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26th of February 1997 - Henan Province - Provincial
Zhuang Hui (born 1963 in Yumen, China) now lives and works as an independent artist in Beijing, China. His solo exhibitions are, among others: “Zhuang Hui: Ten Years,” Courtyard Gallery, Beijing, China (2002); “Revelation Series III: Falling Apart Together,” Canvas International Art Gallery, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (1999); “Solo Installation,” at Luoyang, Henan Province, China (1992); and “Oil Paintings by Zhuang Hui,” Luoyang, Henan Province, China (1988).
There is an inherent sanctity in the practice of documenting human identity. An individual's existence is indexed, and through the technical process of representation rendered immortal. Portraiture, especially that of photographic portraiture, with its maxim of immediacy, can be easily equated with an act of religious coronation, the momentary abduction of one's sprit and humanity. It is a split-second opportunity to confront both god and one's primal exposed self; instantaneously the commemoration of one's birth and the omen of one's death. Aside from, and perhaps because of, its existential indications, the photographic portrait also plays a significant social role. The administration of individuals within society, the building of class-consciousness, and the reinforcement of social hierarchies have all been mediated by the photographic portrait. Zhuang Hui's work correlates these aspects of photographic portraiture in a way that both simultaneously embraces and obliterates them, subsequently leaving him the benefactor of all piety.
Zhuang Hui's work from the outset has been characterized by an exploration of self-identity against the backdrop of China's political and social realities. Zhuang Hui's new series of group portraits operate on many levels, allude to a myriad of issues, and referential to many sources, but ultimately confronts the social practice and intrinsic psychology of photographic portraiture itself. By utilizing a technique popularized during the early 1900s involving a period rotational lens camera, his subjects are positioned around the camera's pivotal center at 180 degrees. The result of his enterprise is an elongated print measuring 18.5 cm wide and extending to lengths of up to 137 cm. The standard centrality of compositional structure is stretched horizontally and thus viewing the photo is much like reading a scroll. The artist himself is always present, standing at either the far left or right of the group, the beginning or end, the bookends, a calculated position of importance. He is both the omnipresent spirit that conjoins the series of work, as well as the conductor of this grand theater.
The basic notion of what or who the subject is in group portraiture is a debatable theoretical as well as practical query. The individual and the amassed whole are inseparable components in this equation. Yet it is a relationship where the fragment serves the whole and not vice versa. The individual's identity is inevitably relinquished to compose the complete picture. Once assembled, each member is couched in the identity of the mass. Isolating individuals becomes the project of the viewer. However, the sanctity of portraiture is still located in the singular, and, in group portraiture, the multiplication thereof. The amassed whole only recedes from abstraction as the impact of humanity surfaces as individual items. The subject is 100 little faces, 100 pairs of eyes, multiplied, and it is each of them individually.
The question of subject in Zhuang Hui's portraits is even further complicated by his own presence. Zhuang Hui's presence mystifies the configuration by leaving the subject a tedious sum of the mass, its component parts, and the artist himself. The disciplines of portraiture, self-portraiture, and group portraiture are merged. Zhuang Hui's role in the composition is perhaps the most important and difficult question. As in his “one in thirty” series, where he poses for double portraits with anonymous individuals of certain social stature (ZH with factory workers x 30, ZH with farmers x 30, etc.), he becomes the subject of the portrait while the nameless individual becomes the backdrop. In this case it is the institution, manifested by the congregation of a hundred nameless faces, that becomes his backdrop.
His is a transcendental figure whose constant identity crosses, and thus nullifies, the boundaries of institutional identity. It functions as a critique of the channels and cells that structure society itself, moreover, the highly bureaucratized society that China is, and its obsession with identification data. By utilizing the rituals, language, and terms of the state's production of identity, ZH claims each group as his own. The director, manager, principle, always stand in a proud position of authority at either end of the group. His pride, however, is suspect—like a smirk of conquest that an uncovered perpetrator may wear. He stands in contrast to the pattern, a detached character making a conscientious statement that challenges the anonymity of the individual, their futility in emerging from the cohesiveness of the group, and the very existence of the group itself.
Although the divisions and subdivisions of society are economically interdependent, they are not necessarily inter-penetrable for other purposes. Mobility from one organ to the next in a highly administered society often involves a bureaucratic struggle. In full Situationalist spirit, Zhuang Hui climbs the walls of the system and produces these shoots as Christo, having waded through reams of German red tape masks its national monuments. Zhuang Hui's is a conceptual project that seeks, among other things, to test the pliability of a social fabric clearly inscribed with administrative conduits.
In China, obtaining permission, much less cooperation, in executing such a project, is beyond commendable. China is a country whose written regulations have little similarity with those practiced, and accomplishing what one sets out to do often requires both high strategic and improvisational skills. Zhuang Hui is a pioneer in respect to making use of China's unsystematic/system as an element in his work. His success indicates both a victory in traversing socialist bureaucracy as well as the ultimate deficiency of this system. Through both his earnest effort at organizing the photographic event and his presence in each of the works, he becomes a diplomatic thread that penetrates Chinese society's insulated components. The resulting print officially documents the completion of the event, the closing of the production ritual, the certification of the artist's labor, his conquest, another notch in the belt.
The People's Republic of China, albeit slowly shrinking from the grasp of a socialist dictatorship, is still a highly bureaucratized society where individual lives revolve around the hub of their respective commune. The work unit functions as both a place of residence and employment. It is an all-pervasive guardian. Behind China's many crisis and contradictions of a society in transition is the contrast of an established communist ideology and system against the popularization of capitalist alternatives. The result is a society whose tools that once worked in shaping consciousness are slowly being rendered obsolete while a substantial alternative have not yet emerged.
The impassive gaze of Zhuang Hui's subjects testifies not only to the obsolescence of socialist spirituality but also to the inability to comprehend its undefined and precarious replacement. It is in China's constancy of transformation today, that Zhuang Hui's schizophrenic play on history delivers its deadpan blow. China today is a society plagued by incongruities. It is a traditional culture shrouded in socialist mores and suffering the heat of global, post capitalist realities. The pace of its unstoppable economic and social development is occurring too quickly to be comprehended and often ends up appearing as ruptures in the evolution of time. Zhuang Hui marvels at this situation and tries to expose these ruptures. While gathering together historical elements that have given rise to the current situation, he, in full post modernistic fashion, backs into the gray domain that history has become. His technique is an appropriation of a method that was popularized during the early 20th century, another period of rapid advancement in China's national history. It was a period when China's confrontation with the West resulted in both cultural dilemmas as well as progressiveness. The situation today is like an overdue sequel to the development begun at the beginning of the century. However, the breach that interrupted this sequence profoundly diverted China's progressive direction and in doing so dismantled all conviction in these earlier developments. The burden of China's psyche today is born from the breach that Mao's China had filled with its overwhelming ideology and unfulfilled promises. Zhuang Hui is sensitive to the historical significance of China's current zeitgeist and cleverly positions his work in reference to these three periods and their intertwining lineage. His technique speaks of a time when only the bourgeoisie could render themselves immortal against the backdrop of internationalism, while his subject, a rudimentary facet of Mao's China, the egalitarian collective, is confounded by both the artist's own transient spirit and the reality of China's current economic reformation.
As the question of subject in Zhuang Hui's portraiture is an ambiguous affair, so is the question of audience. Is it not that Zhuang Hui's groups are audiences in themselves, poised breathless, in the capture of time staring out at the spectacle that China is today? And if so, where do we stand? We too are both spectacle and spectator; however, we stand alone, singular, as if we had slipped through the loop of time and now outside are indexed by the scrutiny of the crowd. The reflection we see is our own humanity bound to the social mechanisms it has created, and is identified by. We are the subjects just as they are. It is a stifling human condition. (Mathieu Borysevicz)
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