Chen Jiagang @ ART HK 12
CONTEMPORARY BY ANGELA LI is proud to present a mini-retrospective exhibition of celebrated Chinese artist Chen Jiagang at our booth at this year’s ART HK 12. On show will be a selection of Chen Jiagang’s most iconic large format photographs, including an amazing 4-metre edition on 3 panels, from his Third Front, Smog City, Temptation, Diseased City and the most recent Great Three Gorges series.
Born in 1962 in Chongqing, Chen Jiagang began his career as a celebrated architect and real estate developer before making the transition to photography. He currently lives and works in Beijing.
It comes as no surprise that over 10 years on, Chen Jiagang has positioned himself as one of China’s most prominent and sought after photographers. His images of industrial China, of factories or mines and arid landscapes are easily recognised the world over. Whether in colour or black and white, Chen seems to capture an intensity and depth to his environment rarely seen. Be it his Architectural background or an innate ability to see past obvious beauty, Chen encourages us to find grace in the most masculine of perspectives.
Chen Jiagang will be in Hong Kong for the opening of ART HK 12 art fair on Wed 16 May 2012.
The first and perhaps the most recognizable of Chen’s works is his Third Front Series. The so called “Third Front” was a measure of the “Preparation Against War, and Preparations Against Disasters” taken by the Chinese Government in the 1960s and 70s to defend from the possible invasion by the Soviet Union and the US, i.e. to move some large state owned and military enterprises to the remote and mountainous areas in Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan provinces.
The first element of Chen’s photographs depicts ruins as the backdrop; the giant warehouses, chimneys, pipelines, dormitories and the discarded waste plant areas are all covered in a dusty grey – the colour of the large Third Front enterprises. As the second element of his photographs, young women are placed in the scenes of the ruins of the Third Front. Dressed in the clothes of the 1960s and 70s with accessories like school bags and shawls, these women represent his nostalgic desire for simplicity and innocence. They create the alienating effect of this historical time, while simultaneously exaggerating the differences between their beauty, femininity and gentle nature and the hard mechanics and inorganic temperament of the background.
On the tail of the monumental success of Chens “Third Front”, he follows up with a powerful display in his “Smog City” series. Chen takes an in-depth look at some of the landscapes surrounding the factories and the mines he depicts in the Third Front. A self-described expressionist photographer and using a wide-angled lens, Chen’s photographs manage to conjure a type of industrial fairy tale.
Recently, China has engaged in an expansion of investment on an unprecedented scale, starting and accelerating in a series of key national-level projects. The most remarkable being a new set of four large engineering projects of the hundred-billion Yuan scale; the “Second West-East Gas Pipeline”, the “Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail”, the “Nuclear Power Program” and the execution of the “South-North Water Diversion Project”. These projects are being touted as part of a market-rescue plan, but their results and their future are unclear, as if cloaked in a dense layer of smog. Therefore, Chen uses the term “Smog City” to describe these colossal engineering projects that exceed the capacity for human imagination.
In the past two decades, China has become the world’s leading producer of steel and second largest producer of copper. Its relative use of power and water for that production far exceeds world averages and as a result it also produces more pollution. Apart from the ecological pollution, Chen believes when people’s aspirations to become wealthy reach the level of a religious faith, they begin to amass wealth through reliance on resources and the sale of resources. The price paid for this aspiration, just like a pyramid scheme, cascades down from the top. Each tier pulls up benefits from, and tosses the garbage to the tier below. No one cares about the resulting defeat of morals and pollution of the environment. Smog is a symbol of this public garbage. “Smog City” is a visual fable about this Chinese pyramid scheme.
The “Temptation” series was a passionate creation triggered during a rare snowstorm encountered in Guizhou in a particularly cold January. People go back to their most basic mental state to look at society and nature when faced with uncontrollable disasters. Fear evokes our basic instincts, and all our normalised logic suddenly disappears.
The “Temptation” series triggers Chen’s imaginings of disasters. His works have hidden sadness, bringing about to some extent a classical literary conception of elegance, rhyme, flirtation, and sorrow.
The original idea of the “Temptation” series was associated with women. Chen was in Chengdu when he began to pay attention to this topic. At that time, a friend of his was working at Provincial Procuratorate and gave him some material, which compared the sex scandals of the politicians in different countries. He told Chen that there had been sex scandals of both international and Chinese politicians. Those of Chinese politicians usually involved economic problems while those of politicians in other countries did not. Since then he has been thinking about the influence of women on politics.
The most serious urban disease in the 21st century is mental illness. Nearly 20 years of development of China and the massive expansion of cities have taken place midst two dominant struggles. One is the conflict between the civilian capitalists’ gains and the state interest. The second is the conflict between the local government and the central government in terms of interest. The local government and central government share the taxes, this practice is rare in the world. Once there is any conflict between the local government and the central one in terms of interest, the representative of the local interest will be sacrificed for the overall development of other places.
During the process of these two conflicts, China’s cities have gained remarkable development with massive change. While the development has changed the cities physically, it has also brought about mental diseases: such as lack of moral bottom line, cops and thieves forming the interest groups, seeking development in the cost of dignity of men and women, environmental pollution, indifference and estrangement of human relations, deviation from traditional virtue and decorum etc. These are “urban diseases”.
Great Three Gorges
In his latest series of works, Chen travels to the reservoir area of the Three Gorges where he grew up. Shocked at how the landscape had changed, he did not recognize this place from his boyhood memories. Most disturbing were the waste pits that were left behind where all the trees had been transplanted to the city, these abandoned, barren landscape he compares to that of Africa. Although aware this process had created a better life for people elsewhere, what of the people left behind? Seeing his homeland desecrated in such way, Chen felt he had no other option but to take an artistic view, to try and find the beauty in what remained.
Here in the Great Three Gorges series, using 3 separate large format negatives and bringing them together to create one large image, he conveys the powerful and thought provoking panorama of the modern day Three Gorges.