Zilan Fan Artist’s Statement
Cultural displacement is a fact of life in New York City, with many immigrants, students, and visitors from other countries inhabiting and experiencing its dense urban environment and complex way of life—a new world that can be intimidating and bewildering for these human transplants. In the series of photographs I call Out of Character, I explore this phenomenon.
The main subject in these images is a highly costumed character well-known in China’s traditional Beijing Opera. The character roams New York City, taking the subway, drinking at bars, eating fast food, strolling the High Line, and generally participating in the same activities as its occupants and visitors. He does these things with a seeming nonchalance, as if there were nothing different or disorienting to him about them. Only his brightly-colored costume announces that he his not a New Yorker, nor even a tourist.
Given New York City’s multicultural nature, it is easy for others to blend in, at least physically. This is especially true for Asians because the city encompasses such large, existing, long-established Asian communities; an Asian face is nothing out of the ordinary. So the Beijing Opera character, instantly recognizable as Chinese, becomes a visual metaphor for the displacement of the city’s foreign newcomers—people who appear to fit in but really don’t feel at home here, because their native cultures are often profoundly different. This is true for me myself, having come to New York from my native China fairly recently.
A viewer’s initial impression of the images in Out of Character is one of surrealism. In fact, surrealism depends for its effect on unexpected combinations of things—for instance, an object in a setting that is entirely inappropriate. The work of Belgian Surrealist painter Rene Magritte is a brilliant example of this approach, and his work has greatly inspired me. But Magritte’s only intention was to create dreamlike images that were psychologically unsettling. In this work, I try to use surrealism—and create an unsettled feeling in the viewer—not only to suggest the way foreigners might feel here, but in general to comment on social phenomena. And in Out of Character, the phenomenon in question is personal, one that I myself am part of.