“So many people and stories are lost in the river of time.”
Born 1984, Tangshan City, Hebei
In 2006, Zhang Lidan was staying with relatives in rural China when she came across a pile of old clothes and other objects. She was told they had belonged to her aunt’s mother-in-law, Gao Suhua; after her death, they had been dumped in a corner and forgotten. Offering to sort through them, the artist pulled out a black jacket and a pair of black cotton pants—and was suddenly overcome by “the sadness of this woman’s life”. It was as if the spirit of “Old Lady Gao” was still present in the clothes she had worn and the things she had used. Haunted by the experience, Zhang Lidan set out to find out all she could about Gao Suhua, making regular trips back to the village and interviewing her relatives and former neighbours. The dead woman’s life had been filled with struggle and grief, but also with spirits and ghosts. Despite raising a large family, she had often seemed detached and lonely; many people regarded her as a shaman. Zhang Lidan decided to try and do what a shaman might: resurrect Old Lady Gao, bring her back home to her family, and somehow, retrospectively, ease her pain. At the same time, she hoped to glimpse what it must have been like to be Gao Suhua. This long—and, the artist says, life-changing—process is recorded in Return: The Resurrection of Old Lady Gao (2008), a series of photographs; and The Return: Old Lady Gao Comes Home (2012), three video interviews with family members and a set of fourteen photographs. The cumulative effect is eerie yet comical, poignant yet banal. As giggling relatives try to say something meaningful about the deceased and move her faceless effigy through her old haunts, every frame underlines the finality of Gao Suhua’s death and the impossibility of “resurrection”.