Chinese artist O Zhang turned her lens onto America’s open roads for her latest solo exhibition, “I Am Your Mirror,” at the Vilcek Foundation in New York. The show, which closed November 10, was a culmination of thousands of photographs that Zhang took during four road trips, covering 10,000 miles of the continental United States in the company of her husband, Peter Garfield, who acted both as her driver and her artistic consultant. Her works capture a moment of national change, depicted through empty billboards scattered across the country.
Turning her gaze from the urban landscape of China—her native country—to the American road, Zhang was immediately drawn to these blank slates, since an unused billboard is unheard of in China. Advertising and communist propaganda have dominated the Chinese skyline since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the year Zhang was born, and have insured that she is hyperaware of the ever-evolving advertising landscape—from traditional roadside signs to online campaigns. America’s empty billboards are telling of the recent economic hardship; yet, at the same time, they represent spaces of possibilities, and ones onto which viewers can project their ideas. No longer an encouragement for consumption, these billboards become instead tabula rasa for the viewers’ individual and cultural prejudices, beliefs and ideas.
In I Am Your Mirror, 3 (Palm Desert, California) (2012), remnants of a former advertisement glitter on a billboard surrounded by palm trees and a blue sky. The photograph alludes to both a golden age that is slipping away and a present that awaits the fortunes of the future. These contrasting themes, of a bygone era and a fresh slate, “describe both fading dreams and new beginnings,” according to Zhang. In I Am Your Mirror, 1 (Brooklyn, New York) (2012), an abandoned billboard has been re-appropriated by graffiti, broadcasting the tagger’s entreaty, “Bless Yourself.”
The exhibition title, “I Am Your Mirror,” suggests that the displayed works are merely Zhang’s way of holding a mirror to the American landscape, allowing the nation to expose itself to her camera. Yet her images are framed to attain a specific aesthetic. One untitled photograph includes, in the lower portion of the frame, a car’s side mirror, which reflects the image of Zhang holding up her camera towards a blank billboard standing a few yards from the edge of the road. Each photograph in the series was taken from the passenger seat of Zhang’s car, or from the edge of the road, and her images are sectioned into horizontal bands of sky, billboard, landscape and road—these tropes of the traditional American road trip give the series an aesthetic cohesion. Zhang displays a similar framing aesthetic in her 2004 series “Horizon,” which emphasizes a blue sky, the figure of a child and land.
Also displayed in the exhibition was an installation, I Am Your Mirror—The Reflected Floor (2012), in whch images printed on copy-paper are strewn on the floor like trash. A collage of these paper images is crumpled up and stuck on irregular pieces of paper to create a separate, untitled piece (2012), while copy-paper prints applied to graffiti-ridden plywood create the billboard installation I Am Your Mirror, 1 (Brooklyn, NY) (2012). The rough aesthetic of these installations contrasts with the picturesque imagery of Zhang’s photographs, suggesting the various possibilities for America’s future that the artist has seen in her trips across the nation.