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Images of Disaster - Li Xianting

The ancient Chinese usage of the word “jie”, was “to use force to take what others desire”. This usage has continued into modern Chinese, where “jie” is a component in words like theft and hijacking. When Buddhism spread to the east, the term “Kalpa” was transliterated as “jie bo”. Kalpa, meaning eon, is a term from Brahmanism that was adopted by Buddhism. Ancient Hinduism attests that the world is destroyed and created anew over periods of tens of thousands of years, and the period for this destruction is called a “Kalpa”. In Chinese usage, “Kalpa” has been simplified to “jie”, and has come to mean natural and manmade disasters. In this sense, “jie” now has a bit of a connection to the Chinese term, and picks up a bit more of the meaning in translation. So now, common sayings like “inescapable fate”, “survive a disaster” and “irredeemable”, all of which use the word component “jie”, have Buddhist connotations, but also the common connotations of natural and manmade disasters, just as the Cultural Revolution was called a “great disaster” (also using jie).

 

In this sense, the term “jie” could also be used to describe the Third Line. During the Cold War, Chairman Mao was worried about attacks from the Soviet Union and the United States, which raised talk of war and disaster preparations, digging deep caves, stockpiling grain and avoiding international conflict. At that time, aside from digging caves of various sizes under cities across the country and establishing citizen militias, China also erected countless military factories in remote mountain regions of the southwest and northwest and sent technicians from the major cities into these sparsely populated mountains. The areas where these military factories were built were collectively known as the “Third Line of Defense”, and the urbanites that were sent there in droves were said to be “supporting the construction of the Third Line”. Several decades later, not only did the war fail to materialize, but the end of the Cold War meant that China was once again in business with foreigners. Much of the Third Line was left to crumble, and the fate of the Third Line workers was even worse. In Buddhism, calamitous fire is called “jie huo”, and the ashes left behind are called “jie hui”, which has come to mean any kind of rubble from a disaster. Today’s Third Line is deserted and is a horrible spectacle of rubble and collapsing buildings. For this reason, I call Chen Jiagang’s photographs of the Third Line ‘images of disaster’. These photographs we can see the disastrous state of the Third Line.

Chen Jiagang started out as an architect. He worked in a Third Line factory for a time, and has even seen some success as a real estate developer, but for various reasons his company eventually went bankrupt. These experiences have all added to his Third Line photography: this once bustling place has been reduced to ruins, but for Chen Jiagang, these are no ordinary ruins; they are laden with his memories of times past – the magnanimous construction of the Third Line. They also stir up associations with his experience in real estate. The ruins of the Third Line awaken the pain of his failed real estate ventures. This is not just the rubble of a manmade disaster, it is a symbol of a low point in his life, a tangled mess of national disaster and personal pain. It’s as if he’s not photographing the rubble, or even bringing out a feeling of “magnanimity” from the rubble, because this wouldn’t be sufficient for expressing his complex emotions. The underlying tone of these works is “magnanimous rubble”. To express this kind of feel, Chen Jiagang uses a large format Chamonix camera, and takes fixed point panoramas at full depth, ensuring that every little detail in the image is extremely clear and gives one the feeling of being right there. This makes the rubble more magnanimous and more stunning.

 

Perhaps the most contentious issue is Chen Jiagang’s use of a young woman in the photographs. I would venture to guess that one of the reasons has to do with the complex emotions involved in Chen Jiagang’s photography of the Third Line ruins. The ruins are not conceptual, nor are they a disaster in the social sense. These ruins are linked to his own personal experience. The place once flourished, and was once the setting for his ideals, for his love. That girl is the specter of his beautiful memories. My favorite piece is ”Third Front – General Factory of Asbestos”. The girl, running, appears to not be fully there, which makes the stagnant ruins appear eerily still. As dusk descends over the ruins, it seems as if we could make it the setting for a modern “Liao Zhai 1 novel, allegorically reflecting the times.

 

Chen Jiagang approaches his Third Line photography like an engineering project, like a building project, rationally and attentively. He begins by “surveying” – researching, selecting places to shoot and trying out various angles. Then he returns and makes a shooting plan, complete with sketches. When the time is ripe, he starts preparing his equipment, his cars and his supplies. When everything is ready, several jeeps arrive in a flurry of activity, and then he begins taking photos, everything unfolding smoothly and according to plan, perfectly ordered, like an outdoor movie shoot.

 

Ironically, “Traces of the Third Line” was first exhibited at 798, a flourishing art district, and then exhibited again at the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery in the same area. The 798 Art District just happens to be an abandoned munitions factory complex. I’m not sure if that’s funny or scary. It’s as if it was all preordained.

 

Li Xianting

August 5th, 2008

 

 

1 “Liao Zhai“ is a collection of stories from 17th century China, which reflected the complex relations of Chinese society through stories of animals, ghosts and demons.

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