Zhang Xiaogang began his Bloodline Series in 1993, and they have quickly become among the most iconic and haunting images of the new Chinese avant-garde art movement. Like his contemporaries, Zhang grew up under the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a program intended to further the revolutionary cause but which led instead to an extended period of chaos and trauma. As China began to liberalize in the 1980s and into the 1990s, critiques of this period, and the communist legacy more generally, became more and more common and took many forms. It was during this period that Zhang began to explore the implications of the Cultural Revolution on individual subjectivities, and the resulting interplay between history, memory, and experience.
Zhang was inspired by a trove of family photographs he came upon in the early 1990s which themselves contained an impossible contradiction: In commissioning studio portraits of themselves, the sitters were fundamentally staking their claims against the anonymous passage of time and creating a document of their own lives and relationships. At the same time, these photos are imbued with the sitters' apparent desire to disclaim any individuality and disappear under a collective ideal.
As he transforms these images into paintings, Zhang minimizes individual characteristics, and his figures seem faded from the wear of time. In this exceptional work from 1996, Zhang paints his figures before a generic, industrial studio backdrop, and their conventionalized poses and passive expressions have the air of an imminent tragedy. Zhang has stated, "We are like a big family. In this family, we must learn to confront all our blood relations: family blood, social blood, cultural blood The unavoidable collectiveness. In this 'family', where we find concentrated so much individualism and intimacy, we constrain one another, we annihilate one another, and we depend on one another" (Xin-Dong Cheng Publishing House, Forget and Remember, Beijing, China, 2003, p. 17). Between the sitters and extending beyond the edge of the composition, Zhang paints 'bloodlines', tentative, tendon-like threads linking family members to each other and to others not present, and these anonymous sitters seem to tremble against the weight of their entanglements and with the uncertainly of the future and of lives yet to unfold.