Chinese-born artist O Zhang traveled across the United States, photographing thousands of blank and neglected billboards, a trek that echoes Dorothea Lange’s own documentary expedition during the Great Depression. Zhang has taken an object that has long been a canvas—with pop art icons such as Andy Warhol designing billboards for the Sunset Strip—and made it the subject instead. In capturing the formal elegance of the bare billboard, Zhang has, in some sense, flipped the script. It’s not the printed images and text on them that matter, but the structures themselves. Read more about her work and about billboards as an American cultural signifer in my essay for The Margins, a magazine of the Asian American Writers Workshop.
The Winter 2011 issue of Nieman Reports, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, focuses on books and the book industry. It features an essay by me on discovering that, as the German critic Theodor Adorno put it, “in exile, the only house is that of writing.”
The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011 – Our journey took us past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern banks of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and eggplant by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine or a man pumping air into bicycle tires. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a massive human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.
We had traveled five hours over shell-shocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s national archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on July 29, 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta to the Caribbean.
Catalogued on this brittle artifact, yellow and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth recording: “Name: Sheojari. Age: 27. Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches. Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured laborer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.