Chen Jiagang's new large-format photographs depict a world of industrial dislocation with eerie formal power. The title of the exhibition refers to China's policy in the 1960s of building enormous factories that soon became the centers for entire cities of workers. As the country's priorities changed in the 1980s, these facilities were most abandoned, leaving vast concrete wastelands.
Chen shows us the evidence of forced migration, from crumbling dormitories built for laborers to empty mills swept with fog. His work suits our age, where the unintended consequences of the global economy are usually kept out of sight.
The photographs are taken with long exposures to create deep tones of muted grays and slate blues that contrast with the blur crowds flickering past the camera. But Chen isn't content to merely remind us of the hidden costs of an interconnected world- he adds a personal element through the use of three recurring female models. As people stream by on a crowded street in The Great Third Front #4, the trio stands perfectly still beneath a striped awning, looking directly into the camera as if possessing secrets we're not meant to known.
Other images are more spare, with our heroines posed in empty courtyards or dwarfed beneath enormous machines; one depicts a solitary woman at the side of a polluted canal. What we've left with are scenes where even the dark side of commerce cannot entirely restrain beauty. -David Coggins
The Chinese artist Chen Jiagang's show "The Great Third Front" opens at Houk on Sept. 11.Download PDF (1.2 MB)
Edwynn Houk Gallery is pleased to announce an exhibition of fifteen large-scale photographs by Chen Jiagang. The show will take place from 11 September through 18 October 2008 with an opening reception for the artist on Thursday, 11 September from 6-8 PM.
During the 1960's, faced with an unstable foreign policy as well as a high demand for resources, the People's Republic of China was forced to delocalize most of its heavy industry and armament factories. Originally situated on China's coasts and in the Northeast, close to the Russian border, these factories were relocated to the heart of the nation, hidden away and better protected.
Over a short period of time, millions of workers were encouraged to move to the mountainous regions of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunman, where hundreds of factories were quickly constructed, in turn stimulating local economies. Such a large-scale relocation effort was unprecedented in China, and the "Third Front" was born. Villages transformed overnight into dormitory towns to house the influx of laborers, and former hamlets boomed into prosperous industrial zones.
At the beginning of the 1980's, Deng Xiaoping initiated drastic economic reform emphasizing light industry and export-led growth. The sudden shift in policy hit the industrial zones of the "Third Front" hard, gutting the villages with the same speed at which they were constructed. Once a symbol of Maoist national pride, Xiaoping's new economic policy rendered the "Third Front" obsolete. Factories were boarded up, and laborers driven back to their origin. The "Third Front" was now synonymous with industrial wasteland, a relic in China's unflinching march towards modernization.
Employing a distorted wide-angle lens, Chen Jiagang records the artifacts of the "Great Third Front" in a palette of neutral grays, purples, and blues. A self-described expressionist photographer, Jiagang's photographs conjure a type of industrial fairy tale. With the addition of an element of the fantastic, a young girl elegantly dressed in the Maoist collar and dress (Qipao), Jiagang's photographs allude to a former glory, a nostalgia for a period now lost to the more powerful forces propelling China into the future.
Born in 1962 in Chong Qing, Chen Jiagang began his career as a celebrated architect and real estate developer before making the transition to photography. In 1999, he was named one of twelve "Outstanding Young Architects" by the United Nations. Jiagang is the founder of the Sichuan Upriver Museum, the first private museum in China and the author of Third Front (Timezone 8 Limited, 2007). He currently lives and works in Beijing.