By HAI Jie
I talked with ZHANG Wei frequently in recent days. One reason is his work was included in an exhibition curated by me. Another reason is we share a same WeChat group where he occasionally posted some news or stories.
Last year, he took quite some photos during his stay in Beijing. Even I played a few roles who I totally had no idea about whom they were in the tight costumes which almost took my breath away. Certainly, I had no idea either how he would use those pictures in his works and how he would process them.
I didn’t get any follow-up information after he was back to New York. Until the end of 2018, he sent me a couple of unfinished images of the Puppet Archive series. As always, the images are refined, absurd and creepy. Creepiness is a constant mood in his works, like the creepy sickness in his early work Temporary Performers, and the creepy, rigid eyes of the photoshoped politicians, stars and artists in his Artificial Theatre, resembling the ocular prostheses in hollow orbits, though flawlessly mosaiced together by him. This is exactly what he intends to show, and to differentiate his works from the historical records of the same subjects. And, this is what he intends to dissolve, the power, the figure and the composition of power.
Once in an essay, I talked about Wei’s Temporary Performers and Artificial Theatre. I believe that he has realized his dream of working while playing. Playing games is one of his most interested activities. His practice again justified that a person winning a large number of followers with his/her appeal and influence is actually someone made up by ordinary people at their own will. “In fact, the Bruce Lee we saw is not the actual Bruce Lee, but the one made from hundreds of people’s skins. In this way, Wei’s works clearly revealed the inner logic behind the contemporary consumerism: The stars are established by the great public. When we criticize a star, we are criticizing his/her fans’ community. The figures created by Wei are both real and virtual. The figures in front of us are re-made, the borrowed nose, transplanted eyes and implanted hair...In the vast ocean of images, anybody can make fake images into real ones via photoshop, as many historical images were forged. In this sense, Wei’s works are open, and demonstrating the repeated experiments in rebuilding the identities. Stars, as the most shining objects in consumption and production, and the ‘materials’ in the dissimilated process constitute the 2 major pillars in consumption. The stars grabbing the headlines every day share the same feature: They, ‘the spectacular representations of living human beings, project this general banality into images of possible roles. They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: Power and vacations -- the decisionmaking and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of process that is never questioned.’” (Guy Debord)
Exploring the art history and dissecting the reality are what Wei has been doing, and how he became popular among the audiences. His early works are seemingly outshined by his later ones (The Artificial Theatre), such as the earlier Boring Diaries, which put his careless and unguarded portraits taken when chatting or partying with friends (Drunk, slept naked, laughing, acted foolishly or even selfies in bathtub) together with certain scenarios. In an irrational manner, his works expressed a kind of reality-based tiresomeness and absurdity. It perfectly revealed the consistent attitude in his later works: Playfulness.
With his early works, Wei acted playfully to dilute the mental distress in real life, and to describe his own mentality in such a social context. In his Boring Diaries, Wei played the role of a trouble maker. Even in daily life, he is a hard-core game player, indulging in playing the virtual roles at nights. Thus he lives in 2 parallel spaces: The virtual world filled with hilarious violence and the real life with lost identity.
The reality is in his later works, he was exploring the issue of real identity in such a playful spirit.
The Artificial Theater is the work rose him to fame. By the name, the series seems to depict a puppet troupe. But in reality, it is the creator’s solo performance. Again, with the “skins” and “hairs” used in the Temporary Performers, he re-produced a series of stars. Even the individuals providing the components of the stars’ faces cannot identify which pieces in those figures are from them. Maybe what they could feel is somewhat the familiarity. It is their consumption habit that defines the stars’ range and form of activities. As a return, the stars entertain the public in the “theatrical” way. It is exactly the same as I couldn’t find a trace of me myself in his Puppet Archive.
With the artwork, Wei conveyed the logical metaphor of the “production - consumption - production” model, especially the “production - consumption” cycle of identity. With the metaphor, we can see that the weird portraits in the Artificial Theatre demonstrate some features of commodity, or we can feel the material, the post-modern silica gel. The material may easily remind us of plastic surgery or breast implant, or even rumor or scandal, the ingredients enabling the stars’ production. Those undergoing plastic surgeries are not to meet their own needs to be “good looking”, but to meet the public needs. Consequently, “good look” became a system under which everybody seeks for “conformance”. The same is the breast implant. Stars are still stars even with flat chests, but they must be a member of the big-breast group. Like the La Liberty Leading the People , they need to address the balance between the flesh and spirit for the great public.
Wei recovered the production and consumption mechanism with technology.
All in all, Wei has been constantly pushing forward his creations, with the earlier driving the later, and the later laying the foundation of the next narration. The Temporary Performers provided the subject matters for the Artificial Theatre, and the ordinary extras in the Artificial Theatre became stars later on. Though the Puppet Archive didn’t use any of the subject matter of the Artificial Theatre, it inherits the logic of the latter, empowering the stars to watch the puppets.
The new Puppet Archive series partially finished in 2020 has broken the narrow vision of art history, but fixed our eyes on the realistic world. The artist used some unusual materials sourced from the online historical literature, film screenshot, ancient paintings and classical documentary photos. In the form of a puppet troupe, he simulated the figures, events and behaviors, modified the real original prototypes, and destroyed the “rational” visual structures and historical logic. The rigidly-dressed authoritative figures are faced with some anatomical samples of puppets implanted with mechanical organ parts, and paying them with pretentiously serious observation, as if roaming in a puppet museum.
He located those puppets in some certain moments in the narrative files instead of the exhibition halls for those model portraits. In a sense, he has predicted the direction of the game in the very beginning when he set the game scenario (The Temporary Performers). He needs to proceed step by step, following the path that I would describe it as a “Russian doll” pattern. Being packed up one after another, they share the same center and axis.
The Puppet Archive has an even creepier mood, with not only the mechanical parts implanted in the broken bodies, but also the seemingly smiling but actually gloomy eyes of the onlookers, the eyes of the specimens in labs. In the photo of a horn blower surrounded by a group of people, he borrowed the visual structure of 2 pictures: One is a file record taken for the first robot exhibited in the Duetsches Museum on April 30, 1950, in which the “soldier” blows the horn with an automatic bellow; and another is a photo of Adolf Hitler and Paul Joseph Goebbels, the German Propaganda Minister during the war. Wei dissolved all the resources in his work with photoshop, and made them unrecognizable any more.
In our own world, this is the actual situation. The said political allegory is the montage of real life to some extent, like the interconnection between the pandemic and politics, the disease control, the mobility monitoring and the future intensive management.
Interview with ZHANG Wei
HAI Jie: What is in your mind when you started the Puppet Archive?
ZHANG Wei: I shot a number of figures for the creation of the Artificial Theatre. I collaged them and made up a puppet troupe in computer, including stars and political celebrities. I wanted to accommodate the body parts in some seemingly real but fake images, further dramatize them, and create a virtual empire in the Puppet Archive series.
HAI Jie: Did you prepare for that, and what preparations did you make?
ZHANG Wei: I prepared the materials for a couple of years by searching through the internet for historical literature, movie clips, ancient paintings and classical documentary photos. The Puppet Archive is very different from the earlier Artificial Theatre, and I needed to change the scenarios, the dynamic designs, the costumes, the props and the subject matters. After I went to New York in 2018, different races and museums enriched my portrait materials. The ancient, modern, domestic and foreign figures provided me with infinite resources.
HAI Jie: Is your work based on some specific stories? Could you please give us some examples?
ZHANG Wei: Some of my works dynamically combined certain reference images. Like the mechanical doll, I referred to a picture of a nurse examining a polio survivor in Seattle Children’s Hospital in 1950s, and adapted it into an exhibition site where the “Human Resource Dept.” was showing two generations of mechanical children. Some of my works recovered and modified some historical incidents. Like the soldier, I referred to a photo of blood donation in the Red Cross Center during the Korean War in 1951, and adapted it into a posed photo of leaders visiting the scrapped mechanical soldiers. Some combined different scenarios with photos taken later or virtual images. Like the skill demonstration, I pieced more than 3 photos together, and made them into Monroe’s smile embarrassed by her exaggerated replica.
HAI Jie: Compared with the previous Temporary Performers and Artificial Theatre, the new creation seems to tell some stories, why is that?
ZHANG Wei: In the Temporary Performers and Artificial Theatre, I started from exchanging faces, and gradually changed to collaging sense organs. The progressing technologies and diversified materials gave me more freedom in expression and depiction. I tried the settings with multiple figures, transformed, fabricated and reproduced the images familiar to us all, making them more absurd and dramatic.
HAI Jie: Why did you choose such a visual effect?
ZHANG Wei: I wanted to simulate the direct flashing effect of the black-and-white news photography. It enables a stronger sense of liveness, and minimize the artificially refined effect of artwork.
HAI Jie: From the single-image scenario to the multi-image scenario, did you have to spend more time? What was the most difficult part?
ZHANG Wei: Now I only take the local parts of subject matters, and put them into scenarios to create the dynamic interaction. In the beginning, this was as difficult as the figure making for the Artificial Theatre. But gradually it became much simpler after I grasped the tips, and took me much less time. Each time, I faced different problem. Sometimes, there was no material available. I would leave it in the hard disk and wait for the right materials; And sometimes I need to consider the context, identity and scenario again and again. Most of the time was spent on adapting and adjusting the original materials. The difficult part was the figures in the new works were not celebrities as in the previous works. More of them were virtual figures without any indication to their identities, so I needed to properly design their clothing and facial expressions.
HAI Jie: What main thread or logic are you based on in adapting the materials?
ZHANG Wei: In the beginning, I tried to make the original prototypes into high-resolution images, in order to find where I could start to adapt them. Later I manually mosaiced them and digitally synthesized them into collages. To make some ironic and playful images, I nonsensically adapted some original figures, stories and historical backgrounds.
HAI Jie: What did you change in the adaption?
ZHANG Wei: By montage, the virtual scenarios or figures were put together with images from different sources. Sometimes I needed to change the identity of the original figures, or the historical background and narrative structure.
HAI Jie: What meanings do you want to deliver?
ZHANG Wei: In the Puppet Archive, the puppet troupe was created to demonstrate the people, events and behaviors. The original models were changed, and the “rationality” behind them was overthrown. In a messy time and space, the fake literature was forged, and made into the fragment of a pseudo-history, i.e. a political allegory can be a symbol of future.
HAI Jie: It makes me feel that your works are progressively pushed forward, like the Russian dolls. The latter carries on the earlier.
ZHANG Wei: Yes, they are progressive. Each series was inspired by the previous work. The earliest Temporary Performers intended to depict the mental states of Chinese people by that time. The Artificial Theatre compressed hundreds of individual portraits together, and created a specific image symbol. The individual features were assimilated in the group and became unrecognizable. The Puppet Archive alogically elaborated and predicted the power and the people, the past and the present, and implanted the figures created in previous works into the hilarious craziness.
HAI Jie: Do you want to change the structure in your next series, or to further progress even more radically?
ZHANG Wei: I don’t know yet. Maybe I was trapped in my own methods. I cannot imagine what will my future works look like. What I can do is to proceed step by step.
我曾经在一篇文章里，写到张巍的《临时演员》和《人工剧团》，我认为张巍通过造人，既实现了玩游戏（玩游戏是他最大的乐趣）也可以做作品的愿望，也通过经历这样的流程，更加明晰了一个拥有大量粉丝，具有不俗号召力和影响力的人，如何由普通人的复数的意志拼凑而成。“事实上，他看到的李小龙，并不是真正的李小龙，而是由几百个人的皮肤凑成的貌似李小龙的人，这个举动使张巍的作品深谙当下消费主义的内在逻辑——明星就是大众来塑造的，我们批评一个明星的时候我们批评的是他背后构成支撑起他的群体。张巍造的这些人既是真实的，又是虚无的。我们面临这些图像的时候，每个人都是经过整容的，鼻子是组合的，眼睛是组合的，头发是植入的……在这个图像海洋中，任何人都可以通过PS达成一件事实，包括历史照片也有大量是造假的，从这个层面来讲，张巍的作品具有开放性。这是他关于身份重构的一次次实验， 明星，作为消费和生产中间最耀眼的一环，他们和异化程序里的‘物’构成了消费的两大支柱。这些媒体里整天报道的明星，具有共同的特征，他们 ‘作为一个活生生的人类存在的景观代表，……他们通过戏剧化表现的社会劳动成果的副产品，体现了常人难以达及的社会劳动的成果，这一社会劳动成果的副产品竟魔法般地将自己置于社会劳动成功之上，并作为它的最终目标：权力和休闲——决策和消费是这一永远不被置疑的过程的主要部分。’（居伊-德波语）”