as an extra-curricular activity. Working from an outsider's perspective, she explored the expressive possibilities of the nude body, and a conceptual process for the production of her art. Masterpieces in My Eyes (1998-2000) related the aesthetic and political aspects of the female body in the history of art. Taking slides of Western masterpieces painted by men, Zhang O projected onto them slides of her own photographs of living female models. "The nudity of the modern woman acted as the canvas for the works of the old masters. This raised questions about sexual distinctions and domination, about seeing and being seen."

After completing her degree in BA Fine Art, Zhang O grew disenchanted with the dominance of men in the artistic institutions of Beijing, and left for London. She participated in graduate photography programs at the Royal College of Art, London, and the Byam Shaw School of Art. Once again she had to learn a new language and adjust to a new social milieu. From the distant perspective of England, Zhang O rediscovered Chinese art. Continuing the conceptual basis of combining ancient art and modern photographs of nudes, she created Water Moon (2000-2002). But here she used ancient Chinese paintings as her source. The artist described her surprise and delight in finding a book on erotic Chinese paintings of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) entitled Clouds and the Rain:The Art of Love in China (published in 1969). The beauty and sensuality of this art struck her deeply and she realized the irony of having to discover her own culture in a foreign place. Due to the restrictive policies of the government, the book was not available in China.

In this series of works, Zhang O reversed her artistic process: she made slides of the paintings and projected them onto a nude model seated in a bathtub.

"For me, water has an erotic connotation: two people having intercourse feel a similar sensation of wetness, and one can feel something of a link to the ancient book of love.  The darkness in the bathroom obscures the dialogue between the paintings and myself, between the old narratives and my imagination."

Zhang O distinguished herself in 2000 with the series Black Hair, in which she photographed long black tresses in a series of contexts. Her images combine portraits of contemporary nudes and Chinese artistic sensibilities:

"I posed nude models in a bathtub, and then I arranged their long black hair on their skin as if painting strokes on a blank canvas. This is similar to Chinese calligraphy and ancient landscape paintings. I used a strong light source, highlighting only the female form, while the rest of the image was in darkness. I wanted to create a sense of feminine vulnerability and fragility."

Thus, Zhang O manipulated the long hanks of ebony hair, as though writing with it, into calligraphic patterns on the nape of the damp necks of nude women in a bathtub. Twirling and overlapping, the wet strands fluidly mimic pictographs. Multivalent metaphors of Chinese survival and artistic traditions, the luxuriant tresses carry the thousands of years of genetic material of the Chinese race, just as the writing is a continuation of the ancient artistic traditions of China. Both the writing and the woman are estranged from their habitat: the writing liberated from the paper and pen, the woman adrift in a Western-style tub of water. Erotic connotations inescapably arise. But in conformity with the conservative nature of Chinese erotic art, in which the figures usually remain clothed, the emotional and sexual situation is alluded to rather than explicitly stated.

Another photograph focuses only on the strands of hair interweaving and overlapping in abstract patterns that capture the dynamism of writing. Here, the tri-planar organization of pictorial space is rejected in favor of the 360-degree calligraphic space which is grounded on the two-dimensional plane. It is, nonetheless, an exploration of space created by interaction of the fluid ink lines that overlap, pull and push, twist and glide. In another photograph a fringe of black tresses cascades from the top of the rectangular composition. Thinly distributed into linear columns, the hanks of hair allude to the method of Chinese writing from the top of the page in vertical columns. Each sinuously moving linear element recreates the cursive script and its calligraphic space. The photograph captures the vertical organization, the movement of the linear elements, and the monochromatic aesthetic that dominates calligraphy and painting. One can view the image as an abstract composition or as pictorial representation, as a written script or as a portrait.

In a third photograph of the series, a thick body of hair hovers above the London skyline. Like a bird, the disembodied tresses float high above the architecture, and their spatial juxtaposition with the cityscape below is dizzying. The composition forms a diamond-shape: at the top is the disembodied hair; at the bottom are two tall London apartment buildings. Only the tops of the towers are visible, like the peaks of distant twin mountains in a Chinese landscape painting. More concretely, they evoke the small, intimate and fragmented compositions of the Southern Song period (1127-1279). Placed at the top, the hair functions like the sentimental and personalized calligraphic inscriptions that crown monochrome ink paintings of the literati school. The image can also be interpreted as a narrative statement: the floating tresses referring to the Chinese diaspora who, like Zhang O herself, are adrift in a large and alien Western metropolis. Zhang O seeks to integrate the disparate images, the floating hair and the urban towers, into one, a synthesis of East and West, of female allure and urban setting. The dark overcast skies are ominous, but there is a synthesis in the balance of the monochromatic forms of the composition.

Recently Zhang O has been working in the medium of video. Her aesthetic consideration of the idea of female sexuality has been transformed into a more conceptual one. She is interested in exploring the male-female relationship by focusing on a couple comprising an Asian female and Western white male. "Here is the subversion of people's expectations, the confrontational aspects of sexuality and the race/power/gender relations, which are so deeply repressed." One video work takes place outside, in the open air, rather than in a secretive darkened interior. Playground is a series of four short films made in collaboration with Shan Ng, a young female artist from Hong Kong. They wrote the script, created the story board, found the models, did the photography, and together completed the editing. In a sunlit playground, the model, as instructed, moved as she wished and did things that gave her pleasure. "The video highlights contradictory values: innocence and guilt, youth and age, restraint and freedom, East and West, and the ambiguity of work and play."

In the film Hair Impossible, Zhang O and Shan Ng again wrote the story, collaborated on the photography and editing, and Zhang O performed.  Presenting the theme of "a man trapped by a mysterious young woman into a wild and insane game . . . the film portrays the sinister side of human sexuality, as well as its funny aspects; the dilemma of love, and the absurdity of life; the subversion of white male power and the mysterious identity of female; the obsession of beauty and the ambiguity of sex."

Zhang O returned to China to shoot her recent effort, Horizon Project. "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." Zhang O chose not to return to her old village, but to go instead to one nearby. She wanted the children to experience her as a stranger, an outsider. The photographs capture the look of the girls, isolated in a rural village, as they try to relate to someone who does not speak their language. Intrigued but slightly apprehensive, some smile guardedly, some stare unblinkingly at the camera, some are charmed by the attention.

Her installation of the twenty-one photographs, exhibited at the Ethan Cohen Gallery in New York, is inspiring. Seven photographs show the girls against a brilliant blue sky as they squat looking down at the camera; these images are mounted on the upper wall of the gallery. At centre are a series of girls who crouch and look directly at the camera; they are placed in a green field of grass. In the lowest last row, the girls sit on their heels and look up at the viewer. Entering the pictorial space, one encounters the young girls both individually and collectively. This is a poignant subject for Zhang O; for her these are the lost girls of China who, having survived the waves of abortion and adoption that swept the country under the one-child policy, have struggled to survive rural poverty and ignorance in a male-dominated society. It would seem that when Zhang O returned to China, she saw herself in the faces of these young girls.

As Zhang O explains, "From a Communist community in a remote village in China to a capitalist international capital in the United Kingdom, I have had lots of experiences. It has become apparent that it is necessary for me to address my cross-cultural identity." Contemporary in format and technique, Zhang O's photographs are images of the self transplanted to the West. Seeking to contextualize the body in its new urban environment, these portraits juxtapose abstract images in flight outside of the home with intimate interior scenes of the nude body. It is also possible to see in them Chinese aesthetic traditions: the ancient calligraphy of the written language, monochromatic landscape paintings, the ideal beauty's black tresses, and Asian anatomical characteristics. Zhang O takes these multivalent images and places them in a contemporary setting: the bathtub, the cityscape, the rural village. The body, a personal metaphor, is in placed in a global context.

Patricia Karetzky

head of the Asian Art department in Bard College in New York

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