8/04 - 12/05 2008
Exhibition Date: 8 Apr – 12 May 2008
Curator: Feng Boyi
Chen Jiagang, an artist as complex as his work, is a former architect, businessman and curator. Taking China’s rural industrial landscape as his subject matter in this widely received exhibition the title of his series ‘Third Front’ refers to the Chinese government’s series of initiatives in the 1960s to construct a new frontier of industrialism in the South-western provinces. Just as quickly as they were erected, a couple of decades later these frontiers all but disappeared. What remains of these frontiers in the wake of a rapidly modernising China are only forgotten ghost towns with Chen’s haunting photographs bearing witness to the ‘footprint’ left behind by revolutionary ideas of social idealism.
The monumental scale of these photographs draws the viewer into the struggle between man and nature, capturing the destruction and isolation of China’s big cities but also a yearning for its past. His choice of contrasting and fading colours hints at nostalgia and memory, enhanced by the juxtaposition of his fleeting ‘phantom’ figures onto the grey, fixed landscape. The appearance of a young woman dressed in traditional qipao adds a sense of unreality to the images recalling a glorious past when the ‘revolutionary age’ was so intrinsically bound up with industrialisation of China. The qipao, once banned, was considered the attire of the intellectual elite. Thus the woman becomes a binary symbol- one of modernity but also of the entrenched bureaucratic power of the country’s capitals absorbing the wealth and resources or the land.
Upon closer scrutiny ‘THIRD FRONT’ reveals layer upon layer of complexities and more binaries- decay and life; man and nature; stagnation and dynamism; certainty and uncertainty; the individual and the collective. Chen’s work forces us to question the validity or absurdity of the unprecedented development that has become the hallmark of modern industrial life. His beautiful works challenge ideas not only of China’s history and cultural memory, but also it’s future, whilst echoing the social and environmental concern and preoccupation of contemporary Chinese artists.