PROJECT 18 FACE

Zhang Shujian

27-03-21 > 16-05-21.

Zhang Shujian’s (Hunan, China, 1987) work is not easy to place. It would be a misconception to classify him under the extensive movement of ‘Chinese realism’, which is characterised by an emphasis on technical skills and romanticised and nostalgic representations. Zhang Shujian does not aim to please. True, his technique and focus on details have a strong appeal, but at the same time his works put one off. Nothing is made to seem more beautiful than it is – but there definitely is dissection. Human characteristics that we recognize at once but often tend to overlook are blown up into a grotesque and bizarre image. This is what makes his portraits natural and unnatural at the same time. Against an idealised reality and artificial narrative – omnipresent in today’s social media –  Zhang Shujian shows us an underlying and uncomfortable other reality. A kind of contemporary counterpart to Photoshop. 

Zhang Shujian’s work lacks a clear narrative or concrete ideology. In this sense, his work avoids contemporary themes of politics or personal identity. With his idiosyncratic perspective of things, he touches on the more universal question of what it is that defines us as human beings, and   examines an underlying reality that we either fail or refuse to see. Particularly revealing is his title for a series of portraits begun in 2015, Fellaheen – a term used by Oswald Spengler for the detached masses who are outsiders within a civilisation that has been disengaged from its original cultural vitality. Zhang Shujian portrays the fellaheen (Fellaheen 6, 2016) of modern Chinese society. In his most recent works, which for the first time feature group scenes, he places these fellaheen in relation to each other and their ambience. These are not images of the new China with its modern mega-cities and fashionably dressed young people. A Break, 2021 is more of a village scene, as they are still to be found within the same mega-cities. The Fellaheen as a kind of modern nomads in the big city. In Ongoing Ceremony, 2021 we see a traditional procession, but one that seems to toil along almost mechanically and cheerlessly, detached from its original cultural breeding ground. While refraining from passing judgment on this, Zhang Shujian’s work offers a merciless glimpse of the social fabric of the present-day materialistic Chinese society. 

Melle Hendrikse 

The Hague, February 2021