I love appreciating and finding the behind layer of photography. I used to look at western photographers and I never got attracted by any Chinese photographers. One day I stopped by a gallery in Hong Kong near my office, there was a photography series about Chinese cityscape. They were erotic in a way that merging common Chinese life into the rapidly developing landscape. Right before I stepped out the gallery I found the photographer was a Chinese architect, due to my interest on architecture, I decided to stay a while more in the gallery.
<<Great Third Front>>
The photos doesn’t triggered me to think of any of his architecture background : Chen Jiagang, a Chinese architect once worked for major developments in China. He decided to be a full-time photographer since 2001. The photo series <<Great Third Front>>, themed the rapid city developments in China, however showed a strongly erotic composition which spatially contributed to the exaggerated female models. The wild and uncontrolled light and dynamic motions are almost contradictory to common architect’s treatments, which aims to find logic, find the rules, to make things convincing. The photo is not what interested me the most, but his personalities and stories.
Image 3 : 6000volt Tramroad, <<Third Front>>.
with a bit feeling of deconstructionism, Chen used series of Tramroads to build
Birthed in Chongqing, Chen Jia Gang was an architect. In 1999 he was awarded by the United Nations as one of the best twelve Chinese young architect. He joined the developers’ force in early 90s, which was the time with rapid developments on architecture development. It was under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership : “let some people get rich first.”, the developers were under big advantages. As both an architect and development, he wasn’t happy about this advantage. The tiredness of the rapid development speed could be seen in his later works <<Diseased City>>.
Image 4 : Chen Jia Gang
Image 5 : Cinema, <<Third Front>>.
The space has already lost all its furniture to describe the spatial arrangement. However the lighten structure did.
Undoubtedly his biggest photography production are <<Third Front>> and <<Great Third Front>>. The term “Third Front” was from 1964 to 1978 when Chinese was defending America and Russian, they phrased the developments into three parts. The Chinese government moved all the heavy industries on the Chinese-Russian border to the South like Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. The economy of the southern region was therefore growing rapidly. In the project <<Third Front>>, Chen started from Beijing, traveled to the southern region like Yunnan, Chengdu and Chongging, started to record the different cityscape. This was the time of rapid development, people worked hard on constructing; ironically he found the reversed side where it looked ugly and undeveloped. Started from 1980, Deng Xiaoping changed the direction of industrial development and promoted light industrial works. This was a big attacked to the Third Front region and the speed and struggle inside the region were reflected in his photography.
At the time I researched about Chen Jia Gang, I found a line. “We don’t feel honoured, but ashamed. All the proprietors blame him, hate him”
This was the ShangHeCheng project in Chengdu, probably one of his biggest failure. Launched in 1998, ShangHeCheng project promoted itself as “The new city with memories”. With the luxury spatial arrangement “one house one garden”, this was the utopia of Chen. “Plant a evergreen Osmanthus tree in your garden then enjoy the greenery throughout the eco-window in your house. The architecture is a green castle.” Traditional Chengdu construction techniques, like using gluten rice paste as a material to make bricks, were incorporated in the project.
The first phrase development attracted a strongly positive reaction. The developer decided to continue with the second phrase development. However the company started to accumulated debts during the construction. In order to balance the budget, the design was changed. The utopia garden of Chen disappeared.
Image 6&7 : Villa with private garden
Photo Credits : focus.cn
Image 8&9 : phrase two development, where the balcony garden disappeared
Photo Credits : soufun.com
Image 10&11 : ShangHeCheng
Photo Credits : http://www.panoramio.com/
Does Chen Jia Gang know how to build?
Project manager Yang XingXiang was the person who said the line to blame Chen. The ShangHeCheng development and Chen’s vision was commented as awkward, both on its theory and practical aspects. In order to change the bad housing topology of the first phrase development, the contractor changed the second phrase design totally.
Image 12 : ShangHeCheng Second phrase. Spacious and impractical space where a long thin corridor exist.
Photo Credits : soufun.com
As he no longer build, we can only find in his photos some traces on understanding whether he can build. In <<Diseased City>>, Chen attacked strongly the “let some people get rich first” development. He described in the photo series the development as a mental illness. The panorama photos gave a sense of “superspace” which all the scales and layers were superimposed. The yellowish color tone gave people a unpleasant feeling. The most interesting is when you look at the sketches of <<Diseased city>> you already found the spatial quality between the black lines. The realization process of photographer gave a sense of realism but at the same time exaggeration, which fit the development background of China at that time.
Image 13 : Wedding Banquet, <<Diseased City>>
Image 14 : The sketch of Wedding Banquet, <<Diseased City>>
The <<Diseased City>> series was experiment in terms of lighting and composition, the lighting control was obviously not mature in this series. However the use of composition and light was found more successful in <<Third Front>>, which Chen no longer used complicated composition, but a simple and clear 5:4 spatial construction with light to create the hierarchy within the photo.
Chen’s photos expressed the elements of (I) non-building architectural elements (II) female (III)motion and (IV)light. Recent works <<Showroom>> was a great achievement on utilizing these elements. This photo series is the statement from the ex-developer : We are now living in the age which we have to work our entire life for buying a house. The showrooms were not just about the standardized space, but also about our dreams and desires. When Chen was young and studying in Chongqing for architecture, he was involved in the school publication. <<Jian Cui>> means “build outside architecture”, he achieved it by photography now.
Image 15 : People sitting in the room, <<Third Front>>
Using simple but strong lighting to construct space
Image 16 : Showroom 23, <<Showroom>>
The room is standard, but the motion and people inside are not standard.
Chen’s life, walking the opposite direction
He used to not follow the trend. When it was the time for developers, when every developers was thinking to build residential flat for earning money, he insisted to promote culture and construct museum. When he found the ShangHe museum, all the chosen artists were young and infamous artists. However they all became famous and important artists in China nowadays.
It was a complicated feeling when I were researching Chen. All the critics on this visionary architect were bitter. The developed who worked with Chen Jia Gang said :
if it is good, people appreciate.
if it is bad, people sympathy.
But we need to be clear who is the client of art. Art is for people, not for the artist”