Birdhead: Welcome to Birdhead Again, Paradise Row Gallery, London

Text by Daniel Potts

Birdhead’s concern is the flow of power from West to East, as gauged by that thriving metropolis of ever increasing scale, life and culture: Shanghai. Captured in black and white, the city in all its enormity – skyscapers, towerblocks, flyovers – is seen in its potent vastness to host the human activity. We are encouraged, therefore, to view the snapshots – for a snapshot aesthetic is employed – of culture with an eye to the effects increasing power can have. Groups of images are numbered in the exhibition; 1 is an introductory piece, 2 to 14 consist of two large images each, 15 and 16 consist of a high volume of images and 17 is best viewed as the finale, therefore it is best to view the whole exhibition in number order, according to the guide.

Ji Weiyu (1980) and Song Tao (1979) form Birdhead. They both appear in the photographed images capturing contemporary daily life in Shanghai. Here, in China’s greatest city, we find the pair socialising with friends: eating out, talking, laughing, partying. We also find them sleeping it off. In the lower of the two images forming exhibit no.6, Untitled (Large 9 & 10), 2011, a man wearing only a shirt and underclothes sings or shouts with apparent abandon into a microphone. His enthused gaze is directed towards the camera, and we are reminded of the bacchanalia of a karaoke excursion. Exhibit 7, Untitled (Large 11 & 12), 2011, captures, in the upper image, a young man slumped in a bean bag, smoking. Continuing the theme of nocturnal hedonism, the lower image captures a woman dressed in an elaborate, white-feathered dress with a matching hat that obscures her face. The corresponding, post-night-out morass is to be found in the lower image of 8, Untitled (Large 13 & 14), 2011, as a young man sleeps, which in the spatial and thematic context suggests a hangover. Apparently in response to the after effects of indulgence, a man drinks coffee in the upper image. In exhibits 12 to 14, along with striking images of a polished, mounted mineral fragment and an agitated portion of water suggestive of the sea, we find further images in which youth culture is captured. The energy of the dancers at a live gig is the subject . Similar youthful activity is to be found in the mutiplicity of smaller snapshot images in exhibits 15 and 16.

Shanghia’s urban landscape, evocative in the inclusion of the skyscrapers and high-rise towers of advanced capitalism and affluence, forms the backdrop to these joyful and carefree cultural phenomena. Evidence of consumerism and the possession of leisure is rife. Exhibits 9 to 11 capture young people and children enjoying leisuretime in manicured parkland. The use of these images seems to compound the impression that the culture of youthful leisure has an established position in the city. Thus far, the visitor may reflect that Western experience teaches that with increasing affluence came the emergence of the teenager. And we are aware that youth culture, and youth sub-cultures, accompanied this change. Perhaps we may also reflect from our own current, cultural experience that with increasing affluence comes the increasing extension of the adolescence. In this exhibition these complimentary trends seem to have been captured and interpolated as an expression of the ongoing flow of power from West to East. This in itself is a great achievement, attained with considerable grace in in the immediacy of the execution. The use of the snapshot aesthetic conveys and compounds the sense of youthful leisure with overtones of tourism. Coupled with the solemnity of black and white, we are encouraged to engage with the images seriously. However, Birdhead go further.

Exhibit no.17, Song Dynasty Poem, 2011, provides a broader point relating to the folly of youth, which seems to surround the piece in the accompanying photographic exhibition. The poem expressed using the original characters is written on a double track of, what looks like, slate squares, encased in the uppermost surface a very long wooden box. The box gently rises from one end to the other, such that from the side it may be viewed diagonally. Though modest it is charismatic, and it can be seen as the centrepiece of the exhibition. An English translation of the poem, titled Youth Does Not Know How Sorrow Tastes by Xin Qiji, can be viewed at the lower end of the work. The poem reflects on experience in life, how naïve youth which often focuses on melancholy does not know true sorrow, and how that sorrow is the price paid for wisdom. There is little point in describing a poem further, which may be viewed to great effect as the finale to an experience which is at once familiar, yet somehow other.

Birdhead: Welcome to Birdhead Again, 09/03/2012 – 07/04/2012, Paradise Row Gallery, 74a Newman Street, London, W1T 3DB.


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