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From the Sea to the Orchard: New Photography from Zhang Xiao

From the Sea to the Orchard: New Photography from Zhang Xiao

Sichuan based artist born at the outset of the 1980s, Zhang Xiao, rose to international recognition in the last decade with his series’ such as They (2006-2007) and later Coastline (2009-2013). The surrealism of his documentary images has been recognized for its ability to alluringly capture the perplexing situations caused by the rapid development of modern Chinese society. His newest, ongoing, body of work, Gong Xi Fa Cai (恭喜发财), introduced in this article, has brought him from the sea back to the land where the artist finds inspiration for a project of global significance in his hometown of Shandong province.

From the series, Coastline No.02 © Zhang Xiao, Courtesy of the Artist, 2009

“On the way of my journey, I was always being asked, “What are you doing here?”, “What can you photograph in here?”. I often ask myself the same questions. I always answered, “To look around.” says Zhang Xiao. 

China has a long, continuous 18,000 kilometers of coastline, and in Zhang Xiao’s first series to receive significant international acclaim, he photographed this coast and the people in living and working there in hopes to better understand this collective struggle of belonging in all their hearts during a period of rapid change and modernization. “I think I just want to document the living of these real people and landscapes in today’s China with my camera”, he says. 

About five years ago, Zhang Xiao shifted his focus to his hometown, Yantai, and now uses only a single geographical space as the backdrop to witness China’s transformations. For the artist, this redirection was born from the desire to evolve his artistic practice and address societal, human issues from a more abstract angle. 

He describes the stimulus for his project in a recent interview in Shanghai: “In 1871, the American missionary John Nevis brought the western apple seedlings collected from the United States and Europe to Yantai. He planted the apples the southeastern foothills and named it “Guangxing Orchard,” which opened a new era of Chinese apple cultivation. The apple is now a pillar industry in my hometown. Every household grows apples, and most people’s lives are built around apples. In this project, I am interested in connecting the complicated state of modernization as it influences industry, human beings, interpersonal relationships, and the environment with a specific representative symbol such as the ‘Apple.” 

Zhang Xiao asked more than 10 villagers to hang 18’000 apples made of polymeric foam and imprinted with “Gong Xi Fa Cai” on the orchard trees during winter. 2017 © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist

Human condition 

The resulting project exists on two planes of contemplation. Apples are both the subject of this work and the ultimate metaphor for the trials and instability of human existence. The transformations observed are taking place in this small village in Shandong Province, but they denote for Zhang Xiao issues of the greater human condition. 

This new work is made up of multiple sub-series, all associated in some way to the primary local industry. In Pile of Apples on the Ground, a grey smog saturated sky shares half the frame with a spill of yellow and peach-toned apples. Like tidewater slowly seeping onto the already saturated sand, they are poised for motion – and they will, most certainly, move. A stack of hardy synthetic transport bags reminds us of the imminent future for these fruits. In another image Apples in Sacks, more industrial in nature, he shows the next stage in the Yantai apple journey. The fruits are packed neatly in dozens of the same sorbet-color sacks, apparently waiting to be picked up at the station. 

The apples themselves also sometimes object of his attention. In one collection of images, Zhang has dedicated himself to photographing portraits of the apples in the studio. Unparalleled: Renderings positions the fruits in a typology against a black backdrop, comparing them and establishing the presence of their imperfections and dissimilarities. Other images result in near abstraction with macro-zooms to reveal the blemishes in the skin of the apple. In both cases, the focus of his lens seems to suggest there are more connections to be drawn between humanity and apples than we may have originally anticipated. 

Unparalleled © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist. 2017

Gong Xi Fa Cai – May You Have A Prosperous New Year!

Gong Xi Fa Cai is part of a group of photographs, video works, and sculptures. The image depicts five rows of apple trees filled with bright red fruits, in a field on the outskirts of an industrial zone after an early snow. The muted glow and even luminosity of the photograph are reminiscent of Zhang Xiao’s early visual language; however, in a departure from his purely documentary style, this photograph is a constructed scene. 

With closer observation, we understand these apples are, in fact, small sculptures that have been meticulously hung with gold wire by local farmers one-by-one onto each tree. The artist has documented this process methodically with a dozen images and videos, which he plans to present together in a future exhibition of the work. The surface of each apple has been marked with the words Gong Xi Fa Cai, a greeting of best wishes for the new year. This engaged – performance and resulting photograph reflects on one level the very literal situation of local workers, hands that are forgotten by the world in the chains of industry that seamlessly provide goods, like apples, to flow in the supply chains of our planetary civilization; but it also provokes us to contemplate the ubiquitous and increasing importance of appearance, real or false, we present to the world.

Pile of apples on the ground © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist. 2016

From the series, Gong Xi Fa Cai 局部. 2017 © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist

Installation process. From the series, Gong Xi Fa Cai. 2017 © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist

Apples in sacks © Zhang Xiao. Courtesy of the Artist. 2016

By Holly Roussell

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