Elvis,Madonna and Mao;Exploring Identity in China
By JAMES ESTRIN June 23,2016
In his earliest memories, Zhang Wei recalls his mother singing and dancing in a theatrical troupe, performing operatic versions of Chinese folk tales. Like magic, she transformed from one character into another as Mr. Zhang watched from the wings.
As the Cultural Revolution ended and China opened to the West, however, the troupe’s performances changed, adding outside influences and modern references to attract new audiences. The characters in those dramas struck him as absurd — neither “really Chinese nor really Western.”
Rapid economic growth, urbanization and sporadic political liberalization over the following decades, Mr. Zhang said, changed the country to such an extent that the Chinese people faced an existential challenge. Their identity seemed to be always in transition, he explained, shifting as rapidly as his mother did from one role to another.“Someone who used to be dirt poor can suddenly become a millionaire,” he said. “Then next day be put into prison.”
Mr. Zhang set out in 2007 to capture the “21st century mind-set” of the average Chinese person and photographed hundreds of people in simple, direct portraits. He abandoned the project two years later after being unable to depict the ephemeral nature of life amid dizzying change.
He had come to realize that in the modern world, people’s sense of identity is formed by mass media and advertising. Self-worth is measured against that of entertainers, leaders and heroes promoted by a consumer-driven society. In an effort to show how these external influences affect self-definition, he took elements of his earlier portraits of everyday Chinese people and combined them using Photoshop — and perhaps a touch of alchemy — to create virtual portraits of the personalities that, Mr. Zhang said, for better or worse, shaped today’s Chinese mind-set.
Among them are Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Bruce Lee, John Lennon, Vladimir Lenin and the singularly named trinity of Elvis, Madonna and Mao.
Influenced by the Japanese computer game Artificial Girl 3, Mr. Zhang painstakingly combined an ear from one model, a wisp of mustache from another and a dimple from a third, often taking weeks at his computer to complete a single portrait. Thus the famous and the unknown “become a part of each other,” he said. At first glance the composite portraits seem real. But a double take reveals something slightly askew. He could create more precise images of his rich and famous subjects, but chose to “make them more absurd” by exaggerating a few characteristics.
Mr. Zhang calls his project “Artificial Theater” because he sees his countrymen taking on a series of roles and discarding them as Chinese society changes. Indeed, everyone is like an actor, he said, “because to survive in this world sometimes you have to perform or act. Or even to be a hypocrite.”
The celebrities in his portraits are all easily recognizable to his Chinese audience. But the images to do not celebrate fame. Instead, they deconstruct the cult of celebrity. Mr. Zhang knows from his childhood that heroes come and go, depending on fashion and politics, and can even become villains. His famous subjects are not, he emphasized, necessarily his own heroes.
“I’m not trying to make any value judgments from an ideological point of view,” he said. “Who are really heroes worth looking up to, only history can tell.”


这些名人包括玛丽莲·梦露(Marilyn Monroe)、史蒂夫·乔布斯(Steve Jobs)、李小龙、约翰·列侬(John Lennon)、列宁(Vladimir Lenin),以及专门列出的猫王(Elvis)、麦当娜(Madonna)和毛泽东三人。

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