Shanghai-based art collective Birdhead uses photographic snapshots to record everyday life. From a friend in a shaggy fur coat, to a potted plant or a skyscraper, their 20-by-16-inch black-and-white images are a frenzied documentation of the world around them. No subject is too insignificant. “Those trivial moments of everyday life we shoot are, for us, like mirrors in which we can comprehend ourselves; examine ourselves,” they told A.i.A. via email.
Artists Ji Weiyu and Song Tao, who formed Birdhead in 2004, have been friends for nearly 15 years. After participating in the Venice Biennale in 2011 and making a solo show at London gallery Paradise Row earlier this year, Birdhead will have their first major introduction to American audiences, showing 71 gridded photos at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as part of the musuem’s annual “New Photography” exhibition, opening Oct. 3.
MoMA associate curator of photography Eva Respini sees the work as a product of a Facebook and Instagram generation. “It seemed to me that it was work that was very much of its moment,” she said. “A kind of obsessive documentation or chronicling of their lives, their hanging out, their friends, their city around them, their city of Shanghai. All of this is material for their work.”
“A lot of Chinese artists that I’ve looked at, and even that we’ve collected at the museum, are working in color, are working in more performative modes and are also working digitally,” Respini said. “Birdhead eschew that in favor of a more traditional, analog way of working. This diaristic mode I haven’t seen much in contemporary Chinese photography.”
Ji and Song both graduated from Shanghai Arts and Crafts School in 2000. They assumed the moniker Birdhead in 2004 when, while saving digitized images, a Chinese Romanization computer program randomly generated the word birdhead. The Dadaist impulse to assume a non-word as a name shows their irreverent, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. For example, in the MoMA installation, an image of a friend flipping off the camera is shown alongside the Shanghai skyline.
While Birdhead’s work seems to speak to the image-saturated culture of today’s youth, they work only in analog and print the photographs themselves using traditional means. “Compared to digital, we prefer the tactile appeal of analog film, moreover, we feel that the current digital cameras look too ugly,” said Birdhead.
The installation created for MoMA uses black-and-white photographs of characters on advertisements, signs, and bus stops around Shanghai to spell out a verse from a 1,000-year-old Chinese poem. “We shot these characters one by one, and then re-ordered them to mimic the poems,” said Birdhead. “We framed the results, and overlapped them with our photos on the wall. In spirit, this method of overlapping is similar to the way in which inscriptions are added to traditional Chinese brush painting.”
The photos exhibited at MoMA will be assembled into Birdhead’s soon-to-be-published book The Light of Eternity. After that, the duo plans to continue to capture their day-to-day lives in Shanghai. “Shooting more photos and editing the numerous photos we shoot from our everyday life is Birdhead’s major work,” they summed it up.