Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013
Zhi Xuan Zhang - People in A Small Island - Xiamen, China 11/2013

People on a Small Island, Xiamen, China 11/2013

Zhi Xuan Zhang

Xiamen, once voted as China’s most romantic leisure city, is famous for its attractive seascape. The sense of a life suspended in pure pleasures is one that is startlingly absent in the work of Zhi Xhan Zhang, our featured artist for this issue.

Zhi Xuan Zhang is a prodigiously talented photographer. At just nineteen-years of age, her images compel our attention not by resorting to gimcrack pyrotechnics or indulging in the perverse, but by patiently recording the rust of routine of these island people and their workaday lives. Here is the steadfast vision of the social documentarian: a Bressonlike devotion to life as it is, which reveals the subtlety and rawness of individual experience; the sympathetic gaze of Milton Rogovin, who lavished his lens upon the “forgotten ones,” memorable portraitures which include coal miners with soot damped on their faces, eyes bright in the supernatural darkness of their Morlock world; and the moral activism of a j’accuse Zola, who set out to document the social ills plaguing his French society via his theory of naturalism.

This namedropping of illustrious figures is no exaggeration, for Ms. Zhang, who shoots street life from the perspective of the invested viewer, falls squarely into the line of the social realist tradition. In an age of Instagram fame, and six-second Vine videos grappling for attention in the marketplace, it is a breath of optimism to encounter a young artist whose eye does not seek to measure the continual racking of dollar signs, but instead looks to wield that vision in the service of breaking down the gut elements of life.

Ms. Zhang’s is a vision clarified by a simmering intelligence that refuses to make a spectacle of street life by adding the piquancy of drama. I’m reminded of an episode in the final season of the H.B.O. series The Wire, in which a newspaper editor muses over the published image in an edition of the Baltimore Sun, which captures the aftermath of a five-alarm fire: a photojournalist, notorious due to his penchant for cheap theatrics, had inserted a burnt-to-a-crisp doll into the frame in order to inspire tears from the readership.

Though Ms. Zhang does not lobby for our pity on her people’s behalf, she does offer us a motif of sorts, apparent in the sequence of images. Note the dead-ahead portraitures of the elderly, the crisp loneliness of old clothes flung over a line to dry between the high-sided streets, the splash of color on a perambulating figure (presumably a child); many of the figures are captured through bars, and surrounded by everyday detritus; and almost all are shot in medias res, if you will, as they go about their appointed tasks. One image after another of a street life of quiet endurance finally ends on a note of baffled progress: a woman sits cross-legged on a chair, distracted over a yellow object in her hand, while a baby sits in mid-yowl beneath her, trapped within a cage of bamboo wood.

What is Ms. Zhang saying? Perhaps, as Spinoza would have it, she is merely showing us people living “under the aspect of eternity.” Or perhaps she is referring to the speak-softly abidance of all humanity, whether we are in motion or chained behind a desk: the fact that we endure, even as we veer toward the puzzling impermanence of death.

– Edwin Rivera

Zhi Xuan Zhang is a first-year Photography major at SVA. She is nineteen years old.
Edwin Rivera is an instructor at SVA, and editor of The Match Factory.