Zhang Xiao’s “Community Fire” focuses on the spring festival of Shehuo, a local tradition in rural northern China, to explore the visual richness, mystery, meaning and diversity of this tradition passed down through generations, as well as the drastic effects of sudden economic prosperity and commercialization.
For the first chapter, Zhang Xiao traveled to various regions in northern China to document the costumes, make-up, folklore and history of the Shehuo festival in highly effective compositions. In subsequent chapters taken ten years later and titled “Products” and “The Present Day,” the portrait-like shots of plastic masks and mass-produced ornaments highlight the growing disconnect from millennia of tradition and the move toward a tourist-oriented, alienated version of the festival, culminating in the final photographs of performers who seem to have lost the spirit and interest that were still visible in Zhang Xiao’s photographs a decade earlier.
“[Zhang Xiao’s ‘Community Fire’] is a portrait of a rapidly changing rural Chinese society. His work explores the extent to which the ancient folk beliefs and self-organization of folk society will sustain itself amid the advancements of modernization, and how it will weather the government-mandated changes to tradition, as brought on by ‘intangible cultural heritage’ designations and the effects of an industrialized and digitalized economy.”
― from curator Ilisa Barbash’s foreword