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About Birdhead

Song Tao - born: Shanghai, China 1979; Ji Weiyu - born: Shanghai, China 1980

Birdhead established 2004, live and work in Shanghai


Shanghai Arts and Crafts School: both artists graduating in 2000

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Practice: photography

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 On the one hand, we've seen it all before: the studiedly casual snaps and diaristic focus on nothings-in-particular. All achingly hip. But these photographs are different insofar as they're not taken in London or New York or Berlin, but shot in Shanghai, the city where Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, collectively known as Birdhead, are based.

For western viewers still unable to fathom the exact extent and parameters of personal freedom in today's China, the mere fact that these images seem so familiar is itself a fascinating eye-opener.

In terms, too, of current Chinese art, Birdhead's practice represents a sharp, refreshing deflection from the elaborately staged imagery for which its contemporary photographers have largely become known.

By contrast, Birdhead's images are immediate and unusually intimate, their candour probably doing more to document the extraordinary levels of transition in China than endless views of construction sites or mediated portraits of Mao.

Which is not to say that Weiyu and Tao studiously avoid reference to Chinese heritage beyond the bustling life of Shanghai's streets. In fact, their most recent shows have each been accompanied by imposing sculptural installations excerpting classic Chinese poetry, the characters of which are collated from photographs of shopfronts, street signs and the like.

The temple-like formality of these works, with their emphasis on typically Chinese materials such as bamboo and lacquer, stand in striking contrast to the informality of the photographs to which they form a prelude. The choice of texts, too, seems archly appropriate: Youth Does Not Know How Sorrow Tastes, a classic, Song dynasty poem by Xin Qiji, accompanied one of the duo's most recent expositions of Shanghai youth at play.

Yet even here there's a telling caveat. Questioned about the use of these verses, the artists refer to "... the manga series Dragon Ball... (in which) seven dragon balls have been scattered across the world, and it is said that whoever can gather all seven can summon a dragon that will grant one wish."

The artists' search for Chinese characters is really, they disingenuously suggest, paralleled by a comic book quest, emanating from "... the same mindset as Dragon Ball."

In today's youth culture some things have universal appeal, and manga is definitely among them. Despite - or even, perhaps, due to - Birdhead's 'westernised' photographic configurations, the duo's work represents a major shift in Chinese art and sensibilities: documenting a time when, socially and culturally, China began to look something very like a world it once vehemently opposed.

Added Jan 2012

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