It was only a matter of time before a Chinese artist modeled an exhibition catalog on Mao’s Little Red Book. To her credit, the young O Zhang’s version—created for her first New York solo show, The World Is Yours (But Also Ours) at CRG Gallery—feels less like a gimmick than a quotation, an allusion that chimes resonantly with her subject matter. For some time now, O, who divides her time between New York and Beijing, has been chronicling what she calls China’s second Great Leap Forward, its 21st-century economic rise and internationalization. In her 2006 photographic series Daddy & I, for example, O produced subtly disturbing double portraits of adult Western men posing with the young, unwanted Chinese girls they had adopted.
Her current show, also a series of conceptual photographs, is more comic than creepy. Taken during the two months prior to the Beijing Olympics, color images of individual Chinese youths are coupled with slogans in Chinese. As she writes in the catalog introduction, “The text follows the form used in Cultural Revolution–era propaganda posters: an image bordered with a slogan in bold text below it.” The slogans O has chosen might come from Mao, but also from advertising and other sources. In the pictures, each of the kids wears a T-shirt with phrases in “Chinglish”: English that has been mistranslated, either linguistically or culturally. A perfect example of the latter: a work juxtaposing the slogan “Poverty Is Not Socialism”—a formulation uttered by former leader Deng Xiaoping in a 1984 speech announcing reform—with a photo of a girl wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, “Everything Is Shit.” Among the image’s many ironies is the fact that Deng’s new policy produced the T-shirt, which, one assumes, neither the prepubescent girl nor her parents would assent to, if they understood its meaning.
Indeed, the cultural mistranslations tend to be the most poignant—misspellings of, for instance, popular brands like Adidas and Puma don’t deliver much of a punch. But O’s images demonstrate that cultural mistranslations come in many forms. “China, Add Gasoline” reads one Chinese text: It’s a popular cheer in sporting events, akin to “Step on the Gas.” Above it, a girl with a car-shaped handbag on her shoulder raises an arm to a sky criss-crossed with the enormous cranes that have become an ordinary feature of life in large Chinese cities. The topsy-turvy associations of the cheer—notably the drastic environmental consequences of the country’s high-octane economy—are, in a sense, paralleled by the jumbled text on the girl’s shirt, which reads: “Love Haney Me &.” Less common, though not absent, are overtly political works: Salute to the Patriot depicts a girl before the Tiananmen Gate Tower, a large Mao poster over her shoulder; she wears a T-shirt that assures us, “It’s All Good in the Hood.”
For some time, I wondered why O chose to shoot all these kids from below, casting the images in a heroic, or mock-heroic, light. Then I came across the work that gives the show its title and found that the text, from a well-known speech by Mao, continues: “You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life. . . . Our hope is placed on you.” It brought home again how deceptively simple these images are, for, in fact, any one of them could inspire hours of fruitful meditation, with a few chuckles along the way.