Chen Nong


Chen Nong was born in 1966 in Fuzhou , Fujian  Province, China. He currently lives in Beijing.

Chen Nong is a self-taught photomedia artist. He is able to meld different ideas and themes into a single piece, a mixture of historic reference and commentary on the massive changes in China. Chen constructs his photographs with simple props and costumed models in different locations. He relies on the local people to “act” their roles in these works, which comment on history, often making a parallel reference to recent events.

Contemporary Chinese visual culture is full of historical re-enactments. These may take the form of highly "realistic" epic films produced with obsessive visual detail, to cheaply shot television dramas with costumes bought off-the-rack in department stores. Chen Nong’s work uses a similar mode of production. Like a one-man set-design department, he makes his own props and costumes, relying on reference photographs and his own imagination.

Many of Chen Nong's photographs play with Chinese historical iconography. The terracotta warriors from ancient Xian form an army against the Three Gorges’ dam construction, elaborately dressed characters from Chinese opera carry arms and float in ponds of waterlilies and rural peasants are placed against a backdrop of dragon bridges or rise up to combat in farmers’ rebellions.  But though some of his work is playful, Chen Nong's photographs address issues of real concern in a contemporary world. He uses history and tradition to remind the present of what is being lost; the mood is one of grave nostalgia.

The stiff poses; dark shadows, and hand colouring make Chen Nong's photographs reminiscent of early photographs from the turn of last century. There is a tradition of hand painted postcards that has a similar feel to his work.  Chen photographs with a large format camera (8 x 10 inch or 4 x 5 inch) with black and white film. After processing the film Chen makes a photographic print in the darkroom which is then hand-coloured using photo inks. He also uses a painted photographic emulsion, known as “Liquid Light”,  which is applied to watercolour paper in the darkroom to make a photographically sensitive surface. The sensitised paper is exposed using a negative and processed like a normal darkroom photograph.  Chen then paints the image with watercolour paints. The quality and surface of the “Liquid Light” print is different from a photographic print. It is more like a watercolour painting. It is the expressive quality of the painted surface in Chen Nong’s works combined with his narrative style that creates such powerful works.

Chen Nong,  “Yellow River #1”, #2”, #3, #4, 2007-2008, 56 x 76 cm, Hand Painted Gelatin Silver Fibre Print.

Historic Chinese Postcard, about 1890 of a Chinese couple smoking and drinking tea.

Historic Chinese postcard, about 1890 of two female performers with bound feet

Historic Chinese Postcard, about 1890 of Chinese scholars in a garden

Historic Chinese Postcard, about 1890 of Chinese bride with covered head

The first postcard is a group portrait of Chinese scholars taken in a traditional garden in Mei Yuan in Shanxi Provence. The scholars stand or are seated casually in the garden to express a sense of ease and leisure. The scholar occupied a position at the top of the traditional Chinese hierarchical society, for he possessed prestige, wealth, and power. Because of the difficulty of mastering the classical Chinese writing style, only a tiny fraction of the population of China was fully literate, and government officials were selected from this small group of highly educated scholars. An ambitious young man would pursue an arduous course of study in the Chinese classics in preparation for the civil service examination. These exams required thorough knowledge of Confucian thought (a social philosophy with the intention to design and build an ideal human society with views about society, politics, economy, and ethics. To build an ideal society, the family relationship is an essential part of thinking), plus the ability to write essays on moral issues and current affairs and poems in a variety of formal styles. Consequently, the government bureaucracy was composed of rigorously trained scholar-artists; conversely, poets and painters held official positions as powerful politicians.

The two young women in the next card could have been prostitutes of performers. They made their living entertaining guests, often very beautiful, witty and gifted musicians. One of the women in this postcard has bound feet. Bound feet was a mark of beauty that became a prerequisite for finding a husband, as well as an avenue for poorer women to marry into money. Women, their families, and their husbands took great pride in tiny feet, with the ideal length, called the ‘Golden Lotus’, being about 7 cm long, covered by elegantly embroidered silk slippers. Walking on bound feet necessitated bending the knees slightly and swaying to maintain proper movement and balance, a dainty walk that was also considered sexually enticing to men. Foot binding most likely originated among court dancers in the early Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), but spread to upper class families, and eventually became common among all classes. The tiny narrow feet were considered to be very beautiful. The bones in the foot were broken when the girl was tiny and the foot tightly wrapped. This painful and disfiguring practice lasted until the 20th century.

This Chinese couple is conversing while sipping tea and smoking. The tradition of serving tea is an important ritual of traditional Chinese domestic life. The artist Chen Nong quoted a saying, “No tea, no life”.

It was an old Chinese custom to cover the bride’s head with a square of red silk scarf before getting into the wedding sedan to go to her wedding, as seen in the photograph. The red silk was called ‘Hong Gai Tou’. The groom could remove it to see her face for the first time only after entering the marriage chamber. In this photo, the bride had to use a bamboo basket instead of Hong Gai Tou.

Chen Nong,  “Yellow River #5”, 2007-2008, 56 x 76 cm, Hand painted gelatin silver fibre print.

Chen Nong,  “Yellow River #6”, 2007-2008, 56 x 76 cm, Hand painted gelatin silver fibre print.

Chen Nong,  “Yellow River #7”, 2007-2008, 56 x 76 cm, Hand painted gelatin silver fibre print.

Chen Nong,  “Yellow River #8”, 2007-2008, 56 x 76 cm, Hand painted gelatin silver fibre print.

This set of images is about the farmers’ rebellions throughout Chinese history. The photographs have been taken against the backdrop of the Hokou Waterfall in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The Yellow River is very significant icon of China and considered to be the mother river.  Chen Nong has used an 8 x 10 inch large format film camera to take two images, which are combined in the darkroom.  The first exposure is made on the photographic paper and some areas are held back from the light from the enlarger so that a second exposure is possible with another negative. It is possible to combine the two images using this technique. Chen Nong doesn’t use Photoshop to manipulate his works.

The first image in the series shows a rebellion by peasant farmers, imagined from a time long ago before the days of a Chinese feudal society. There is a dinosaur (made as a paper sculpture) in the image to suggest, in a very fanciful way, that this is an ancient time. The next work refers to the rebellion of 209 BC in the Qin Dynasty (the era of the Great Wall of China). Chen Nong uses various objects to symbolically suggest different times that he has sourced from TV programs and movies of historic re-enactment.  In another work there are eight animals that represent the eight allied Western powers of 1900. The panorama recalls a classical style and, in addition, the format of the eight images also reflects the historic Chinese tradition of narration through paper scrolls. The theme is consistent; the poor are forced to rebel to gain civil rights and some equality in Chinese society. Today, Chinese farmers are still suffering poverty in spite of significant improvements in the living standard of the rural population. Chen Nong suggests that a modern rebellion is needed, especially to protect the Yellow River from environmental ruin, as it is the source of all wealth for farmers who grow crops along its banks. The last image in this set of eight shows the farmers praying ready to go to heaven, Nirvana. There is no ending for them, either success or failure but their continuing struggle against hardship and inequality. The photographs use the colour and brushstrokes of the hand-painted areas to express the dynamic action taking place in each of the scenes. The vibrant brushwork adds an emotional content to these expressive works.

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