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"Zhuang Hui: Ten Years"
2003-01-12 until 2003-03-15
Beijing-based artist Zhuang Hui is well known for his photography and performance-based work. "Ten Years" is the product of Zhuang's meticulous editing of a huge body of prints compiled over the last decade of shooting throughout China and abroad. The result is the 100 carefully chosen color images, exhibited for the first time at Courtyard.
In "Ten Years", titles are not provided, nor references to places or things. Instead, the works hang together in simple presentation sans narrative or explanatory text. "The images", Zhuang explains, "are what they are". One can't help drawing comparisons to the photo work of Wolfgang Tillmans, had he grown up under a Chinese communist/socialist regime.
In "Ten Years", Zhuang's artistic focus remains steadfastly on the everyday, even the touristic, and especially on the banal and commonplace in the people and places he encounters. Subjects are chosen seemingly at random and typically from the same socio-economic roots as the girl from Chashan Town, the subject of his last installation piece: village shopkeepers, barbers, field workers, farm girls, waitresses, and old girlfriends. Settings are sometimes cloyingly scenic; mountain streams, bridges, dams, steel plants, farmers at harvest, factory grounds, smiling minority women, shopkeepers, subway rides, hometown shots of friends and neighbors. Namely, the interior and exterior lives of ordinary people, places, and utilitarian things, which together comprise the very quotidian - and dare one say, proletarian - heart of Zhuang Hui's oeuvre.
The visual strength of the photos is of course found in their banality. Nostalgia, for Zhuang, is firmly rooted in the unembellished NOW. The artist's photographic memory of youthful moments creates a visual link to history, and a contemporary historical framework is born. The result is deliberately old-fashioned and vernacular, and harkens back to the happy imagery of populist magazines, like "The People's Pictorial" and "China Reconstructs" as well as local neighborhood photo salon shoots.
The difference is that Zhuang's images are emblazoned with the terrific bounty of today's more technically advanced color film. The brightness of the prints, coupled with their seemingly casual observations, are what give them their contemporary feel. And inspiration is drawn from the plastic framed, brilliantly colored shots of waterfalls and palm tree-lined beaches, which adorn the walls of freshly constructed highway restaurants stretching from one end of New China to the other. Today, China is rapidly making up for the austere colorblindness of its revolutionary years with a wild fiesta of billboards, neon signs, outdoor lighting, and other eclectic Las Vegas inspired decoration. Zhuang Hui's photos borrow something from this contemporary palette.
It is reassuring and even revelatory to know that in the many years Zhuang worked shooting his panoramic black and white group portraits of workers at various danwei's (state work units) across China, he was also shooting the local environs in brilliant color. These color "souvenir shots" are at the heart of Zhuang's "Ten Years".
In "Ten Years" Zhuang takes a deceptively simple and forthright approach, affecting a posture of artistic nonchalance. However, this nonchalance is never directed at his subjects. His enormous affection for and identification with his subjects is finally and perhaps inadvertently what gives the photos their artistic strength. Zhuang's anti-art style may well be the best approach to finding one's own identity within the act of observing and photographing others.
Girl from Fenghuang Village
Color photograph, 2002
70 x 47 cm, edition of 10
140 x 92 cm, edition of 3