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Birdhead: Photography as Installation

Author: btr Translator: Maggie J Zheng, Licheng Zeng 2017

Birdhead does not think the quality of individual photographs matters. Song Tao and Ji Weiyu, who set up the collective Birdhead, even deny their photographer identity. “We are installation artists,” they declared publicly several times, as their artistic practice is beyond the philosophy of photography. On the official website of ShanghART Gallery, the works of Birdhead like Today 2014-01 and Today 2014-02 are labelled “installation”. Their introductions place silver print alongside frame, teak, inside liner, crocodile leather, lacquer etc., which emphasise they are all components of an installation, but with clear priorities. Apart from the width and length, the labels also include the thickness (8 cm), focusing on the three-dimensional characteristic of the works. Of course, no one has set dimensional standards for installation. The photographs of Birdhead are thicker than the gold gold leaf of Roni Horn’s Gold Field, 1992. Also, the piles of paper and photographs of Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres grants the validity of regarding Birdhead’s works as installations. The only difference among them is the quantity, not the nature. 

We view Birdhead as installation artists not just because they highlight the physical properties of photographs. Their photo matrix, the usage of Chinese painting’s wet-mounting technique, as well as the way to deal with exhibition spaces, all have the characteristics of installation art. In the past few years, Birdhead has assimilated the early ideology of conceptual art, which was independent of photography, into their photo matrixes and exhibitions. Each of their shows can even be seen as a whole installation, in another word, a self-evolving world of Birdhead. 

The formal and conceptual context of photo matrix

The term "installation" emerged in the early 60s with the rise of minimalism. However, the features of installation can be found in the ready-mades of Duchamp at the beginning of 20th century, the collage of Kurt Schwitters in the 20s as well as Lucio Fontana’s work Ambiente Spaziale, 1949. All the works "ask the audience to comprehend the context of art-making and how the work is presented through a single object. This is because installation is in an isolated culture context, often connects to or is inspired by the environment. It leads art into a dialogue among direct material, history and social context."[1] Installation depends on connections, which could be concrete (relationship with the material and the space of the shows) or abstract (the aesthetics, social, political and historical context of the works), in order to achieve the self-expression of the artists effectively.

There are multiple levels of connections within the installation works of Birdhead. The first one is the internal connection between the snapshots. In the photo matrix, which has been the major art form of Birdhead in recent years, each individual photograph becomes the context of the others, so the impact of a single photograph is weakened (the audience can still appreciate the details of each photograph). An over-exposure image can give effective expression, or even reinforce it, as long as it is positioned properly and integrated with the whole work (or a "bigger photograph").

The Tang Poem Song Jambic Verse series, 2011, is a metaphor of this working method. They captured Chinese characters displayed in different fonts throughout the city, and then rearranged them based on a poem, Xin Qiji’s Chou Nu Er (Youth Does Not Know How Sorrow Tastes). Each image represents a single character, which has its own meaning, but the "grammar" (or "principle") is central to show the real poetry. Compared to the words with a particular meaning, the visual language of photographs is more variable and suitable for the free arrangement. It can move through time and spaces, and break the rules of photography to express feelings and thoughts. The photographs taken by different analog cameras under various conditions differ in their resolution and blur, which makes them complementary and helps to adjust the overall rhythm. 

Furthermore, there are changes evident in Birdhead’s principle of the photo matrix. The early photographs of different sizes, close to the tangled configuration of Wolfgang Tillmans (Birdhead’s City, Birdhead’s Car, 2007), have evolved into the neat arrays consisting of images of the same size (Passions Bloom Ambitions, 2016). Using the same organised matrix composition, Birdhead’s show at ShanghART H space in 2015 tended to link the photographs based on their content and subject matters (landscapes, cities or faces). In the 2016 show at Fab-Union, Birdhead fits the points, lines and plane of the photos together like a puzzle. For example, the curve of South Asian female nude and the Siberian snow mountains coincide; the white smoke from the chimney becomes a montage of the clouds in the sky. As the emotions seem to be flowing through different scenes, there is no difference between human being and landscape. The outer and inner world become one. 

The three-panel photo matrix on the second floor of Fab-Union (left & right 6x5 horizontal composition in 30 pieces, middle 6x4 vertical composition in 24 pieces) best shows the mature ability of Birdhead to combine "Formal construction"  with  "conceptual construction". The formal constructure on either side and the conceptual constructure in the middle form the second layer of the connections – a double context of form and content.

Birdhead, Birdhead world and the world

The installation quality of Birdhead’s work is also reflected in the relationship between the work and exhibition space. The 2015 show at ShanghART H-Space created a yard-like space with "three jins" ("jin" in Chinese means "enter, progress and forward"). The first "jin" exhibited photo matrixes in white boxes, while in the second "jin" there were portraits of the two members of Birdhead decorated with 24k gold foils and two delicate works titled For a Bigger Photo, which use the wet mounting technique of traditional Chinese painting and are framed by traditional lacquer. However, the third "jin" has nothing but a plaque “Birdhead's World”. Through the contrast between darkness and brightness, emptiness and fullness, the artists not only explore the proper connections between their works and spaces, but also turn the space into part of the work. 

In the show at Fab-Union West Bund at the end of 2016, apart from making the progressive relationship stereoscopic according to the three-storey building, Birdhead also created two pieces of "real installation" to tame the way too well-designed space. In the transparent interlayer on the second floor locates Birdhead’s Work, a cubic meter wooden box inlaid with broken cameras all around. Waste photographs are attached randomly with staples on the box surface, where the artists also used white waterproof paint to draw the shape of a bird head. Like a kind of ingenious metonymy, this work summarises the art practice of Birdhead (a "meta-work") and reveals their nature: photography is the two artists’ life, and is considered as their approach to understand daily life and the world and to express their emotions. It does not matter if they took pictures in New Village, Shanghai, Thailand or Siberia. In other words, the world plays the role of a mirror: when the artists are taking photos of the world, they are actually shooting themselves and the Birdhead's world. 

The installation Lord near the stairs to the rooftop clearly conveys this kind of personality cult. The beard made of colourful balloons oscillates under the control of the inflation system, which carries a sexual undercurrent to some extents. Also, the smoke from chemicals is the metaphor of passionate inspirations of the artists. “In general, we are more concerned with ourselves. We focus on the transformation in ourselves during the process of observing and understanding the external world,”[2] said Birdhead in an interview of their exhibition catalogue.

It is worth noting that all the recent solo shows of Birdhead reuse the same title "Welcome to Birdhead World". On the one hand, it implies that the exhibition is a piece of installation – the work Birdhead World is always in process and linked to the reality covertly. On the other hand, the title reveals the relationship between the artists and the audience. 

"Welcome to Birdhead World" is more than an invitation for the external world (and the audience) to enter the world of Birdhead (again) and to experience their subjectivity, emotions, interests and aesthetics. In this case, the photographs (and the world within) become the bridge between the artists and the audience. If the audience happens to be familiar with Birdhead’s works, or as discerning as Umberto Eco’s "model readers", they can follow the artists to surpass the bondage of time and reality, to look for classics in the modern life, to appreciate poems and verses, to become a free rover, to reach the end of mainland, to experience the light of eternity or the wonder of young females and to live with passions and ambitions. After all, the greatest thing is life itself. 


[1]Gill Perry & Paul Wood, Themes in Contemporary Art, Yale University Press, P186.

[2]Zhou Jianjia, We do not care about how this world changes, Interview with Birdhead in the exhibition catalogue,P13.

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