Feb. 2010: It was a bright cold afternoon as I trudged through the thick snow to meet the artist O Zhang at the Queens Museum of Art where her exhibition “Cutting the Blaze to New Frontiers” is on view. The show, a collaborative effort made with local children as part of the museum’s inaugural artist’s residency program, commemorated the 70th anniversary of the 1939 World’s Fair and featured the work of a group of local immigrant teenagers who were asked to envision their native homeland. Zhang had handpicked a batch of young artists who came from diverse backgrounds but had never returned home to their parent’s countries. Under Zhang’s mentorship, each student handcrafted a miniature national pavilion to represent his or her own imagined country of origin.
This most recent project was in some ways a departure from the lush and biting photographs Zhang was known for both in New York, where she’s lived since 2004, and China, where she was born. Zhang has an unusual biography to be sure. She grew up in Guangzhou, and studied art at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing. She then moved to London to study for her M.A. at the Royal College of Art while writing a four hundred page best-selling Chinese novel about her experience as a young woman artist leaving China to study abroad. Since moving to New York she has received numerous grants, honors, and awards, and her work has been included in the collections of Uli Sigg and the Guggenheim Museum, among many others.
Zhang gave me a lively tour through her exhibition, as we talked about photography and the airport, filmmaking and fortune. We then continued our conversation on the train back into Brooklyn where we put on fluffy slippers and drank green tea in her cozy bright home, concluding the day with a look around her upstairs studio. This interview is compiled from notes taken throughout our conversation.
Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
Sophia Powers: This project is very different than the other work of yours that I know—did you initially envision it as it turned out, or did you imagine something very different when you began the residency?
O Zhang, Salute to the Patriot, 2008, C-print, 17 1/2 x 22 inches; Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
O Zhang: It did change in some important ways. For one thing, I began by asking lots of questions to the young participants. At first I gave out two page questionnaires, but then I realized that this was not really very useful, and if there were less questions, then the kids could concentrate more on the art. I also did lots of interviews with parents—I was particularly interested in why they didn’t want to take their kids back. Perhaps they couldn’t go home? Perhaps they left because of something political, or just some family controversy. These stories could be very rich.
Initially I though of including films of these conversations in the exhibition, but then I just thought that there was not enough time. Also, I wanted the kids' imaginations to be the focus of the show, not the stories of their parents. The interviews turned out to be a very good thing, though, because it gave the kids a chance to ask questions of their own. Like “why can’t I go back” or “am I American?” There was even one boy who said he had not been interested in going back to his parent’s home country of Guyanna, but now for the first time he was.
Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
S.P. This project was all about the child's interpretation of their heritage, but how about your other works? In particular, I’m thinking of two series: “The World is Yours (But Also Ours)” where you photographed teenagers in cutting, bizarre, and ironic “Chinglish” slogan shirts in contemporary Beijing, and “Daddy and I,” where you focused on portraits of American fathers who had adopted Chinese girls. Did the young subjects in these series have much understanding of what your project was?
O.Z.: Well, in the first series you mentioned all the children were older than the girls in “Daddy and I.” But for that show, the parents were the ones who really understood what my project was more broadly. The girls mostly thought of it as a family portrait—which it was.
I found people for that series by posting a notice online on the adoption website. I explained my project, and offered a free enlarged photograph to anyone who was willing to let me take pictures of their family members. I visited about 80 families, and in the end I think I used 56 portraits for the show. When I sent the photos back home to the families I had photographed, they were all very pleased. One mother even wrote back to me saying that they had put the portrait on their mantelpiece and everyone who came to their house loved it. This was great—and I was really happy to give each of the families photographs that meant something to them. But my larger point in the show was to see the transformation of the girls growing up. At first, the girl is taken care of by the father. But then, as she grows older, the roles switch, and the girl will begin to take care of her dad. This is perhaps something like China and India as they grow up and their relationship to the West shifts. We’re already seeing it.
S.P.: In a radio interview you gave recently, you mentioned that the restriction on information was one of the major reasons you did not want to return to living in China. It seems like now, things might even be getting worse…
OZ: Perhaps. One thing that happens is that I will try to send materials to China—like catalogues and they will never arrive. They will either just disappear, or sometimes they will be sent back with no explanation. This happened just recently with a batch of 20.
O Zhang, Daddy & I: No. 18, 2005, C-print, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches; Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
SP: If you didn’t feel that the environment was so restrictive, do you think you would move back?
OZ: I still live in Beijing two or three months a year. But spend most of my time in New York. I know that if I moved back I would actually have more chances as an artist. In China right now, as a young female artist, I know I would get a lot of attention. But I don’t think it would be good for my practice. I think it is very important for me to be around the variety of people and practices that you find here. I have friends from everywhere, friends who do everything—not just artists! Filmmakers, musicians, designers, writers, architects, from all over the world, full of variety, and this is the life that I want. Right now in the U.S. there is less opportunity as an artist, but more opportunity for my art.
The other thing that I find is that in China, many artists don’t like to talk about art much. They like to talk about money. One reason, I think, is piracy. If you have a good idea—someone else will steal it. So, people avoid discussing the things that they’re really excited about creatively. Another part of the problem is that if you are successful in art on a big scale, so much of the lifestyle is traveling around the world, in Venice one week, Tokyo the next…but who wants to talk about this? It’s pretentious. But if you don’t talk about this and you don’t talk about ideas, what do you talk about—the weather? Maybe students still talk about art, I’m not sure.
O Zhang, Cutting the Blaze to New Frontiers (installation shot at Queens Museum of Art pavilion), 2010; Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
S.P.: I know you show in China, as well as London and here in New York. Is it very different to work with galleries in each of these places?
O.Z.: Yes. (She smiles.) But I think I’ll leave it at that. One thing that I do really care about, though, is working with a gallery here in New York that doesn’t represent only Chinese artists. In CRG Gallery, who I work with now, I’m the only Asian artist. This matters to me because I don’t want to be labeled as a Chinese artist—even though, of course, that comes with a lot of opportunities. I’ve been approached “Chinese contemporary galleries” in the city, but the economic collapse of last year just confirmed my suspicion about them.
S.P.: It makes sense that you want to be seen as an artist first, and a Chinese artist second. But I thought it was quite a statement to write your book “An Empire where the Moon Light Never Fades” in Chinese, even when so much of your audience doesn’t read Mandarin, and you’re making your home in New York. (http://www.amazon.com/Empire-Where-Light-Never-Chinese/dp/B001PRQ6ZA)
O.Z.: Oh, there was no question that I would write the book in Chinese. It was simple, really, my reasons. When I was growing up I wanted so much to read a book like the one I tried to write—to show me some example of a young girl from China who manages to go abroad and become an artist. There just aren’t any books about this. So the urge to write only came from the urge to tell Chinese people what it is like outside.
Then I was approached by a big Shanghai publishing house, and I thought: “What a challenge!” So of course I had to try. My attitude was just “keep writing, keep writing,” and that was the main thing I did in 2007. I only worked on two art series that whole time.
And I was very happy because it was a success. It was a bestseller in Guangzhou for four weeks! Lots of young people wrote me about their experience of reading it, and one person said she even read the book three times. This confirmed my own frustrations growing up that there really weren’t any contemporary stories written about my kind of experience. Also, as you know it’s just so difficult and so expensive to go abroad that there are plenty of young people in China that will never have the opportunity.
O Zhang, Horizon: No. 27, 2004, C-print, 44x40 inches; Courtesy of the artist & CRG Gallery, NY
S.P.: Do you think you’d like to try your hand at another book project in the future?
O.Z.: hmm—perhaps, but next time I’d like to do a fiction, if I write another book. I like visual art more, though. Actually, right now I’m working on a film that I hope can combine my interest in the verbal and the visual into a narrative structure. Perhaps my future is in filmmaking! It could be a new horizon, but, it is so much about money.
S.P.: Yes, but even photography takes a lot of money!
O.Z.: Well that is true. You know, the only way I was able to come over to the U.S. and have my whole career was because of the generosity of a stranger who saw my student art. It was so shocking—like winning the lottery, or something right out of a film. What happened was that I one day I just got a call from a gallerist who had shown my art in his gallery in Scotland saying an Italian family had offered me 20,000 pounds a year for three years with no strings attached—can you imagine!? I gave this family a painting, and they only took it after I really insisted. Now that is a real love for the arts!
S.P.: Wow. Did you stay in touch after coming to the U.S.?
O.Z.: Some, but they were very low-key people. I came to their house to visit them years ago, but they really wanted to be sure that the neighbors didn’t find out that they were supporting an artist. That gift, though, it made everything possible. No matter what you expect, you may always still be surprised—even by someone who lives just next door.
ArtSlant would like to thank O Zhang for her assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Sophia Powers