Shanghai-based photographer Chen Ronghui’s principal theme—feeling displaced while still in place—resonates in unanticipated ways for today’s mid-pandemic viewers. In 2016, the young artist, who was born in 1989 and earned a BA in journalism from Nanchang University in 2011, found the subjects for his best-known series, “Freezing Land” (2016–19), by acting on a strain of domestic exoticism. Like many compatriots from more temperate climes, he had a fascination with China’s frigid northeast region, bordered and culturally influenced by Mongolia, Russia, and North Korea. The area, which prospered when heavy industry was at its peak, suffered sharp economic decline in the 1990s—a situation made harsher by wintertime temperatures that hover just below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Chen visited five cities in the region, using the popular short-video-sharing app Kuaishou to contact young people most likely to be suffering the “should I stay or should I go?” anguish familiar to countless provincial youths.
The most striking aspect of the resulting pictures is their subtlety. The exterior scenes look deserted and lonesome, but not oppressive. The portraits depict not the wretched of the earth, but well-dressed young people whose anomie must be inferred from surrounding details sharply preserved by Chen’s large-format camera. In Five Art Candidates, Funshun (2018), students on their way to an exam (always a momentous occasion in China) pose before a huge dreamlike urban renewal poster with their feet firmly planted on piles of rubble. In A Blue Boy, Fularji (2017), a fourteen-year-old male sits utterly alone with a wig on his lap in a café where he livestreams in drag every day for myriad internet followers.
Chen, who is currently working on an MFA at Yale, has previously participated in group shows at OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen, and the International Center of Photography, New York, and has accrued major prizes from World Press, the Three Shadows Photography Center in Beijing, and the Lianzhou Foto Festival. This spring, his solo presentation of “Freezing Land” is on view at UP Gallery, Hsinchu City, Taiwan (through June 20), and he also has work in the group exhibition “About Us: Young Photography from China” at Alexander Tutsek-Stiftung, Munich (through January 29, 2021).
Chen’s pictures from China consistently meld the personal and the socioeconomic. His series “Day and Night” (2012–13) offers glimpses—some banal, some mildly lurid—of youths who seem to be waiting for something, anything, to happen in their lives. “Petrochemical China” (2013–15) records (obliquely and from a distance) massive state-run plants that pollute the Yangtze River basin. “Runaway World” (2015–16) documents Chinese amusement parks filled with replicas of dinosaurs, monumental sculptures, Eastern temples, Roman ruins, and Venetian landmarks.
The work Chen has made in the United States suggests that going to fabled locales can induce its own brand of ambivalence. In “Dual Self Portraits” (2019–), he pairs close-ups of his face with images of daily activities inside and outside his private space—a guy horsing around with a butcher knife, two friends touching tongues. The diptychs are each shown next to a fake postcard inscribed with a passage from the psychologically conflicted letters or diaries of Yung Wing (Yale, class of 1854), the first-ever Chinese student to graduate from an American college. “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (2019–) comprises long-exposure shots of dim interiors where Chen has recently sheltered in place, first fearing nighttime crime, now the coronavirus. For “In Praise of Shadows” (2019–), the artist painstakingly merges ten to twenty images of each woodsy scene to evoke the nonlinear, multipoint “scatter perspective” of traditional Chinese painting.
This sense of otherness and cultural nostalgia makes Chen a pivotal figure. Many of the key artists who left China the 1980s and ‘90s in order to build global careers in the West—Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Gu Wenda, among others—have since returned, in large measure because an economically robust homeland now welcomes and sustains them. Many younger artists, particularly those like Lu Yang and Miao Ying who “live on the internet,” treat firsthand foreign experience as an indulgence, not a prime requisite of artistic formation. It will be fascinating to see how this mental shift plays out in a world where countless American universities now depend on large Chinese student enrollments for their fiscal survival, while China, under Xi Jinping, increasingly sees itself an autonomous world power, filling the vacuum created by the US’s recent abdication of international leadership.