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Zhang Xiao: Community Fire

Jun 4 - Jul 27, 2024

Zhang Xiao

Villagers wearing a lion dance costume for two performers

2018, Archival pigment print on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Baryta

Image: 45 X 60 cm. (17.7 x 23.6 in.)Paper: 65 X 80 cm. (25 x 31.4 in.)

Shin Gallery is delighted to announce its upcoming exhibition, “社火: Community Fire”, traveling from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. This exhibition showcases Zhang Xiao’s work documenting 社火 (“shè huǒ”), a traditional spring festival celebrated in rural northern China. Coinciding with Lunar New Year, this festival revolves around rituals for the abundance of a good harvest. Zhang Xiao takes us on a photographic exploration documenting the festival from 2007 to 2019; examining the generational traditions held by the performers, the humanization of the people in rural China, and the shifts toward commercialization and mass production, changing the heritage and customs of the festival.

After being awarded a Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Xiao took these photographs during a series of visits to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces from 2007 to 2019. These photographs document the changes that have taken place during this period and ask us to consider how the medium of photography can evoke not only the vestiges of other times, but also the political and economic forces that bridge the past and the present. Zhang Xiao’s method of “sleepwalking” - as he calls it - alongside the performers while photographing them suggests an empathetic connection with the practitioners of these traditions. Through this, Zhang looks to humanize the Chinese rurality and showcase their details through close intimacy.

Shehuo translates to shè, meaning “god of the land” and huǒ, meaning “fire”. The fire expels evil spirits, while the god of the land brings blessings, derived from witchcraft and totem worship from ancient times. As part of the present-day representation of the festival, there are folk art performances by locals, such as rituals, family reunions, and reenactments of ancient stories and legends through costumes, instruments, and props. These traditions have been upheld for centuries, the facial makeup and masks documented and passed down through families for over 1,500 years.

As China rapidly industrializes, however, many traditions such as Shehuo, are bound to be lost. Rural populations are rapidly migrating to city centers in hopes of better lives for themselves and their families. As they leave their homes, far fewer people are participating in rituals like Shehuo. Many traditions are erased or commoditized, with the government hand-picking traditions through “cultural heritage designations” to ensure a curated image of the Chinese state. Zhang’s series highlights this shift in tradition, illustrating the commercialization of a new, tourist-facing Shehuo performance, one that nonetheless converses with the histories of performance and belief that endure in villages across Northern China.

Xiao composes sharply focused, portrait-like images of the newer mass-produced costumes and props contrasted with the hand-crafted masks passed down from prior generations, highlighting the disconnect from historically accurate portrayals of the rituals they will be used for. With a touch of humor, Zhang reveals the absurd-looking elements of mass production: stacks of plaster faces piled high in a desolate room; masks in plastic shopping bags hanging off tree branches; a multitude of identical, ill-fitting costumes the performers’ ancestors would have never imagined.

Zhang Xiao’s response to Robert Gardner’s call for Peabody fellows to “document the human condition anywhere in the world” captures a rapidly changing rural Chinese society. His work explores the extent to which the ancient folk beliefs will sustain themselves amid the advancements of modernization, and how they will weather the government-mandated changes to tradition and the effects of an industrialized and digitized economy. Through his photography, Zhang shows how a tradition that was once heterogeneous in its practice and individually expressive can undergo homogenization and mechanization, illuminating the effects of modernity upon rural life. Further, it inspires us to contemplate the essence of performance and the visual expressions of communal belief, to ponder their origins and notice how they have been transformed, in so many places, at an accelerating speed.

Zhang Xiao

Born in 1981 in Yantai, Shandong Province, China, Zhang currently lives and works in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. He graduated from the Department of Architecture and Design at Yantai University in 2005, and began his career with the Chongqing Morning Post as a photojournalist. Zhang has won numerous awards including the Three Shadows Photography Award in 2010 for They, the second Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award in 2009, the Photography Talent Award (France) in 2010, and the Prix HSBC pour la Photographie in 2011 for Coastline. His publications include Coastline, (Actes Sud, 2011; Jiazazhi Press, 2012); They (Editions Bessard Press, 2014); and Shanxi (Little Man Press, 2013). His works have been exhibited extensively in photography festivals including the Peabody Museum (2023), Photoquai at Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, France (2015) and Festival Pluie d’Images in France (2013). Zhang’s works are collected by the Burger Collection, Fidelity Corporate Art Collection in the USA, HSBC Foundation for Photography in France, and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in China.

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