They No. 9, Zhang Xiao, from the series THEY (2006-09). Courtesy the artist.
They have magic: A conversation with Zhang Xiao
This is a transcript of a recorded conversation between Sydney-based curator Pedro de Almeida and Chinese artist Zhang Xiao that took place in central Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on 28 April 2013. Zhang’s sister-in-law, Dai Xiaoya acted as interpreter during the conversation, with the Mandarin transcription completed by Tian Xue with assistance from Christen Cornell.
(Published on ASX in English and Mandarin, scroll down for the Mandarin version)
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: To begin with your series They, the first thing one recognises with the title is that you clearly make the distinction between yourself as the artist and other people – ‘they’ – your subjects. Is this because you feel alienated from the people you photograph?
ZHANG XIAO: No, I don’t want to make a distinction between myself and ‘they’. They were not strangers – even though they were just people that passed close by me – because we are of the same era. I am also one of them. I can see my own reflection in them. They are always there in my life.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: So these photographs were mostly taken between 2006 and 2008?
ZHANG XIAO: Yeah, more than ninety per cent of them. I started the series during my first year living and working in Chongqing in 2006 for the Chongqing Morning Post. It wasn’t until 2008 that I decided to start formulating the photographs into a series. Prior to that I simply regarded them as everyday pictures in that every day when I left for work I always took two cameras: one for work purposes and one for myself to take these photographs. After more than a year I could see how I could begin to put all these pictures together.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: What initially brought you to Chongqing? Can you describe your experiences of working as a photojournalist versus the kind of things you wanted to achieve as an artist?
ZHANG XIAO: I chose Chongqing because there was no other choice. After I graduated from university there was only one media company I could feasibly work for as a photojournalist in western China. My degree was in architecture but I became interested in photography and I decided I wanted to be a photographer.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: What was your introduction to photography? Were you interested in photography as a teenager, before you were at university?
ZHANG XIAO: During the holiday period immediately following the end of high school, while I was waiting for my course offer from university, I discovered an old camera in my home and it sparked my interest to begin spending some time teaching myself photography. Later, when I decided not to pursue a job related to architecture but instead take up a job as a photojournalist, I was very happy because I felt there was very little between my day job and what I wanted to achieve creatively. I was thrilled that I was in a position where I could take a picture every day. This is how I felt in the first years. But after a few years I found that every day repeated itself. I had to take the same photographs in the same style day after day and so I realised that if I was going to continue in the job there would be very little time for me to travel to other places outside of Chongqing to make my own pictures. In China the media is closely related to politics. For the most part, the pictures I shot that I thought were the best were never selected for press. I decided to quit in 2009.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: During this period did you keep it a secret that you were carrying around this extra camera for your personal work? Did your employer know about it? How much, if at all, were you part of a community of photographers in Chongqing, or did you feel isolated in this regard?
ZHANG XIAO: To take the second part of your question first, I didn’t have any contact with artist communities because my opinion was that in China a lot of these communities are not so great. And for the first part, I think a lot of my colleagues knew about my personal side project as it were, especially some of the younger ones who thought the work was very good and encouraged me, but most of the older ones frowned upon the fact that I was doing my own private thing during working hours and they would tell the boss.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Looking at the work it looks like you were using a Holga or similar kind of cheap plastic camera?
ZHANG XIAO: Yes, a medium format model. In fact, in March of this year I was in Hong Kong for my solo exhibition at Blindspot Gallery and the company that manufactures Holgas in Hong Kong sent some people to the gallery to give me a camera as a gift.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Was it made of gold?
ZHANG XIAO: [laughs] No, no! It’s only worth RMB 200.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: When we spoke earlier today about the Huangjueping art district in Chongqing you said you were never really part of that scene because you didn’t graduate from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which is at the centre of that artistic community, but also because you preferred to keep to yourself.
ZHANG XIAO: Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t have that much contact with Huangjueping. I did enjoy going there sometimes but I didn’t have much contact with individual artists there.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: So perhaps we can discuss the process of producing They. How conscious were you in your selection of subjects? Some of the images were shot in the city centre while others depict riverside and rural areas further afield, along the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers. Was this because you found yourself in those areas for work assignments, or did you have in mind environments that you specifically staked out in pursuit of images or were the locales discovered more by chance?
ZHANG XIAO: My actual photographing was purely random with some taken on my way to work assignments, some shot in my free time just walking around the city, while some are the actual photographs shot for and used by my employer in the media. Maybe when you look at the pictures you regard them as not real – theatrical or surreal perhaps – but actually the kinds of scenes depicted in my photographs happen in daily life in Chongqing. I don’t like to ask anyone to pose in my photographs, just observe their natural behavior and shoot the photographs.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: For me, when I first came across your work what I found immediately interesting and striking was that on the one hand it has a lot of humour because of the absurdity of some of the scenes – for example people wearing silly costumes or doing strange things, as if in their own private pantomime – yet on the other hand it also seems very sad. There’s this definite yet elusive sense of loneliness, not just in the subjects but sensed behind the lens in the temperament of the photographer. Do you agree with that? How do you regard the emotional temperament of your work?
ZHANG XIAO: I agree, there is sadness there. The reason for this sadness is due to the rapid economic growth in China in recent years. I find that the heart does not grow as fast as one’s ability to have more money in one’s pocket. There’s a huge discrepancy between the state of the economy and collective spiritual wellbeing. When I held an exhibition in the UK someone asked me where I found so many interesting models! [laughs]
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Looking at your work I had assumed you shot from life in a non-directorial manner simply because to my eye your subjects don’t look posed, no matter how theatrical the scene. However, being familiar with the work of other photographers who have created bodies of work exploring that part of the Yangtze, I was surprised to discover when I first arrived in Chongqing a few days ago that this kind of absurd human drama really does exist in daily life there and it is so widely on display.
Coastline No. 12, Zhang Xiao, from the series Coastline (2009-13). Courtesy the artist.
ZHANG XIAO: [laughs] Certainly.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Do you think that’s specific to Chongqing because of its unique context and conditions? Would it be difficult for you to create the same atmosphere and express the same feelings in another city, like Chengdu for instance?
ZHANG XIAO: Maybe I could create the same kind of imagery in Chengdu because for me the core of They is actually the Chinese people. But I find that outside of Chongqing the images would not quite be the same because Chongqing is a very unique city in China, it has a very unique geography for instance, but also a kind of – how do you say? – magic [laughs].
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: During my short time in Chongqing I think I actually recognised some of the settings of your photographs. I came across a moribund yet magical scene of a collection of amusement park rides and games – bumper cars, shooting galleries, a carousel – along the southern bank of the Jialing River east of the city centre near the ancient town of Ciqikou. It was a pleasant sunny day with hundreds of Chinese tourists enjoying the narrow laneways of Ciqikou and the abundance of tourist shops crammed within, this trail that terminated at the Jialing. The riverbed was half exposed due to the dry season, so I was told, and out by the shallow waters were dozens of beach umbrellas hovering above plastic tables and chairs, presumably set up to serve tea but not a person in sight. Similarly, the amusement park was deserted, a handful of the operators standing idle, smoking, waiting and watching over this curious landscape.
ZHANG XIAO: [laughs] Ah, yes. I know the area. The photographs you see in They are not from that particular area but near there. There are several areas along the Jialing and Yangtze similar to that.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Have any of the people depicted in your photographs ever recognised themselves by coming across them online?
ZHANG XIAO: Only once. The young woman I photographed perched on a chair in a nightclub which is included in They did in fact come across my work. She wrote me asking for a copy of my book. She lives in Beijing now.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: The series that first gained you international attention is your seaside series Coastline, is that right?
ZHANG XIAO: No. It was actually They which first received international attention when it was awarded the Three Shadows Photography Award in 2010.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: How did you feel about wining the award, were you surprised?
ZHANG XIAO: Very surprised! [laughs]
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Before that award had you had any relationship with Three Shadows or the Beijing art world?
ZHANG XIAO: Basically, no. But in 2009 I traveled to the UK for the Format International Photography Festival.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: So you must have felt a little bit like an outsider in Beijing whose work was all of a sudden recognised and celebrated?
ZHANG XIAO: Yes, I was surprised but, actually, before the Three Shadows Award I received the Houdengke Documentary Photography Award and another in China. Receiving these two awards encouraged me to push my work further and try to reach a wider audience.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Can you speak a little about the transition between They and Coastline?
ZHANG XIAO: I worked on They for almost four years, using a Holga which has its own particular qualities and limitations so after a while I became a tired and bored by that style of photography. At that time, after quitting my job as a photojournalist I decided to travel to far away places in China to start a new series of works. I decided to begin photographing China’s coastline because it represented a considerable contiguous line of travel which I thought would be interesting and rewarding.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Which coastal areas did you travel to?
ZHANG XIAO: I visited every town and city along the Chinese coastline.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Wow, that’s impressive. Was this travel specifically for this project?
ZHANG XIAO: Yes.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Over what period of time?
ZHANG XIAO: From 2009 until this past February. Four years.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: So you didn’t consistently travel along the coast in a single trip, instead returning home in Chengdu before venturing out again?
ZHANG XIAO: Yeah. Every time I set out along the coastline I shot about 100 rolls of film then would return home to process them.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Which brings me to your process of editing. Can you speak about your working relationship with your friend Yuan Di of Jia Zazhi Press in producing your monograph for They and the kind of editorial process you underwent?
ZHANG XIAO: The publication industry in China is not competitive because there are relatively few smaller publishers not part of the larger companies. Mr Yuan started his own press to pursue different kinds of art projects. We first met in Beijing and talked about working together but it took two years before we started to actually work on producing They as a book.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: As you traveled around the country what did you learn about your own country, its people and yourself?
ZHANG XIAO: [long pause]
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: A difficult question? [both laugh]
They No. 3, from the series THEY (2006-09). Courtesy the artist.
ZHANG XIAO: Well, this relates to my previous comment about the relationship between the economy and people’s spirit. The economy grows fastest in the cities around the coastline and so the changes I encountered were huge. Mostly, I wanted to show what the real China looks like. It’s for this reason that I chose to use a different kind of camera for the Coastline series, settling on a Mamiya 7II to clearly capture all that detail.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: One thing that I recognise in that series – and excuse me if this might be perceived as a criticism – is that all these people frolicking and playing in shallow water along China’s coastline is perhaps a visual metaphor for the shallowness of contemporary life.
ZHANG XIAO: It’s obvious that with the growth of the economy more and more people are getting richer and so have more time for leisure. But with this comes many problems.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Indeed, more money, more problems. And speaking of money, I’m fascinated by the series of works on envelopes which I came across on your website. Can you speak about this series?
ZHANG XIAO: I started to put together that series in 2011, but I actually started collecting the envelopes earlier than that when I was working as a photojournalist in Chongqing. You see, in China when you’re a journalist and you’re assigned to interview someone for a story you will almost always be offered an envelope with some money inside as a means of facilitating a positive published or broadcast interview. These envelopes I’ve collected are the original envelopes from company or government people and the photographs that appear on them are mine that I shot to illustrate the stories and for the most part were published in the newspaper for this purpose.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: So they signify this special economy of giving cash for positive comment? That’s very interesting because when I first came across this series on your website I had assumed that the photographs weren’t your own, but rather were corporate or commercial branding on company stationery and that your interest in them represented a collection of vernacular photography, similar to Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards collection and book. Instead, you take the money and make the artwork anyway!
ZHANG XIAO: [laughs] These envelopes are for the most part from interviews of relatively insignificant importance or public resonance. But sometimes, like after a mining disaster, they will offer large amounts of money like RMB 10,000 to RMB 20,000 not to talk about that stuff, but I never accept this kind because this is unconscionable.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Have you extended this metaphor of transaction by making these envelopes available for sale as artworks, or do you still possess all that you collected?
ZHANG XIAO: It’s only been recently that I’ve exhibited the work as an installation by presenting hundreds of the envelopes along a wall. This was for the Lianzhou International Photography Festival in Guangdong Province in 2010. I would love to see the series presented in a museum.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Now that I’m aware of the fuller story behind the work, I think it’s quite important – it says a lot about where art meets commerce and where photojournalism meets conceptual art.
ZHANG XIAO: Next month, in May, there will be an exhibition of these works in Chengdu. About 300 of the envelopes will be individually framed. (1)
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: That many? So you made a lot of money from this journalistic enterprise. [both laugh] What is the best advice that you’ve ever received about art and who gave that advice?
ZHANG XIAO: There’s no single person that has given me special advice, especially during my university days. Instead, I prefer to look at interesting work on the internet and connect with people from different locations to discuss each other’s work and approach to photography. The first photographer that really affected me was Diane Arbus.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Of course. Her work has had that affect on many young photographers. She’s the reason why I lugged my twin-lens Mamiya around streets and parks a long time ago, despite its backbreaking weight. Other than Arbus, who are the photographers, artists or writers who have really influenced you?
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: Do you own a copy of his masterpiece Case History?
ZHANG XIAO: I have signed copy I bought at a bookstore in Paris. Very expensive!
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: I can see why you like his work. He works in different styles and in various documentary and conceptual modes but I think the core of his work is similar to yours in the way he photographs ordinary people yet creates something that is much more than street photography.
ZHANG XIAO: I‘m heavily influenced by Mikhailov, but of equal influence are the people I’ve met in person and online who like me are experimenting and pushing each other along to create interesting work. I remember at university there were many people that took photographs, especially landscapes, all in the same formal way, and then I discovered that there are other ways to make photographs.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: A final question: other than your envelope series, can you talk about what you have been working on recently and what are your plans for the future?
ZHANG XIAO: I’ve only just completed the Coastline series in January so in the first instance I’ll be busy exhibiting and promoting that, including collaborating again with Yuan Di of Jia Zazhi Press to publish a book on the series, before starting on new work. I prefer to allow for a healthy duration of time between each body of work so after I finish promoting Coastline I’ll take some time off.
PEDRO DE ALMEIDA: I think you need to get a new passport as you will surely continue to receive many invitations to exhibit your work internationally. But first and most immediately, your newborn son awaits you at home.
采访者：Pedro de Almeida
答：一个是Alec Soth，还有是Boris Mikhailov。我特别喜欢他。 除了这些大师的影响，这个可能占一半，另外是刚开始接触摄影，在摸索中的那些朋友。互相之间有很多帮助。原来可以这样拍，原来照片是可以卖的？！我找到更多的可能性和更适合自己的方式。
(1) The exhibition referred to is the 3rd Chengdu Multi-Dimensional View Photo Exhibition, Fanmate Museum, Chengdu, 18 May – 30 June 2013.
© Pedro de Almeida
Zhang Xiao (b. 1981, Yantai City, Shandong Province, China) graduated from the Department of Architecture and Design at Yantai University in 2005. The following year he began working as a photojournalist for the Chongqing Morning Post before working full-time as an artist since 2009. Zhang is the recipient of several awards including the prestigious Three Shadows Photography Award, Beijing, 2010 for his series They, and the Prix HSBC Pour la Photographie, France, 2011 for his series Coastline for which Zhang traveled the 18,000 kilometers of coastline in China to photograph ordinary people’s interaction with seaside landscapes. Since 2009 Zhang’s work has been exhibited widely in China and has been included in group exhibitions and photography festivals in France, Japan, Singapore, Spain, the UK and USA. He currently lives in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province and is represented by Blindspot Gallery, Hong Kong and Galerie Le Réverbère, Lyon, France. www.zhangxiaophoto.com
Pedro de Almeida is a curator, arts manager and writer and is Program Manager at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. He recently curated a solo exhibition of Ian North’s work, Felicia: South Australia 1973-1978, presented at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, which was accompanied by an artist monograph. His writing on art is published regularly in magazines, journals, exhibition catalogues and online platforms including Art & Australia, Art Monthly Australia, BROADSHEET Contemporary Visual Art + Culture, Un Magazine and American Suburb X. www.pedro-de-almeida.com.au
(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Pedro de Almeida, Images @ Zhang Xiao and courtesy of the artist.)