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Chen Jiagang: Sitting Squarely on the Fishing Platform -Gu Zhenqing
When one dilemma is solved, another one must be created. Perhaps this is the storyline of Chen Jiagang’s involvement with art, as well as his fate.
When Chen Jiagang faces artistic questions, he is actually facing questions about life. On the double stage of art and life, Chen’s habit is to never play normal cards. It’s not that he’s fearless in the face of a challenge, he just likes challenge and adventure. The dauntless ambition we see in Chen Jiagang is just on the surface; the truth on the inside is a clear view on life and death from much experience with death and rebirth. He is a man of integrity. His obsession with imagination and pursuit of creativity have forced Chen Jiagang to admit his position as a contemporary artist.
Chen’s self-identification as an artist led him to break free from the entanglements of his multiple identities as architect, designer, and real estate developer, giving him unprecedented liberty. From then on, the travel-hardy Chen hit the road in an artistic fashion, travelling the great mountains and rivers of China as well as the important art scenes of the world, all with calm aloofness. His accumulated experiences have given him powerful insight. He uses photography to read people, the sky and the land, and to measure out his own life, measure out all of his light and shadows, and measure out space. He has imbued his art with the flavors of his own life. From this, his works have shown both a standpoint of incisive conceptual critique of reality, and a historicist attitude towards the pursuit of the development and logic of art.
Through the viewfinder of his camera, Chen has seen the depths of life in all its various forms, and the vast expanses of the heavens. It is as if he sits squarely on a fishing platform of self-awareness, letting his artworks do the talking in his stead. The joy of creation is the highest plane of experience for the artist. As for the system of viewing in contemporary art and various power issues involved in the accepted aesthetics, Chen politely stands on the sidelines, listening intently as the public makes its own choices. As for resonation among viewers and various debates, Chen takes a calm, hands-off approach.
He is like the respected elder out fishing, ready for whatever fish are willing to bite.
In 2010, Chen Jiagang decided to focus his efforts on the real estate industry, that engine of the Chinese economic miracle, releasing his Model Homes series. He rushed out to ten high-end developments across the country, using all kinds of model homes as his backdrops and professional actors as his models to construct a batch of theatrical scenes, with which he produced a series of photographs with a strong sense of visual continuity.
Model homes are the special flourishes that Chinese real estate developers create to increase home sales. They are always luxuriantly decorated, alluding to a more elegant, comfortable and high-end lifestyle. These model homes, in both Chinese and western styles, are elegant and eye-catching, a distillation of the Chinese dreams of wealth in the midst of economic transformation, and a symbol of status for this success-obsessed society. Chen Jiagang uses these model homes as backdrops, laying out scenes to create fabricated narrative photographs that almost look like TV drama stills. He shoots as he directs, writing the story and designing the plots as he shoots. His photographic method stages everything together, using complex techniques to push everything forward at once rather than following the traditional process of gradual, sequential progress. Chen’s bold, subversive personality is on full display in his grasp of the photographic process. Sometimes Chen even enters the frame and plays a role in the picture, making his own photographic cameo of sorts. For someone who proposed ‘changing China through homes’ ten years ago, this is all in character.
The model home existence is a meticulously crafted and packaged visual utopia full of deep sarcastic undertones. The model home existence is just a word away from the ‘model existence’ vaunted in pop culture, a difference small enough to be easily overlooked. Under the conditions of globalization, the baptism in consumer culture has taken control of mass visual culture. Internet ads, television ads and magazine covers, after careful packaging and staging of scenes from the ‘model existence’, promote a so called beautiful lifestyle in every direction. What Chen Jiagang has crafted is just a unique ‘model home existence’. In the pictures, all of the characters mysteriously wear shoe covers. The riddle of the model home existence sits there in the open. This is just a performance, a show. This is not the real thing. All of the images of the ‘model existence’ from worldwide pop culture look real and lifelike, based on the hope of dreams becoming a reality. The crux of Chen Jiagang’s works is the fakeness, the fake play, the fake drama. For this, Chen Jiagang created a series of flashy, transient images, establishing a narrative logic for a constructed ‘model home existence’.
Model homes are just model homes. They can only display, and cannot truly enact, what Holderlin classically called “poetic dwelling”. For one, Chinese model homes are never equipped with running water or natural gas. They can be seen but not used. No one can truly live in them. Also, these model homes are extravagantly decorated and appointed, using up all possible space. In addition, the rapid decoration process usually leaves them with chemical residue levels far above acceptable standards. The model home existence is clearly a hypothetical existence. For the majority of common Chinese, the extravagant model home existence is nothing more than an unreachable mirage. The classic book Dream of a Red Chamber, on the other hand, says that , “when false is made true, the true seems false; when nothing is seen as something, then something becomes nothing.” Chen Jiagang’s act is to turn a ruse into reality. The model home is undoubtedly the most real and tangible fake “space”. It has become the best stage for the artist to model the vicissitudes of life. On this stage, Chen can create reasonable, believable stories, playing the virtual drama out to the fullest.
These virtual scenes of model home existence have formed Chen Jiagang’s Model Homes photography series. With his individual context filled with beautiful women, Chen has crafted a series of grand narrative fragments of the dramas of wealthy families. In real life, these various model homes are a distillation of the Chinese dreams of middle class living. But in Chen Jiagang’s works, the model homes have been overly refined, interpreted as castles in the sky, suited only for the cream of high society, where they bring crowds of illustrious guests to show off and revel in their wealth. It is apparent that the model homes Chen has selected are carefully crafted sets, beautifully laid out like a stage in a theme park, suited only for performances, not for everyday living. The scenes of revelry in these model homes emit an air of sincerity, silently entering and interfering with the existential experience of the public while also maintaining their distance from the everyday. The theatrical aspects that Chen injects into these images, with their instantaneous shifts between reality and illusion and their endless struggles between the spirit and the flesh reflect the various spiritual ills of China’s transitional society at every turn. The artist’s sharp scalpel of criticism has turned all of the real-life model homes of real estate developments into a visualized contextual resource, making them seem faint and indistinct.
The soap opera is a kind of television show that is broadcast for long periods of time, with a connected, fabricated plot. Early on, these long-winded shows about everyday life were targeted at housewives, and featured advertisements for home products such as soap. Today, soap operas have become an important form in mass culture, even ideology, having a profound influence over people’s ideas and lifestyles.
Chen Jiagang’s Model Homes series is like a photographic soap opera, containing many elements unique to that form. The only difference is that the carrier for Chen Jiagang’s Model Homes is not television, but photography. Each single work in the Model Homes series can basically stand alone. They are linked together, but not tightly. There is no overarching context or set of relationships in the series, nor is there a conclusion. But if we arrange these photographs according to expressive form, we can come up with three main categories: realistic, symbolic and absurd.
Most of the Model Homes photographs fall under the realistic category. These works present unadorned, seemingly normal relationships that are matched various luxurious model home settings, such as the living room set, the gym set, the balcony set, the boudoir set, the home theater set, etc. They are illustrious families in luxuriant settings. Each individual has a rather clear role. The relationships between each character are well established in a rather universal sociological and theoretical sense. The plots of the scenes are narrative in form, even including the various causes and effects. In these highly literary plots, every detail and prop can basically speak for itself as part of a typical family story construct. Some of the European-style decorated settings call to mind the paintings of Hogarth or even Russian critical realist oil painting. In the scenes where Chen depicts conflict between characters, the clearly layered visual connections between the central character and the non-central characters echo the traditions of classicalism. Though the backdrop of the Model Homes series is constantly changing, the main characters remain mostly the same, and their relationships are relatively stable. Each character’s expressions change according to the circumstances. They are like players in a performance, with rich expressions, sometimes rapt, sometimes cold, sometimes empty, presenting exaggerated, dramatic expressions of life. Under this realist plot logic, each image in the Model Homes series is like a still taken from an average soap opera.
But Chen Jiagang also shows his ingenuity. Among the vivid soap opera features of Model Homes, the one stand-out element is a portrait of the main character hanging on the wall. These portraits seem to define the model homes’ status as belonging to the main character, while also forming a kind of super-textual linkage with the characters on the scene. In some of the scenes, the portrait of the main character appears overbearing and abnormal, becoming a strange, surreal visual element, one that gradually begins to expose cracks among the details of the scene and finally pulls apart the entire plot logic of the realistic context. This gets the viewer wondering, could this whole call of the good life be nothing more than a pipe dream? In these single-frame photographs, Chen is able to incorporate multiple threads, and even the presence of persons outside of those threads. This kind of plot design is clearly intended to break the visual control that the traditional centralized narrative structure has over the viewer. The multiple centers, layers and meanings in Model Homes bestow the series with postmodern aesthetic leanings.
The symbolic-type works in the Model Homes series express irrational, abnormal human relationships, presenting the complex social resources behind the indoor settings of the model homes. These include a scene of a man and woman tugging at a red string, a display case crammed with young women, or a scene laid out with couches and wine racks, with separate women in each room. All of these scenes symbolize the warped familial and gender relationships under the shadow of patriarchal society. Chen Jiagang has bestowed his props with symbolic import, using metaphor and simile to arrange rich allegories around the central axis of the main character. In a time when new terms such as mistress, one-night stand and unwritten rules are entering the lexicon, the soft, warm veil has been lifted from over the family to reveal that it is the epicenter of social conflict. As the carrier of the family, the home has become the battleground for the dramas of life. These soap opera style everyday settings, when imbued with unrealistic linguistic forms, suddenly reflect an alternative aesthetic. People and objects, movements and props are juxtaposed to present the symbolic implications of the clear and hidden relationships between them. The artist’s expressive technique doubtlessly alludes to the dramas unfolding outside of the frame. In Chen’s context, any balance found within an unstable state is passing and furtive.
On the surface, the absurd-type works look like farces of soap operas, but because Chen has suspended subjective viewpoints and set aside the subjective mentality in these works, they have gained a more open meaning. This gives the viewer free reign in interpreting the picture. These include the multiple sets of hands and feet sticking out from under the table, the chaos in the washroom and the knife-wielding maid. These strange, exaggerated and absurd scenes are a concentrated expression of Chen’s pursuit of the outer limits of irrationality. Here, the everyday logic of the soap opera hits a snag and comes to a sudden halt.
Actually, no matter how these images are categorized, it is difficult to limit the multiple satirical takes that Chen Jiagang directs at social reality and art history. The Model Homes series is full of visual elements that the viewer will find familiar. The classic indoor layouts and human postures reminiscent of renaissance and French classicalist painting are no mere farcical imitations; they are intelligent appropriations and applications. In the selection of shots and the arrangements of the models, the classical ruminations are but expressions of the collective unconscious. This intentional control of expression is one of the most satisfying dynamics of Chen Jiagang’s art. It is this strong element of the artist’s personality in the work that pushes Model Homes beyond the broader context of the soap opera and reveals strong social critique and profound cultural rethinking.
Through his unique Chinese experience, Chen Jiagang has come to sit squarely on his own artistic fishing platform. Whether he’s on the edge of an abyss, or looking down from a steep precipice, he can manage it calmly. As Chen sees it, contemporary art may be eternally changing, but it has a continually progressing and developing cultural logic to it. Therefore, Chen Jiagang never wavers from his pursuit of objective reality, constantly breaking through the bounds of knowledge, drawing nourishment from his life experience and crafting his own artistic personality by repeatedly jumping out of his own mold.
He began with his 2003 Third Front series, reflecting with pity on the infinitesimal fate of the individual in the midst of massive historical change. He then switched to a proactive critical stance with Sick City. Throughout, he always relied on magnificent settings to reveal and highlight the individual existence of the common Chinese man. In the later Silk Road and Romance series, he completed an important quality in his artwork, the linkage between the natural scenery of western China with the ubiquitous, permeating charm of Chinese women, turning it into a tangible visual existence and cultural reality, which had a profound impact on countless Chinese and foreign viewers who had once lived numbly and irredeemably in the flourishing scene of worldly life.
Chen’s latest series, on the other hand, seems to have turned its back on preconceived notions of his contemporary art. He intentionally highlighted multiple characters on the same stage, even preserving the lingering shadows of passersby. This unconventional theatrical game has filled the gap between his subjective expression and objective reality. Those mutually estranged figures in his works seem to correspond to the chaotic disorder of reality.
This method, which breaks all the rules of the game, actually originated with a reshuffling in Chen Jiagang’s heart. The multidirectional expressions in the Model Homes series puts the artist’s efforts to transcend the limitations of general knowledge and esthetic experience on display, and represents his respect for his own context as well as his doubts about the set expressive forms and methodological values of contemporary art. Personally, he wonders if contemporary art, which was born in the West, is actually capable of producing spiritual values. He also wonders how the extant forms and methods of contemporary art should change and develop within his own context.
Chen Jiagang sits squarely on the fishing platform, entirely focused on his goals. It seems that he no longer desires to catch any of the “fish” of art.
What Chen Jiagang is trying to transcend is Chen Jiagang himself.