Chen Nong

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In his work “Three Gorges I”, Chen Nong creates a hand-coloured panorama of black and white photography that highlights eight single images of the Three Gorges Dam. Chen has costumed men and women, who originally lived in the now drowned town, as an ‘army’ of terracotta warriors from the ancient site of Xian. The costumes are not armour but fragile paper constructions; the artist could be suggesting impermanence of historical artefacts in the face of environmental change. This is a very mortal army of ordinary people faced with extreme loss (approximately 1.5 million people have been displaced). The sites of these photographs have already been submerged by the waters of the dam to become an archeological site for future scientists to study the remains of this time. The pale green blue wash over the work gives the work a disquieting eeriness and unifies the eight pieces into a single work.

Chen Nong, Detail “Three Gorges I”, 2005-2006

Chen Nong, “Three Gorges – Upper reaches”, 2004-2006, 100 x 960 cm, Silver gelatin print with hand-painting

Chen Nong, “Three Gorges – Lower reaches”, 2004-2006, 100 x 960 cm, Silver gelatin print with hand-painting

“It was ‘Three Gorges 1' and ‘Three Gorges 2, 2005-06', by Chen Nong, though, that transfixed my attention.  Here, allegory and art touched a truth.  In the first series, eight extraordinary scenes, each hand pigmented on gelatin silver fibre paper, portrayed epic landscapes, a world of waste heaps, rubble, bulldozers, scattered residential housing blocks, rivers, highways and distant city horizons.  The suggestion of a terrain gouged and excavated, chimed with removal and displacement, while, in the middle and foreground stood clustered groups of ‘terracotta soldiers' (individuals attired in painstakingly handmade cardboard costumes).  Resolute and vigilant, the figures were both rigid and alive, as much residents and villagers of the present as relics of the past, but either way, destined for migration.  The remade horizon maybe their tomb or a world yet to be imagined. However, if these ‘soldiers' were imbued with possible tragedy, then the inconspicuous intervention of female figures with infants in baskets, standing amongst and behind the gathered groups, were signifiers of a more hopeful fate. Extensive hand-colouring, in shades of blue and grey in the first series, and more surreal hues of green, red, yellow and orange in the second, only served to intensify the conviction wrought by the painterly hand in combination with the graphic ‘reality' of the photographic medium.   In Chen Nong's vision, the voices of past, present and future engaged simultaneously. This was confident and mature work that, without farce or parody, had something profound to say.” 

From an interview

The work below, “Ancient Town”, combines the themes of the works based on the Yellow River and the Three Gorges Dam. There is a battle raging in this ancient town, a protest about change and its destruction. The work uses the same techniques with expressive and very painterly hand-colouring of the photographic image. The panels are broken into vertical strips to give a sense of the chaotic; there is blur and movement of the image within the works which is part of the long exposures using a film-based camera.

Chen Nong, “Ancient Town”, size variable, 2011, gelatin silver print on fine art paper

Chen Nong has also made a significant body of work based on the dragon bridges in Luzhou, Sichuan province. These works have a timeless quality, referring to the simple agricultural life of Chinese peasant farmers and the ancient sculptural bridges of the area.

Chen Nong states;

"There're more than 170 bridges with dragons from Song dynasty to the Republic of China. A dragon bridge is the simplest slab bridge, yet decorated with exquisite statues of dragon heads. I choose some of them and link them together. The figures are just from a daily market scene. We can see from the picture that the bridge, dragon, people and scenery are well harmonised by the water."

Chen Nong uses two different techniques when making his prints. Some are printed as fibre prints on photographic paper in the darkroom and then hand-painted with photo inks. These works are generally darker in tone then those using a brushed liquid emulsion on watercolour paper. The second technique (see the print below) reveals the brushstrokes of the photographic emulsion and the painting, using water colour, is softer, with a more extensive range of subtle colouring.

Chen Nong, “Dragon Bridge, #12”,  2010, 56 x 76 cm, Gelatin Silver Print on Fibre Paper (Liquid Light), Hand-painted

Chen Nong, “Dragon Bridge, #13”,  2010, 56 x 76 cm, Gelatin Silver Print on Fibre Paper (Liquid Light), Hand-painted

Chen Nong, “Dragon Bridge, #15”,  2010, 56 x 76 cm, Gelatin Silver Print on Fibre Paper (Liquid Light), Hand-painted

Chen Nong, “Dragon Bridge, #13”,  2010, 56 x 76 cm, Gelatin Silver Print on Fibre Paper, Hand-painted

Chen Nong, “Dragon Bridge, #14”,  2010, 56 x 76 cm, Gelatin Silver Print on Fibre Paper, Hand-painted

The “Dragon Bridge” photographs show groups of peasant farmers making their way to market: carrying their goods, leading their animals, conversing and exchanging information. There is a strong sense of community in the works that is contrary to the feeling of social alienation that is rapidly becoming a part of the density urbanised cities and towns of China. There is a longing for the past in these works, which are imaginative narratives about a simple agrarian life. Chen Nong has used the local people as his models and directs them into position like a director of film. The works are carefully composed within the frame with contrasting colour areas leading the eye to the action and narrative of the works. The artist refers to the mirror-like surface of water as a metaphor for time. All the people portrayed in the works fade and blend into Chen Nong’s fantasy water world of the past.

Images courtesy of the artist and Ofoto Gallery, Shanghai

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