The Chinese artist recreates the faces of stars and political leaders with clichés of ordinary people's photos taken on the street or in the studio. A double exhibition to be seen in Geneva.
The photograph might lie, it is more like a speech rather than a document. This has two evidences. After a collection in 2003, the Center of photograph of Geneva holds two exhibitions of the kind, which are precious for him: Ursula Mumenthaler for start, and then the Journal. These are photos of the city ruins, and they are a masterpiece. Some buildings, more or less carbonized, stand still, and everything is covered by gray dust. In another picture, it is the lava which has buried the city, and then came the snow. But something goes wrong. Come closer, and you may see that the facades are made of cardboard, the windows are drawn, and the catastrophe is factitious. In the second hall, other tragedies are presented in large posters: flood, landslide, fire, dilapidated walls and ruins. The colors are strange. The artist staying in Geneva has reversed the negative, creating the illusory images, which remain almost gentle despite what they tell.
Walking by the disasters, you will find yourself surrounded by the gazes of Kim Jung-un, Poutine, Ben Laden or Aung San Suu Kyi. There is some dissonance, too. The naked shoulders of a political leader? The slightly Asian feature revealed in Barack Obama? Or the detail in the face? All these puzzles will immediately go with wind. These portraits are created with fragments of faces of ordinary people. Come closer, and you will find his art pieces are impressive. Skin pores can be seen very clearly, the eyebrows as real as ours, the moles, the marks on their cheeks, asymmetric face; all these are perfectly presented with no trace of embellishing. At an exhibition held in Art and Public gallery, Bush Junior, Kadhafi or Tchang Kai-shek are placed just face to face with Marilyn, John Lennon, DiCaprio or Angelina Jolie. You can expect to see some pictures of Renaissance in a near future. There, visitors have access to the files revealing the secrets of how these portraits of celebrities are painted.
Take Mao as an example, this is a man who has given first his neck, second his hair, third the mouth, fourth his glasses and nose, fifth his chin and lion wrinkles, and finally his eyebrows…Zhangwei, born in 1977 in Shanxi Province, will explain his approaches at a round table discussion on Wednesday evening with gallerist Pierre Huber, initiator of this exhibition, and Joerg Bader, manager of CPG.
The foreword below is an interview by e-mail.
Le temps: Why do you chose this project?
Zhang Wei: Artificial Theater is the continuation of Temporary Performers. In 2007, I photographed more than 300 Chinese citizens, then with computer, I reworked their faces to create new ones. I wanted to show the lives and temperament of different Chinese social classes living in a time when the country opened its doors to the world. I believe that in our society everyone plays his own role. Then I expanded the themes and began to create portraits of the celebrities.
- How do you choose them?
These virtual syntheses have nothing to do with the ideology. Do they have a positive or negative influence? That is not important. Political leaders or stars, they are all cultural symbols. To what extent does the image of a celebrity come from himself, or from what the public mirrors? The characteristics of each individual get assimilated into the collective. I want to create a library of illusory idols.
How much time do you spend on one portrait?
I started this in 2007 by photographing my friends and models. At first, it was complicated and I was hesitant, and I spent a lot of time studying different documents and making comparisons. The process was long, more than a month sometimes. Then, once material at my disposal in mind, creative work goes faster, it just takes one or two weeks.
Do you photograph people randomly or only chose those having a similarity with the figure?
I try to create a portrait database but sometimes I need some specific clothes or accessories, such as the turban of Ben Laden.
- How many people do you need to create one portrait?
- I do not know exactly; very much I think.
Are some of these portraits more difficult to paint than others?
The most complicated is to re-project the mental state of the figures. I found that it was not necessary to stick perfectly to the prototype, but to find what it expresses. I chose a lot of western celebrities, who have long and thin nose, deep eyes and protruding chins. Most of my materials, however, come from oriental faces. I mean flat faces, less protruding chins and small nose. This is a major problem and the resolution is the most interesting challenge for me.
What is your next project?
After the classic paintings and portraits of celebrities, I would like bring heroes to my Artificial Theater. Heroes are often created for publicity. By recreating them on my computer, I reverse what the totem symbolizes, especially something deified and inviolable.
Ursula Mumenthaler, Journal, opens until March 29, 2015 at the Center of Photography of Geneva.
Zhangwei: Artificial Theater. The Leader opens until March 29, 2015 at the Geneva Center of Photography. www.centrephotogeneve.ch
The Big Star: At the Art & Public Gallery, opens until May 15. A series of paintings of Renaissance will be exhibited in the gallery from the Night of the Baths on March 19th.
The round table discussion with the artist on 18, March, at 7 pm, at the BAC, 28, Bains street in Geneva. Registration is at the gallery or at Christie's.