Shanxi by Zhang Xiao, reviewed by Olga Yatskevich

In his work Chinese photographer Zhang Xiao carefully explores contemporary Chinese culture, its changes and traditions. His most recent photobook captures Xiao’s journey to Shanxi, a province in Northern China, where he travelled in 2009. This area is famous for its unique celebration of Lunar Year, also known as She Huo Festival. The celebration goes back to pagan ritual practices and remains an essential tradition for the region. Xiao took his plastic Holga camera to document this transformation and atmosphere during the festivities. People paint colourful masks and dress up in stunning costumes representing mythical creatures and powerful Gods. Red colours (symbol of joy and prosperity) cover the streets of the city and Xiao plays with it composing his images.

Holga aesthetic along with constant fog of the city reinforces haunting and surreal atmosphere of the holiday. Xiao captures colourful energy of the festival and individuality of its participants. Carefully composed portraits of transformed locals remind ancient Gods. Their stillness is close to meditation. Spontaneous shots of celebration – opera performance, horse riding, games, martial arts – add dynamic to the narrative. During these few days everyone feels special and extraordinary, taking the stage of this theatrical celebration and getting away from daily routine of rural life. In these images that blur the lines between reality and dreams, everything turns into a wonderland.

Shanxi works very well in a book format, creating a bizarre atmosphere and narrative. The book is beautifully produced by LA-based publisher Little Big Man. It has exposed spine, colourful jacket and beautiful end-paper. It has an unusual size, with the book cover cut exposing the pages and adding an extra dimension to almost square format. A stamp (typical for all LBM books) with the publisher’s name, year of publication and a copy number in the edition is a nice touch. Published in a limited edition of 300 copies.

If you enjoy Shanxi, take a look at other photobooks by Zhang Xiao, his other project They was published by Chinese Jiazazhi Press in 2012.

Shanxi can be purchased here.

Olga Yatskevich is a New York-based photobook collector. She is the founder of the Facebook Photobook Group, a forum for discussion on various aspects of photobook culture. She organizes photobook meet-ups in NYC and writes the phot(o)lia blog, which featuring titles from her growing collection. She is a co-founder of the 10×10 Photobooks project.