Zhang Xiao’s Mercurial, Mythical China

Zhang Xiao, Shanxi No.1, 2007. Courtesy the artist

The artist’s documentary project explores the spectacle of rural northern China’s commercialised traditions

In the Shaanxi series (2007), which opens this photobook, murky photographs take us to a moody, mythical realm in rural China. Captured in sepia tones and darkened vignettes, theatre performers wander through a drab winter village in flamboyant makeup and fantastic costumes, looking like deities from ancient folklore. These are the days of shehuo (‘community fire’) – Spring Festival carnivals held in rural northern China – where you might find lion dances, opera shows, acrobatics and community rituals on the streets. It’s an event that evolved from the totem worship of the gods of earth, who drive away demons and ensure good harvests for the year ahead. That’s the nostalgic recollection. Zhang Xiao explores another side of the ‘tradition’ – its economies. Cut to sleek screenshots of Taobao pages, China’s most popular online shopping platform. Shehuo costumes and props – once handmade and passed down through generations – are now available online. As internet access and delivery services spread, these items began to be mass-produced in previously impoverished rural areas of Xuchang in Henan Province, where annual shehuo-related sales now amount to $13.8 million.

In Huozhuang – where ‘over eighty percent of the villagers were engaged in the production of shehuo supplies’, as artist and curator Ou Ning points out in an accompanying essay – Zhang photographed newly produced items in wheatfields and on dirt roads. They look like surreal cult objects when juxtaposed with a mundane rural reality. Polyester costumes, painted headgear as well as parcel boxes and packaging are piled up in local warehouses – another spectacle of shehuo culture. These are gaudily designed and poorly executed; the facemasks and zodiacanimal onesies are ugly, repetitious – making them even more uncanny – and comic.

Zhang’s last series takes us to shehuo events that took place in Shaanxi and Henan in 2018, where performers sit in languor, ornament their hair with blownup condoms and doodle (a fluttering rooster, for example) on each other’s faces. In the last photograph, a line of spectators stand on top of a slope, backs to camera, while a woman walks away with a child in her arms, looking tired.

Zhang Xiao: Community Fire by Ilisa Barbash, Zhang Xiao and Ou Ning. Aperture / Peabody Museum Press, £50 / $65 (hardcover)

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