“Hit me in the head hard enough to knock me over. This needs to look real, so I’d rather you hurt me then it look fake.” These were some of my first words to Chen Shen, then a 1st year graduate student in the Photo Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Until that point, we had never met before, and I could see him a little hesitant to follow my request. I was getting ready for a performance at Cranbrook Art Museum and we just a few days from the event. While Chen had initially responded to an open request for an event photographer, there was still a very crucial role I needed filled: someone who looked like they were in the audience, who would come out of nowhere and clock me in the head so I could crash into a couple people and hopefully get them to spill their drinks on me to effectively end the performance. Looking like he was a well dressed guest, no one would know he was a performer until curtain call.
At that point, I wasn’t yet familiar with his work, which would have clued me into his hesitation. Not only is Chen accomplished in the nuances of his craft, his work is quite the opposite of what I asked him to do. I wanted him to be rude, angry and the center of attention; to shock and appall others and to possibly really hurt me. Chen isn’t looking to shock, but wants his works to remain open ended, becoming conversational instead of controversial. In his large scale photos as well as his more intimate portraiture, Shen aims to open a dialogue about how industrialization changes a place, for better or worse. Humans change their environments in response to changing needs, yet what are the impulses to change and who are those deciding what change and when? We will continue to adapt to our new surroundings, but are these a manifestation of our dreams or a political power?
Though its only been a few days since he received his MFA from Cranbrook, it has been the better part of a year that he has been honing his Garden Metro series, started this past summer focusing on his home town of Changping, China, which is one of 18 suburbs of Beijing. Often referred to as the “Garden of Beijing”, it has very recently been transformed by population growth aided by the arrival of a new train line leading into the city. The Changping Metro Line took only one year to build, and the project’s speed is a symbol of change in the country as a whole. While touted by the Chinese government as a testament to industry and advancement, Chen is weary of the pace of change in China and its affect on traditional methods, safety and ethical standards that often get in the way of fast paced progress.
None of the highrises, office buildings or governmental buildings and stadiums in the series have people in them. Instead, humans exist within the deterioration of the older ways, in the fields and parks instead of the office parks. They inhabit the in between spaces. Transportation doesn’t just connect two places, it shrinks the spaces in between, as a blur through the windows of a train, dots within grids from a plane, etc. Sensitive to this blurring which can lead to erasure, Chen has tried to capture the accelerating change in the moment, as what exists off the train can’t be seen while on it. In the stillness of these portraits, he aims to preserve what was there just before the train came along, as well as the moments after it first arrived in Changping.
Tom: Do you think there is a certain type of sadness here? A lot of your works relate to how we relate to our environment and how that can change us.
Chen: I don’t really shoot the portraits or landscapes with a ton of light, or making them heavy with aggressive color. I try to hold something back a little bit, to leave something on the image. I want to leave part of the image for the audience to put themselves in it and feel those sensations by themselves.
T: Even those it is not visible in, the train exists in all the photos. It becomes a specter or dragon that divides the landscape, it changes how people interact with the landscape. Your series tends to focus on the change to your hometown, how it is not always positive.
C: I think the rail is kind of a dilemma. Something going too fast can easily slip out of control. The people living in the Garden may have a dream about what the future is, but when things are going wild or crazy, you cannot really predict what will happen. Also there are some things that change so fast. When you leave for a few years and then come back, it is hard to recognize anything. So some of it is dealing with the present with the past.
T: When you went back to China last summer, were you expecting to do this series? Or did it come out of a realization of how different your home town was?
C: I had a plan before I came back to Beijing, but I changed my idea of where I was going with the series when I was able to experience the changes there. For the Metro, everything was new, and it didn’t take that long to build. I took the Metro line, and when you are on the train you can see all the places changing so fast — like in an hour — from the city to rural fields. More and more people are moving further outside of the city, because central Beijing is really expensive. Many people are moving from other provinces to Changping, but work in Beijing, so the Metro line really has changed how many people live there.
T: As there are two sides to the idea of progress, I’m assuming that many people had different reactions to the rail line. Did you see that in the people who you photographed?
C: One or two of the portraiture subjects are my neighbors, and they have been living there for a really long time, but some of the portraits are total strangers. I met with them to have a talk with them as well as to ask their permission to photograph them. I went to specific locations to both take their photograph and talk with them about that place.
T: Has this series been seen by the participants or by people in China? Have you shown them there?
C: I didn’t publish them in China, but they have already been shown on Chinese websites that are like Flickr, as well as photo club sites, and people seemed to have different attitudes about them. Some said they had really been touched by the photos. They can see the sadness and get the metaphors in them. But some people didn’t really want to see that kind of photo. They think that a photographer should not make negative comments about China. But that is not a major part of the public though. There is a small group who are really aggressive in terms of nationalism, and they likely think the Western media has a lot of bias against China’s current state. I think more people prefer the project and have had positive comments on it.
T: With one story, another is left out. Progress is considered a good thing, yet it eliminates another way of being, forcing it out. So there is going to be multiple sides.
C: But I’m not trying to document something as much as finding the lyrical moment.
T: What about your Thesis exhibition? Having to choose only two photos from your Garden Metro series, a lot of weight bears on them to summarize the series. There was a photo of two musicians called Erhu Players and a portrait of a clown…
C: He is a flower delivery clown, so he is supposed to be really happy, delivering flowers and performing some magic for the customer. One day I ran into their shop and asked permission to photograph one of the clowns. I asked the clown to show a pose that he would do for a customer, but to me, he just showed that sad face (laughs). So i kind of think that he doesn’t really like his job at all, and I imagine that he doesn’t really get a good salary. The society is moving so fast, that some groups are getting wealthy really quickly and then the others are not. I also think its interesting to have a clown in this series, because clowns are from Western culture, so its kind of rare to see many clowns in China.
I use flowers as a metaphor in the series, both real and painted, like in some of the portraits. Traditionally, Changping has been considered a very beautiful place and is known as the Garden of Beijing. Flowers are very fragile, some live for such a short time, yet they have been around much longer than all of our architecture. I’m most interested in the sun flower, though, because the sun can be political imagery in Chinese thought.
T: In the photo of the two musicians, they hold onto a traditional instrument of China, the erhu, and repurpose the space to provide them with an acoustic environment. While they are tiny in comparison to the architecture surrounding them, they powerfully subvert its intention — existing under the rail instead of on the train. Instead of forward travel, they stay still in time, even halting time by keeping to the traditions. They serenade the space, humanizing it. Yet if the rail didn’t exist, they wouldn’t have the acoustics it provides. It becomes a new relationship and a new use of the space.
C: This was the hottest day of the summer. Whenever I see this picture, I can imagine the sound of their music mixed with all the sounds of nature and competing traffic. It always brings me back to that moment.
T: This rail line is replacing architecture and infrastructure from the late 20th century. Its pretty recent stuff when you think about China’s long history as a nation, yet it has powerful implications on how the political atmosphere has changed. How is this different than what the 20th century architecture replaced?
C: There are still many supporters of Mao and they are very patriotic. Especially older people. Many of them remember that period firsthand. Western people probably see it as a brutal time, but for these people, the revolution was happening while they were teenagers and so they were swept up in it. It still has a strong impact on Chinese society. After 1979, the people were opened up to the whole world and different philosophies and new cultures. Again, the younger generation was influenced by this, being able to go abroad as well as embrace Western culture. China has both socialism and capitalism happening together which is very interesting from anyone’s perspective.
T: Yeah, there are so many people in America that will defend capitalism to their death even though it is keeping them in poverty. Likewise, any inkling of socialism brings everyone screaming, yet many of the established parts of our society are socialist constructs.
There were several working prints and contact sheets hanging up and laying around his studio on factories and power plants, even some office buildings. All of them focused on steam rising out of them. In the night, the steam is ghost like, filling the space and haunting it, much like the train line in Changping does in his other works. Other times, the steam is barely visible or imbued with a tint applied in editing, yet it occupies the majority of the picture plane. While the architecture remains locked to the ground, in service to humans until it would eventually lose all purposeness and be reduced to rubble, a victim to gravity, the steam keeps rising. Freedom to return to a natural state, barely visible sometimes, yet overwhelmingly there. In their early state, they appeared to be some of his most hopeful works yet.
C: These are new, these are in Michigan about an hour from here. Actually, the tea pot outside is part of my process for this series, coming from a lyrical approach. I started to have an interest in the topics of Wildism and Life Cycles. Concentrating on forms of water as a metaphor throughout the series, so basicly you see the steam here, or the steam from the teapot, or other forms like the factories.
T: They have a spiritual element.
C: Yeah, thats what I’m interested in talking about. Like something behind what you’re looking at. I kept thinking that the factory or the power plant also is an organ of life, cause the factory is kind of like a body and the steam coming out of the chimney is trying to speak out and express something.
More of Chen’s work can be viewed on his website:http://chenshenphoto.com/
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