Interview of Chen Jiagang, by Li Xianting
Most of the time, before the shooting of each work goes a conception, or a story. This story, by combining girls with the scene, conveys what we want to express through metaphor. If we expect art to recount a story from the very beginning to the very end like the TV series do, it is out of the question.
Li Xianting: In 1996, you were a boss in real estate when I met you at that time. You gave me the impression that you often took with your magnificent camera, which I admired a lot. Wherever you went, you always took pictures. This is a deep impression. Did you start your photography at that time?
Chen Jiagang: I am fond of photography from the very beginning. During my university years, we had lessons of photography, and it was my elective course. By being my own boss, I had little spare time, but because I was interested in it, plus I had enough money, so I bought excellent camera, it was just for fun. In fact, my photography career exactly began after the failure of my business, because I was no longer a boss. At that time, I didn’t want to see anybody, including my friends in artistic circle; all of them lost connection with me. Then I found out those cameras that I used to play, and went along the way of Wenchuan in order to take photos in Aba. I stayed there for three years or so. But there were no people I known, even photography could not make me happy. In generally, after bankruptcy, capitalists often commit suicide, or they were put into jail. As for me, photography is a way to express their feelings…
Li Xianting: You took lots of pictures of scenery at that time?
Chen Jiagang: Yeah.
Li Xianting: I wrote the preface for your first exhibition, and there was a kind of sentimental emotion in your scenic films.
Chen Jiagang: In fact, I understood what real artists think. Personally speaking, since you are tired of city life, you may eager to seek some comparatively pure things from nature. Therefore, the pictures were pretty beautiful, with a sort of sentiment in them. The temporary mood made me unwilling to face reality and ugly things, so I chose to escape, escape to the landscape.
Li Xianting: The works of “Third Front” were in your second exhibition, whose space in 798 Art District you asked me to have a look?
Chen Jiagang: Zhu Yan’s.
Li Xianting: Was that the first time to exhibit “Third Front”?
Chen Jiagang: Yes, just several pictures.
Li Xianting: When did you start to take those pictures? How did the idea of photographing the “third front” factory occur into your mind?
Chen Jiagang: The photography of “third front” factory should go back to the article you had written for 798 exhibitions. After the exhibition, I changed greatly. Before that, photography was for the purpose of soothing my troubles. Because of that exhibition and more than 10 scenic pictures, friends from artistic circle gave me too much attention and care. After the exhibition, I began to pursue art whole heartedly. The “Third Front” derived from a picture of a dorm presented in the exhibition, and that was a dorm in “Third Front”. Lao Yue (Yue Minjun) and Lao Fang (Fang Lijun) discussed with me on that work. Lao Yue bought one, and he said that the feelings were wonderful, so was Lao Fang. Afterwards, I thought that why people were so interested in this one, among others, this one was taken by accident.
The dorms in “third front” were separated into many small rooms, just like that of the 1970s. That picture was similar to one chapter in Outlaws of the Marsh, but finally evolved to Chin Ping Mei. When I returned to Chengdu, I talked about it with Zi Lang, Chun Ya and many other people. At that time, our talks focused on the life what we artists were interested or the things related to our lives. For me, my life is distinct from those of professional artist, because I experienced something different during these 20 years after graduation. During 6.4 Incident, I was a leader in Chengdu, and I led 800 people to…, but all of them were captured except me. 6.4 Incident was very important for me, from them I understood we should not go against social system. After that, I determined and began to run my own enterprise, aiming to save China with industry. But those things I had experienced, seen from an artist’s view, it seemed that I experienced the period of the development of modern Chinese art. As a matter of fact, from the angle of commerce, I experienced the period that from nongovernmental economy to the combination of governmental economy with power economy, and then sought cooperation with financial oligarch. The development was a process of collecting wealth from vulnerable groups. My experience might be different from those of artists, who became artists after graduation from Academy of Fine Art, because I had more direct connection with the society, and knew more about Chinese politics. I thought that my arts should focus on this respect.
The shooting of “Third Front” was accidental at the very beginning. I experienced “Third Front” when I was a youth. Not long after I worked, I was a designer selected by the government to design the architectures of atomic base. I stayed for a long time there. The No.9 Institute in Mianyang, with the code name “839” contemporarily, was an important part. Although twenty years has past since the construction of “third front”, it can just indicate some clue for the things we are facing now, for example, the exploration, having dealings with governments, but it was an incomplete process, rather, an ongoing process. In the books, the history of “Third Front” had beginnings and endings, hinting many things, such as the politicalization of industry, imaginary images, economic distribution system in war time, collective consciousness, idealism and so many. The contemporary emotional mode also included the complicated relationship between human development and resource and environment, so I was eligible for shooting the film. The 20 years after my graduation were very complex, and during the period, I did many things, which determined that I would not shoot it in a simple way. The pain of artists was very different from mine. I came to Beijing the year before last year, when a theorist told me that artists were quite painful. I replied: your pain is nothing, and you would feel the same way as me if you heard my stories. In 1993, the real estate association was founded in Chengdu, which was sponsored by 27 companies among 800 companies or so. Up to now, except me, others don’t appear any more.
Li Xianting: All died?
Chen Jiagang: They either were shot by governments, or were beaten to death by the underworld, or escaped to overseas, or still in jail, or commit suicide, compared to the disappearance of life, your pain was nothing. All the 27 people were born in intellectuals, and they were not that out-of-date bosses as you may think, and they run their enterprises very well. Did they don’t want to do things well? Did they don’t want to contribute to our country? The answer is definitely no, but what results did they get? I said to the theorist, you were still alive, live in a big house, but they died with no space for burial. I went bankruptcy, fortunately, I escaped death, and on the contrary, I may have the same result. Therefore, the things I chose to shoot are different from general artists, because of my distinct experience.
Li Xianting: I found that there was much architecture in your first batch of photos. You were an architect, then a boss in real estate, and both of the occupations are related to building. Now, the “third front” takes on the appearance of ruins, does it has something to do with your specialty or building?
Chen Jiagang: There is direct connection, for I have learned architecture since my study in university, and I learned quite well then. Architecture is characterized by expressing through space and using such spatial forms as girder, column, door and window. In ancient times, the forms should be pavilion, terrace, tower and boat. The space is used to narrate stories. Photography is feature with telling stories through time, no matter it is slow or fast. I know the language of space. If the idea that I want to convey can be expressed by space, I think it will be likely to have a positive influence on photography. As for lots of ruins afterwards, they are just an inevitable outcome.
I want to talk about two questions: one is about the method of photography; the other is about the conception.
“Third Front” is the powerful effects of political consciousness, for example, suppose that Soviet Union will fight against America, so it moves its factories to the mountains. After the powerful effects of political consciousness, power is just like a catalyst, which can lead to extremity in very short time, for example, the production of atomic bomb, or the immediate production of guns and cannons or nuke in the mountain with nothing. The catalyst will certainly be discarded in the end, becoming a ruin finally, just like a person who has run out of his energy will be disabled finally. The ruin is an inevitable outcome, and in this way our country copes with many issues including the problem of environment. The artists only see the impact of foreign stuff on us, among which the biggest one lies in that the country gives all the people a wish to make a fortune, then those who work in companies want to be rich, so do the artists. At last, the wish brings on the deterioration of humanity, such as over-exploitation of the environment. Thus, I think, due to many factors, we have been ignoring a issue till now, that is the powerful effects of political awareness, which results in people’s desire which they should not have, or the desire amplifies it in turn, and the following outcome will certainly be the formation of ruins.
Li Xianting: Ruin is an outcome, for example, as for the ruin and the previous scale, can you clarify the things before and after the ruin--including the powerful effects of political consciousness you just mentioned, or, perhaps not clarify them, but just inspire associations in the people, such as how you deal with this ruin, including your putting youthful girls in it.
Chen Jiagang: This involves another question.
Li Xianting: Please elaborate on how you treat images.
Chen Jiagang: What I shoot is the memory, for “Third Front” exited several decades ago. The “Third Front” we shoot now is but a trace of the former “Third Front”. How can the past trace be integrated with the current shooting?
Most of the time, before the shooting of each work goes a conception, or a story. This story, by combining girls with the scene, conveys what we want to express through metaphor. If we expect art to recount a story from the very beginning to the very end like the TV series do, it is out of the question. I only endeavor to express this. So, as to the reason why I put this girl in, in light of the film, my practice somewhat resembles a combination of a story with a documentary. There is a story in it; moreover, it is an allegory. As for why I call it a documentary, because the scene is real, but this reality is connected to the past several decades, and is expressed by what is left of the past; so the two together constitute the language of “Third Front”.
Li Xianting: Why did you choose girls, who are beautiful and dressed in fashion?
Chen Jiagang: As far as I am concerned, there are four meanings.
First, when I worked in the third front, or in my memory as a young man, the work pressure was huge, and worse still, it couldn’t be vented out. At that time, the only thing about life was work and girl. One needs to release his pressure, but he had no other way except love affairs; therefore, love was of particular importance at that time. The same was true of France during World War II. After France was occupied by Germany, French people were unable to revolt; then as a result of French people’s suppressed emotions, many French girls had love affairs with the Germans. Several years ago when I shot ”Third Front” in Panzhihua inhabited by some people who once worked in the “third front”, I was told that one or two years after they arrived at the “third front”, there was actually no rural women left, for all of them married these people cherishing grand ambitions. Back then, merely two things mattered, namely, the national strategies and the women, just that simple. The sentiments back then are embodied in the girls of my work.
Second, this girl contrasts with the ruin, symbolizing the huge contrast between personal and national consciousness.
As for the third meaning, we only rest on the level of recollection, the previous memory is just like a pool of stagnant water, what we need is a stone, which, after being thrown into the water, caused a ripple. This girl is exactly the stone.
The fourth meaning is that, ever since the exhibition of my work, many people have vehemently opposed the girl in it, the most often saying being that “your practice doesn’t conform to the basic rule of contemporary art”: what should be added to the contemporary art must be an ugly or old woman. But my own thought and the earliest memory are not this way. In “reality”, she is very likely to be ugly, but this girl represents our illusion and dream, for the people then had dreams in mind.
Li Xianting: Talk about your way of work, such as how you selected the address, how you carried the camera taking the girl along with you, etc, as well as how a set of photos were taken?
Chen Jiagang: The original address selection was the deskwork. I first studied the materials about the third front, such as which places it includes. Apart from what I know, I also interviewed some people before reading the materials. Our country always refuses to talk about third front, so there were few materials available. As a matter of fact, in terms of the country’s investment, immigration scale and the state means of the entire country, the issue of third front is by no means minor---several hundred billon Yuan was invested, with several million of people migrated. One quarter of the people in Chengdu were immigrated from “third front”. In addition to the places I knew before, I inquired some old people once working in the third front.
Not long before, I wrote an article, recording the process of each shooting in a simple way. At that time, I often drove in search of such a place, such feelings, and finally the girls, of course the present girls, for the girls back then in the “third front” were very old now. But the problem arises: these girls know little about the “third front”, meaning that it may take me a long time to explain to them “third front” and the things I want them to know, so that they can act out my meanings. After deciding on the girl, I began to look for the costume, the dresser and the lighting engineer, and then we headed for the spot we selected.
But after arriving at the actual spot for the shooting, I found a lot of indeterminacies. Actually, every film is the product of both determinacy and indeterminacy. For the local weather and environment conditions as well as the conditions of the local people are kind of strange to us. Sometimes, we would include the local people---the people left of the “third front” in many of our films. After finishing the shooting, there might be quite a few films, then, we needed to sift through them before proceeding to the late stage production. The late stage production might span longer, for we probably needed to leave out some bright things, such as bright colors, the resplendent sunshine, because the memory is vague, even a little bit dim. Only occasionally, there might be some colors in it, so we preserved the things suggestive of beauty to as small an extent as possible, only having my memory and the concept I want to express stand out against the vagueness.
Li Xianting: Most of the girls in your films are dressed in cheong-sam, why?
Chen Jiagang: Because in fact, when we were in the “third front”, all of the men thirsted for women spies.
Li Xianting: In the films of the 1950s or 1960s, many beautiful women in cheong-sam are women spies, so a lot of men in those years dream of beautiful women spies, ha ha.
Chen Jiagang: Absolutely right. Cheong-sam is the professional dress for women spies. So the reason why we have cheong-sam is not that we want the romantic love of the south but that we all dreamed of women spies back then. At that time, we longed that one day one woman spy could approach us, and then we could beat her at her own game, at once safeguarding the state secretes, and captivating her.
Li Xianting: What machine did you use?
Chen Jiagang: In the first place, we used 4*5, then 8*10, and now 12*20, namely, the photographic negative is of the size of 12 inches multiplied by 20 inches. I specially customized it in the United States.
Li Xianting: Did you make sample photo before the shooting, say, shoot a sample photo with Polaroid or the digital things?
Chen Jiagang: No. Actually, in the course of the shooting, we professionals in architecture may have a better command of the space and scene than those unprofessional men. It may take us a long time to shoot just one slice, but what is shot can summarize what we want to express.
Li Xianting: Didn’t you use sketch maps?
Chen Jiagang: Prior to the shooting, we would think over the sketch map and drew it.
Li Xianting: I want to ask, from your first exhibition of landscapes and architectures to the current three regions, how many creation stages and series have you gone through?
Chen Jiagang: At first, I shot landscapes and architectures, later on, three regions, and then I came to Beijing.
Li Xianting: In which year did you come to Beijing?
Chen Jiagang: October of two years ago.
Li Xianting: October, 2006.
Chen Jiagang: October, 2006, or rather, the 1st, October when I came to Beijing. I came to Beijing not because of the art circle here but because of my shooting technology. Many of those engaged in traditional photography, especially the traditional black and white, approved of my shooting technology. They set great store by technology and the photo quality. Speaking highly of my technology, they prepared a studio for me, and invited me to work here. After I came to Beijing, I didn’t quite shoot “Third Front”. In the one year after I came to Beijing, I basically shoot another series called “Sick City”.
Li Xianting: Is it the series in which many people are eating?
Chen Jiagang: Yes, I have engaged in urban development for so many years that I have many understandings about the city. For instance, I believe that such kind of rapid development and urban expansion will make people sick, for China only took 20 years to go through the development which took two hundred years for capitalist countries to accomplish. As a result, it is problematic by all means. For each time a lot of people have to be organized, it is inconvenient to shoot that series. After shooting about ten pictures, suddenly, I found that I have many words to says on “Third Front” and so I went back to shoot it again. During the process of shooting “Third Front”, I shot another series, “Temptations”, a kind of feeling between many beauties and beautiful sceneries. At present, I have just shot above-mentioned series.
Li Xianting: Could you please tell me the detail about the “Temptations” Series?
Chen Jiagang: The idea of “Temptations” is associated with women at first. I was in Chengdu when I began to pay attention to this topic. At that time a friend working at Provincial Procuratorate gave me some material, which compared the sex scandals of the politicians in different countries. He told me that although sex scandals of both international and Chinese politicians are investigated, that of Chinese politicians usually involves economic problems while that of politicians in other countries does not involve economic problem. Since that time I have been thinking the influence of political power on women. That day you mentioned the issue of women’s rights, but I don’t think my works involves women’s rights. Because later I believe that artists don’t provide answers but perspectives which are discussing whether political power is a love-philter or not.
Li Xianting: But your series of “Temptations” appears to be old pictures of 30s of the last century with old sentiment and emotional appeal but without political appearance, it is more like a fragment of a sentimental love story.
Chen Jiagang: When I was working on “Upriver Gallery”, I intended to hold an exhibition, but I gave it up at last. I made research on some things when I was preparing it. One was posters at Hitler’s times, second one was posters at Stalin’s times, and third one was the posters during Chinese Cultural Revolution Period. At that time, I planned to exhibit them together. One common feature of those posters at three different times is that all of them are aesthetic. All the posters at Hitler’s times are goddess and healthy women, the same as those at Stalin’s times, and their colors were very pure. Thus later I found that maybe the more sanguinary and political the things are, the more tempting they are described to be. I believe that if the things are made to be the most beautiful, they are more likely to go to the reverse side.
Li Xianting: There is no direct relation between those girls and the environment.
Chen Jiagang: Yes, this environment is not the place where the girls should go, but the place where other people go, including the travelers and the leaders. Why do the leaders go there? I didn’t know what major jobs of those leaders were in the past. I haven’t been at home to enjoy the Spring Festival for ten years because I accompanied the leaders to travel.This place is suitable for taking photos, so these girls are taken into photos for an occasional factor.
Li Xianting: This is the story behind the photos
Chen Jiagang: Yes, because the photo itself cannot bear so many things.
Li Xianting: You provide plots which are unreasonable and inexplicable.
Chen Jiagang: Yes, it should take time for people to think about them. At first sight they might be inexplicable. But after thinking over them, people are getting to understand them.
Li Xianting: From the technology angle, you are good at processing of image and space, including the processing of black and white, saturation, composition of pictures. These pictures belong to classical and traditional style. Could you please talk about technologies? When you choose scenery, how do you realize it, including the factories of the “Third Front”. Since these scenes are huge, and they are usually large scenes, including those in “Sick City”, it often confronted many difficult technologic problems, including problems such as depth of field, and composition of pictures, etc. But you did a good job, and all of them are integrated and are as delicate as traditional photography.
Chen Jiagang: I have been shooting for 7 years since 2001. Perhaps it took a lot of time on technical research at the first several years. I have an education background of science, and people with science background are more sensitive to technologies and numbers than those with arts background.
Li Xianting: In my mind, you are an emotional and sensitive person, but you were calm when you were dealing with these pictures. Were you rational when you were in front of these scenes?
Chen Jiagang: I was the vice chairman of Chengdu Photography Association before I came to Beijing. I often went to take pictures, and I found that I had great difference with people who were taking photos with me. I was sensitive when I was not taking photos, but I changed to be another person when I was taking photos. I become self-possessed，conduct myself in society during the peaceful time is very different, it is also the habit which has been cultivated for many years as an architect. I did a lot of researches on rational issues including technology issues. For example, we can reach the accuracy of few split seconds in exposure. People with traditional photography depend upon experience for the difference of the few split seconds, but we combine the theory with our experience.
Li Xianting: Do you use actinometer?
Chen Jiagang: Sure.
Li Xianting: How do you measure the light of three levels, which includes such a large scene, medium shot, and people?
Chen Jiagang: It is impossible to measure the people in such a scene, since the environment is larger than people. Just as the relation between Beijing and China, it is wrong to measure Beijing. We should choose a place, which is most likely to represent the scene. For example, in this picture, the bank was measured.
Li Xianting: Do you usually choose large DOF (depth of field) and smaller aperture?
Chen Jiagang: At the first beginning, we used them, but later we used a high-tech camera. Its focal plane and lens plane could generate Gresham’s law. As long as there is an angle between focal planes, it could be turned into all depth of field. Later we understood this and we use depth of field in all occasions. I should mention a story beyond this topic. Recently, my photos are very popular in Europe and America. Yesterday, some collectors came to visit me, and I said why they regarded that the photos you took were the best in China with the best technology. Since they saw too many computerized things, and he said that they regarded that was not good. One day I was discussing this topic with Chunya. I said that many photographers in Beijing had many ideas, but they didn’t have technology. I asked could they become good photographers? Chunya said I didn’t think so. Just like our painters, all of us are good painters, and you can not say that your drawing is poor. When you get an idea and then invite some to draw it, then a good painter is emerged. Same as in photography, we couldn’t say that your shooting is poor, or that both your skill and structure or space is poor. Even you have an idea and invited some one to shoot, I am afraid that you could not become a great photographer. Basically, Chunya is a contemporary of mine, both of us and our peers pay more attention to techniques.
Li Xianting: Which photographers or artists do you like? Or say those who give you inspiration and influence.
Chen Jiagang: If you meant classical photographers, maybe I like Koudelca from Czech. He shot large spectacle, such as Soviet army, Spring in Prague, and Lenin Statue Pushed into the Sea, etc. His language had great influence on my shooting of the “Third Front”, since there are a lot of similar things between environment and things he was facing in Czech and the things we are facing here in China. Some other artists had influence to me, but this photographer from Czech had the greatest influence.
Li Xianting: Thanks!
June 16th, 2008