Zhang Xiao: About My Hometown
約翰百德 (John BATTEN)
at 5:37pm on 19th June 2015
Zhang Xiao, Shift No 1, instant film on paper, 2012
This expansive exhibition uses five different photographic approaches to explore life in the artist’s hometown of Yantai in Shandong province. However, this is no nostalgic reminiscence despite the use of sepia, old songs and retro-kitsch cropped colour portraiture popular in the 1990s. Zhang probes the flipside of China’s urban ‘miracle,’ the torpor of village life, with humour, irony and serious social commentary.
Setting the exhibition’s tone is a walk through the village, with ‘elder sister’ and her latest moribund business, a hairdressing salon, taking centre stage (pictured). Along the way, the village, its inhabitants, buildings, objects, work implements and the minutiae of life inhabit a series of photographs, printed in sections from Polaroid negatives (the paper that is pulled from the camera after exposure and traditionally thrown away). The resulting photographs have layers of meaning.
Yantai is an apple-producing area and their gentle cultivation and harvest gives a lovely flow to the exhibition. However, the State is always present and Zhang balances rural peace by also photographing the small corners of village rooms whose walls hold pinned depictions of Tiananmen Square, Mao and Xi Jinping. These images are simultaneously mere decoration, iconic talismans and a reminder of a distant, but ultimate power felt even in villages.
This can be seen in Zhang’s ‘Living’ series. An unwieldy mainland bureaucracy asks that elderly residents not living in their hometowns must show they are still alive to continue receiving a pension. With inspired creativity, photographing the pension recipient holding a daily newspaper with a date proves this. Zhang mocks this clumsy practice by presenting a similar series of photographs depicting him ‘alive’ by holding a newspaper of the city he happens to be wherever in the world. And to show that he remains alive during the duration of the exhibition, Zhang emails a similar newspaper portrait to the gallery that prints and hangs it as proof.
However, is Zhang actually where he depicts himself? Or, is he merely providing an expectation of place, any place? Such questions make this a riveting exhibition.
'Zhang Xiao: About My Hometown' @ Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong
A version of this review was published in the South China Morning Post on 16 June 2015