Performing Identities. A Conversation with Wenjue Zhang

Interview by Edith Lázár

In the Photography Series

As a young Asian artist living and working in the West, Wenjue Zhang has focused her practice on the research of female nudity in artistic representations, a topic which in Zhang’s opinion raises questions of race in addition to issues of sexism alone. Using her own body as a tool of power which can redirect domination relationships, the artist’s eroticized body instrumentalizes the gaze of the public and deconstructs normative gendering to reclaim “a powerful and utopian body which questions the dominant representation of gender, race, sexuality, social class and physical markers, eventually to reconstruct a non-racist and non-sexist politic.” The artist makes references to Monica Witting’s essay, The Straight Mind, where the heterosexual society is described as a universal system of binary categories and those inobservant are considered as “the others.” Colonial domination and racial differences reveal, according to Wenjue Zhang, how the principle of domination is constructed on the systematic differentiation of others.

“By deconstructing the cultural and political identities through disguise, body language and behavior, I aim to conduct an ironic critique of political course of differentiation, discrimination and social marginalization,” says Zhang. Through her practice and body performativity, the artist aims to reclaim the power of the body and the utopias it conveys. “The disguise has a strong presence in my art practice, such as White, Arab, Black, Asian, Black Olympia, model, showgirl. I perform ‘the others,’ but I am whom I perform – ‘the others.’ I consider their differences as my own differences, regardless of cultural, racial, and sexual aspects.” In the interview conducted by Edith Lázár, the artist explains her approach, her views on ideas of ‘nativity,’ but also the artistic legacies and stereotypes that have shaped and continue to shape the history of art.

Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Edith Lázár: You are interested in dressing practices found in other cultures, from dress and make-up, to whiteness clichés and representations of the feminine. What triggered your interest for body dressing/undressing?

Wenjue Zhang: My research focuses on female nudity in artistic representations. In occidental classical paintings, female models pose as nudes for male painters, which is inevitably related to the male desire. The relationship of power is registered in the pictorial discourse. We live in a Western heterosexual dominant culture. The female body is defined by male desire, whether dressing or undressing. So I am particularly interested in how contemporary female artists redirect the male gaze and the ways to subvert the traditional norms of gender.

Edith Lázár: Why did you choose to make use of disguise as a practice, and what is the difference between disguise and masquerade in your works? Can this subvert binary, normative categories and cultural constructions?

Wenjue Zhang: Disguise means to change the appearance by make-up or deceptive garb to conceal identity or to assume another identity. That is exactly what I do. I disguise myself as White, Black, Arabic or Asian women. By contrast, masquerade means to go about under a false character, it’s a theatrical notion. But the identity is in the real life. According to Judith Butler’s theory, she perceives that gender is culturally and politically constructed through repetition and stylized execution. In order to subvert normative categories, she proposes the concept of gender performativity which means sex/gender as a daily choice.

The racial identity is the same as gender, culturally and politically constructed, one of the binary categories. Even though I am Asian by origin, I consider my Asian identity as performative. I reconstruct my identity through my art work. I perform “the others” but I am whom I perform – “the others.” I consider their differences as my own differences regardless of cultural, racial, and sexual aspects. Thanks to this performative identity, I never have a stable or fixed identity which shapes my body as an imitation without origin. Moreover, with the purpose of destabilizing the dominated codes, I construct a moving identity beyond the dualism of sexual, racial and hierarchical identities.

Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portairt, native women. 40 cm × 60 cm, Digital printing, 2012-2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Edith LázárThe imagery created in your series of self-portraits reenact gendered, (de)ethnicized and racialized woman representations. What is the context in which you bring them together? How do you define them in your work and how does this contribute to the destabilization of dominant codes?

Wenjue Zhang: At first, I was interested in feminism when I was in China, I read Simon de Beauvoir’s famous book The Second Sex during my University. Then I came to France where I began art studies at Bourges National Academy of arts, I engaged my artistic practice in feminism. But as an Asian artist working and living in Europe, I was conscious of racial difference as time went by. Then I began my research about race. I became aware of the prejudgments of skin colour which is the same as sexism in the Western masculine dominant culture. So I tried to bring them together in my art practice, it became an important point in my work.

Edith LázárYou make use of travesty, gestures and behaviour to deconstruct cultural and political identities. What is it that comes after this deconstruction?

Wenjue Zhang: I realized a series of self-portraits with make-up and wigs, I disguised myself as white, black, Arab and Asian women. The process of disguise discloses the unnatural phenomenon of the construction of sexual and racial identities. The concept was to deconstruct cultural and political identities. Then I continued working in this way, instead of confirming a fixed and inherent identity. The disguise process helps me to reconstruct a temporal and moving identity.

Edith LázárSince immigration became one of the issues highly discussed in the context of global nomadism, what does this displacement along with socially defined images of woman bring forth? In what discourse can the Other be set today and how are we to understand the idea of ‘nativity’?

Wenjue Zhang: In contemporary times, the globalization process promotes immigration. Many Non-Western people immigrated to Europe or Western countries. When we talk about the identity topic, it all gets complicated. For example, I was born in China, but I have lived in France for 8 years, and I traveled to many countries. I have a multi-cultural experience. Conversely, my face and my skin colour are Chinese. Our appearance is usually considered as our identity which never corresponds to our inner being.

My self-portrait, Native women is around this topic. I used the word “Native” as a parallel to the “West.” I disguised myself as White, Asian, Arabic, Black women, because I consider the question of identity as a question of performativity which offers me a moving and temporary identity. Women are multiple and feminism also raises problems related to nationalism and racism. Today, feminism has a historic mission, that means we need to take a position which equally goes against nationalist feminism and incarnates internationalist feminism.

Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait: After Olympia, 149 cm × 97 cm, Digital printing, 2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait: After Olympia, 149 cm × 97 cm, Digital printing, 2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Edith LázárIn Self-Portrait: After Olympia the racial is once again at play, this time with fine arts representations passed through the camera lenses. Why did you choose Edouard Manet’s Olympia in particular for racial staging? Also related, how do you perceive the connection between painting and photography as mediums?

Wenjue Zhang: Edouard Manet’s Olympia is famous for Olympia’s confrontational gaze and her prostitute identity, but also for the racist connotations in Manet’s Olympia which shocked the audiences. In 1970, American artist Larry River made a sculpture named “I like Olympia in black face.” He reversed the skin colour of Olympia and her maid and reconsidered the racist connotations as political constructions in Manet’s painting. In my self-portrait: After Olympia, once again through disguise, I create my alter ego – Black Olympia, and I consider Olympia’s difference as my own difference, whether sexual, cultural or racial. I question constructed differences through my own body.

The famous photographer Jeff Wall did a lot of remakes from painting using photography. Today, many painters turn to photography. Moreover, as a reproducible technique, photography is an appropriate medium to interpret the imitation without origin.

Edith LázárSome of the series, like the three part Self-Portrait, are very sensual photographs where you present yourself in nude stances, holding a lipstick, looking into a mirror or near a pair of high heels. How does erotica and fetishism get to play in your images?

Wenjue Zhang: In my artistic practice, I make explicit use of my body as a tool of power, with the idea that the female body, which is objectified by the male gaze, can redirect the domination relationship between man and woman. I eroticize my female body and appeal to various fetishes, such as high heels, red lipstick or corset… I perform the perfect female image as defined in patriarchal cultures. My role is performative. My eroticized body on display instrumentalises the gaze of the public who find themselves redirected by the autoeroticism of the artist-performer. By using psychoanalytic tools, my performance of perfect woman deconstructs the power relationship and the traditional norms of gender.

Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait I: Lipstick, Model in photo studio, 150 cm × 100 cm, Digital printing, 2011, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait I: Lipstick, Model in photo studio, 150 cm × 100 cm, Digital printing, 2011, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait III: Black corset, in front of mirror, 150 cm × 100 cm, Digital printing, 2012, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait III: Black corset, in front of mirror, 150 cm × 100 cm, Digital printing, 2012, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Edith LázárIn the same key, in Showgirl Action you have used one of the epitomes of woman as an object of desire: the smiling showgirl, using her body to enhance. For it, you also worked with another medium of expression: performance. How does this relate to and question the showgirl stereotype?

Wenjue ZhangShowgirl Action was a live performance. I disguised myself as showgirl with balloons attached to my body. I asked spectators to pierce the balloons one by one with knives, scissors, nails, etc. Every time a balloon exploded, I accompanied that with a laugh, making it a joyful and sublime performance. This time, the body is no longer framed within a representation, it is offered to the spectators. My eroticized body on display imposes voyeurism to the spectators. Therefore, the spectators’ gaze is objectified by the autoerotic pleasure of the artist-performer.

In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, feminist theorist Laura Mulvey interprets classical Hollywood cinema through a psychoanalytic framework. She uses Freud and Lacan’s concepts as a “political weapon.” She argues that classical Hollywood cinema inevitably puts the spectators in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire for the male gaze. In patriarchal cultures, the traditional films, pictures, and stories encourage the spectators and audiences to identify with the protagonist of the film, who are overwhelmingly male. By instrumentalizing this cultural tradition, female spectators can easily shift from their sex to another sex. That is, from female to male.

I consider the performance Showgirl Action as a manifestation of the showgirl stereotype. By incarnating the desire, the pleasure and male castration anxiety, Showgirl surpasses the frontier between male as active and female passivity. The Showgirl uses her sexuality to wield a power which does not belong to her – the male power.

Edith LázárEven if we speak about disguise or role-playing, it is still your body – the artist’s body – that is photographed and subjected to the gaze. What relationship do you establish with the photographic apparatus? And which are the utopias vehiculated by the body to which you make reference in your artist statement?

Wenjue Zhang: In Hollywood cinema, the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. The camera is identified as the male gaze. In my artistic practice, the relationship with the photographic apparatus is complicated and ambiguous. On the one hand, the lens plays the role of a heterosexual man and replaces the male gaze. On the other hand, as an artist, I express my statement through lens.

My artwork is expressed in the form of self-portraits, so my artistic statement is based on the relationship between gazer and gazed. Instead of passively accepting the male gaze, I present myself as actively confirming and returning the gaze of masculine spectators. The welcoming of objectification can be viewed as exhibitionism. Consequently, the gaze of spectators is returned and redirected by the autoeroticism of the artist-performer.

Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait II: Red shoes, Pandora’s box, 150 cm × 100 cm,Digital printing, 2012, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Self-portrait II: Red shoes, Pandora’s box, 150 cm × 100 cm,Digital printing, 2012, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.

Edith LázárAre there any forms of body renderings that you have stylized in your work and with which you identify? Why?

Wenjue Zhang: Make-up and wigs.

When I began my project self-portrait, Native women, I wanted to find a way to change my racial appearance in a simple way that is close to daily life. Art is life itself. As my artwork focuses on questions of identity, I observed the typical and popular female appearance of different races. How do they make-up? How do they dress up? etc. Then I began to make my self-portraits. These disguised portraits can also be my real identities in the daily life. My next project will be more exciting, as I will live my life with different races. I consider life as a grand performance banquet. But make-up and wig are still the best and simplest ways.

Edith LázárGenerally speaking, fashion has taken upon the role of exploiting stereotypes regarding the body in terms of discipline and image appropriation, including traditional and ethnic body looks. What is your position in relation to it? Can fashion be traced as well as an influence in your work?

Wenjue Zhang: Fashion generally means clothing, including accessories, make-up and body modification. Fashion is usually considered as a way to confirm social class, wealth power and individual personality. Besides aesthetic researches, fashion also contains anthropological and social aspects.

However, different fashion practices can subvert the traditional gender, racial and class norms. In my artistic practice, make-up skills can achieve the transformation from one racial appearance to a completely different one. Through different fashion styles, the clothing can be feminine or masculine, and even androgynous. Fashion has its own charm in subverting traditional body norms. Thanks for this original question, yes! fashion will be a very interesting and exciting point in my future artistic practice!

Wenjue ZHANG, Showgirl Action. Video performance, 3:06 min, 2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
Wenjue ZHANG, Showgirl Action. Video performance, 3:06 min, 2013, France. Image © Wenjue ZHANG. Used here by kind permission from the artist. All rights reserved.
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