I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Zhang Dali

Zhang Dali: "A Second History"
Curated by Wu Hung
Walsh Gallery
June 9 - July 14, 2006

Currently, propaganda and the editing of public information is an important and pervasive topic. It is in the galleries, notably the recent Cheim& Read Jenny Holzer show in New York. Television constantly bombards us with the exposure of lies and half-truths through parody, opinion, or insight on the Colbert Report, Meet the Press, or CNN. Sometimes the manipulation of information does not have to do with governments at all, think of the Dove “Real Woman” campaign to show the difference between the “real woman” and the airbrushed, commercially adjusted woman. In times such as these, it’s important to regain the history of how information was twisted and remade. The “Goebbels Experiment” of last year, a documentary by Michael Kroft, sought to do this by reopening the case of Nazi, Germany, and now Beijing based Zang Dali seeks to do this through letting us see, for the first time, some of the moves of Mao’s Chinese propaganda.

Consider one set of images from Zhang Dali’s exhibition at Walsh Gallery in Chicago last summer – a group of Chinese soldiers march across the upper right hand diagonal of a photograph, guns shouldered, confident straight ahead glares. Purposeful and austere, they are the embodiment of security, the acme of government patronage. A group of children observe this march, and most pay attention to their troops, looking literally up to them from the lower left of the frame. But this picture was not good enough. It was not to be presented to the public of China and changes were made. One alteration was the addition of painted color, but the more fascinating touch up are of those distracted boys, those that weren’t quite paying attention, being brushed out or redrawn. The final printed photograph shows every boy, every student of the Chinese army, at full attention.

Altered histories are all around us, embedded in our lives to such an extent that it becomes difficult to imagine, for we indeed have to “imagine,” what reality is, what the truth or the real “news” of human action actually looks like. This is most apparent in the world of words, where the writer takes life in and presents it the best they can but always through the filter of their own humanity. But as so many theorists have been quick to point out over and over again, it is the domain of the modified image that contains the most power to alter history and compel a certain beliefs about its factual evidence.

There are so many reasons for altering a photograph, and the reasons themselves, if they are known, are revelations in how we see the world, how we expect an image to be presented. Zhang Dali expects to reveal this to us through his juxtapositions. Placing archived original photographs next to their altered counterparts found in popular media, he shows us the shadowy world of decision making that constructs the world of images, a world so powerful to compel. It is remarkable to note that Dali matches the original photographs to their counterparts by memory and intuition. He remembers where the altered images appeared in public. His extraordinary memory is a testament to the power of the image to ingrain itself in a human psyche.

Some alterations show the influence of painting over the composition of photograph, some cropping and brushing serves simply to create pleasing compositions, but most of the revisions seem to come from extra-aesthetic reasons either political or personal. In one publicity photo, Mao walks next to a gentleman and waves to the public. Mao is taller than the man and dominates the scene with his inherent charisma and personality. This man, however, is eliminated from the photograph anyway. Who was that man? Why was he removed? Can we safely assume that he fell out of favor with the Chairman or is this just our bias in viewing the working of a so called “communist” mentality? Another photograph shows a group of aviators posing in front of combat jet. The altered photograph shows that three of the men have simply vanished. This is the shadowy world of images, the working of those behind closed doors that can never be known.

But though occupying such a strange and mysterious existence, the image retains the power of truth even when we have proof to the contrary. An image can dupe and seduce a person into belief very easily. For example, we know that Victoria Secret model photographs are trimmed, brushed, edged, twisted, or bent to present the best view of what the “model” should look like. However, the image seems to compel us past the point of knowledge and into an instinctual world of desire. In this world of desire, no amount of persuasion is enough to make us able to give up the perfect body, the perfect car. We envy it. We want it. It is irrational because it is not there to begin with, it does not exist in physical reality. The image, that supposed truth right in front of us, has been altered before we even see it. Gisele is only Gisele once Gisele has been brushed.

With political and social photographs, as are most of the images of Zhang Dali’s exhibition, the results of alterations can been even more powerful, powerful to the point of allowing a government the support of its people because belief in images outweigh any suspicions that bring doubt. Not only do people want and desire the presented image, the nature of the image itself props this belief up. As Susan Sontag deftly pointed out in her last book Regarding the Pain of Others, the pervasive social truth of the civil war, how the battles actually “looked,” come from Andrew Gardener’s famous photographs of mangled bodies piled high and gruesome scenes of concentrated horror. However, Gardener arranged these scenes according to the conventions of not only photography, but the rules of painting composition. We get a scene, but a scene that looks exactly the way it is supposed to. The power of these false, constructed images will always trump our knowledge of their creation.

This is what Zhang Dali, even with his impartial and straightforward display style, is trying to remind us – that there are two histories, a history of the image and its politics and another history, a true history that becomes difficult to know, only able to be hinted at through reconstructed accounts and speculation. It is almost as though the history of the lie is easier to know that the history of the truth when it comes to images.