China has today some super-stars photographers; among them there is Chen Jiagang 陈家刚 (born in 1962 in Chongqing). First trained as an architect and owner of a museum, Chen started his activities as a photographer around the year 2000. Thenceforth, he created astounding artworks that mingle documentary and staged photography. This artist witnessed Chinese society’s upheavals and seems determined to show his country straightforwardly, to give back the memory of its citizens, while being aware of his own subjectivity and desire for reinvention. Cities in ruin, torn apart landscapes, abandoned or reborn factories, all these places imbued with historical past and uncertain present are recorded and reinvented at the same time. Chen likes adding diaphanous feminine presence into this apparent urban chaos, belonging both to an historical past and his own memory. Armed with his view camera and his team, Chen creates large-sized photographs in which he grasps the echo of the past, a forgotten memory, a necessary realization. Despite his very busy schedule, Chen accepted to answer my questions on 30 March 2012.
Your photographs are in great majority in colors. However, sometimes you use black and white, why?
I use quite rarely black and white for I really like color photography. Changing colors allows me to convey my emotions, which themselves proceed from my own subjectivity and intention.
Many of your photographs show cities in ruins or abandoned. It seems this worry about such massive destructions is shared with other Chinese artists. Do you think there is a sort of anxiety about modernity within your artworks?
Whatever the country, when people have a strong mentality their behaviours towards nature and environment go beyond development, and ruins are unfortunately inevitable. The image of ruin can appear differently in my photographs, it can be implied by rubbish, by fog, and so forth. No matter which form it is, in all case this evokes my distress.
Your series Silk Road seem close to pictorial photography or shanshui (a Chinese term referring to traditional landscape paintings). Did you draw your inspiration from Chinese tradition? Is the practice of referencing important in your works?
In truth, all my photographs explore and use Chinese tradition and its aesthetic principles. Especially the notions of time and space found in ancient philosophy, the isometric perspective, and the overlapping of landscape’s layers among others.
What are the similarities and dissimilarities between your landscape photographs and those of the past?
Landscape photography is akin to that of literati landscape paintings from ancient times. It is an outlet for the artist to face the hopeless reality of today’s world. In that sense, my landscapes refer either to the past or to my personal experiences.
Environmental pollution is also another topic that appears often. Did you wanted to talk about this issue in your series Silk Road?
Silk Road does not raise issues of environmental pollution. Instead it aspired to rethink today’s world by suggesting that another form of civilization might be the answer to solve many cultural problems. Besides, this series proposes another way to decipher the economic crisis.
Fog is a recurrent element in your works. What is its meaning?
Fog is most importantly the symbol of the consequences when men plunder natural resources.
Did you have trouble in creating Third Front, The Great Third Front, and Smog City? I guess some people prevented you from photographing certain places.
I had a lot of troubles; there are many places that I was not allowed to shoot. The worst experience I had is one time when people armed with guns made me go out a place I wanted to photograph.
What do you think about Chinese contemporary photography?
I think the current state is rather complicated. I hope there will be more persons involved; there is few photographers for such a big country.
Which photographer(s) do you prefer?
I like the Czech photographer Joseph Koudelka, notably the way he photographs politics and people.
What are your expectations about the future?
I would like to create ten other series, one per year, then continue again for ten years, and spend the rest of my years likewise.
More information: Chen Jiagang's website