A Play in a Play
by Chen Haiyan
Chen Nong’s photographs often strike the audience as intense, resembling period dramas or even one act melodramas. His cast, props and sets all work together to tell stories in a constructivist way with obsessive visual detail. The unique niche appeal of Chen Nong’s Silk Road series lies in his esoteric and dazzling rendition of a theme as grand as its historic namesake.

I’ve always found humans to be complex creatures that can be both frivolous and egotistical. A perfectly rational person can just snap like that and become impossibly inquisitive and pertinacious. With similar obstinacy, artists make their works. I believe what audiences experience are in fact fantasies that took the shape of art works on exhibition that invite original responses from viewers rather than the dictations of highbrow "art critiques.” Art should not be all aloof and austere. Whether it poses as endearingly cheerful or inconveniently dismal, art is supposed to stay intimate and true to life. It makes a certain philosophical sense to say that art runs parallel with religion into the human heart. She has her own “way” with spirit, faith and how people make sense of the world.

The Buddha once said, "The Dharma must be taught according to reality.” In Chen Nong’s three-year quest, he overhauled his draft four times. He made a pilgrimage to far-flung parts of China like Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu to find an appropriate place to shoot and spent more than half a year copying Dunhuang cave murals. Half-jokingly comparing his bitter work and travel throughout the years to Xuanzang’s journey to the west, Chen takes delight in his hard-won accomplishments. Perhaps artists share a rare gift of getting inspiration by ruminating on their previous experiences and expressing themselves in a special artful “language”. For that matter, to hear what artists have to say, one needs to listen with an attentive ear and a peaceful mind. This could be the way we walk the Silk Road of art and spirituality with Chen Nong as our guide.

Thus have I heard at one time. Chen Nong has a distinctive look, tall and slender with his long hair up in a bun. He practices internal style martial arts and outfits himself in a Breton shirt, riding pants and combat boots. When he puts on a reserved and focused look, he gives off vibes of a valiant stoic soldier; and when he is in a defiant mood, he arrests attention with radiant vigor as a martial artist. With a simple temperament and a boyish smile, Chen Nong, however unworldly as he might seem, is already in his 40s. His courtyard, tucked in an alley in Houhai in Beijing, is where he hangs out with friends every now and then. As a hospitable host, he has a large and expanding circle of friends. They enjoy music and laughter over a drink or a good cup of tea, sometimes deep into the night. Whenever I get to go to Beijing, which is a rare chance for me, I’d calculatingly visit Chen Nong at mealtimes with my stomach empty, for Chen makes totally authentic Fujian soup and serves great Fujian rock tea. Every time we part ways after the feast late at night, as I twist my way through the empty alleys, I hear the echoes of my footsteps that have long gone unnoticed. How lovely it is to have some leisure to enjoy the company of friendship and art! What’s the point of slaving away and fettering the mind and the body? I assume this the reason why Chen Nong insists on his simple reclusive lifestyle. With beer, tea, and the warm company of family and friends, he keeps his head down and put his heart into his own purpose. The nonchalant way he lays back and makes time for nature to run its own course is a real envy to those who are used to working in a feverish haste.

Yet people are almost never what they usually seem, and artists in particular have a hidden side when it comes to creating artworks. Outsiders would have been surprised to see how painstaking Chen Nong gets at work and baffled at his “unnatural” approach to photography as a worshiper of “the natural”. This is the tension between Chen as an artist and his works of photographic drama, a play within a play indeed! For his own play, he is the playwright, director, and producer. In this age when digital photography and raster graphics editing hold sway, Chen still religiously adheres to large format cameras and films, darkroom techniques, hand coating, and hand painting. Like a one-man set-design department, he designs and builds his own sets, assembles casts and makes props, rather out of step with pragmatic mainstream culture today where speed is king. With all these strenuous effort and extravagant input, he builds layers of illusions powerful enough to sweep the audience off their feet, erasing the boundary between reality and fantasy; thus, the profound message behind his visual feast stages a perfect comeback. In other words, Chen Nong preaches his beliefs through photography, like a devoted minister.

This set of 16 images features the motif of the Silk Road overland and the Maritime Silk Road, covering related historical stories and myths such as the story of Han Dynasty diplomat Zhang Qian’s mission to the Western Regions, the Tang Dynasty princess Wencheng traveling to marry Tibetan patriarch SongtsenGampo, a host of lesser states paying tribute to China's greatness, the Qin Shi Huangdi burning books and burying scholars alive, and the tale of Noah’s Ark. It’s a chronicle of life that visualizes symbols of man’s struggle with nature, history, culture, commerce, will to power and violence. It is a grand narrative exploring the essence of life and death, spirit and faith, past and future, and hope in desperate times. Metaphoric symbols frozen in independent still frames echo with each other and merge as one.

Chen Nong flattened four-dimensional dramas and made the plots abstract and compressed, and he spiked his works with his own understanding of the history, philosophical thinking and visualization skills. To decipher the message of his works, we need a key. In this case, it’s the Silk Road. The Silk Road derives its name from the trade in silk carried out along its length connecting China and many countries in Asia, Europe and Africa, but it was actually a cultural network central to the interactions between the East and West. It’s a stage for the connections and conflicts between the nomadic populations and the agricultural societies in economy, religion, politics, and on battlefields. The established beginning of the ancient Silk Road was when the Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty sent Zhang Qian as a diplomatic envoy to the Western Regions, but the Silk Road had always been more than a trade route since its pre-Qin prototype. The mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, technology and ideas was an constant integral part. What put this trade route on the map was how it enriched human knowledge and broadened people’s minds. It tells adventure stories where people show admirable grit in the face in adversity, and it also shows violent scenes of barbarous slaughter and dreadful greed. Throughout its history, people rose to the challenges of having to figure out their way in dilemmas of material and spirit, rise and decline, and truth and illusion. All the facts and myths buried in the dust of time and space, combined with the love and hatred in every individual cycle of life, shaped the glorious silhouette of the Silk Road.

This trade route to the west was not simply named after the merchandise it conveyed, nor was it thus named just because the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen decided so. The production of silk originates in China in the Neolithic and China maintained its virtual monopoly over silk production. During this time, silk developed into a significant cultural symbol for the country. Silk gained its popularity not just for its luxurious texture and luster, or its charming mythical origin involving the mythical ancestor Fuxi and the goddess of silk Leizu. It secured its place in the Chinese culture because the pre-historic Chinese civilization worshiped the silkworm as a totem, for its mysterious capability of life changes from egg to cocoon to flying adult. Just like what the dung beetle did to ancient Egyptians, the silkworm inspired the awe and wonder for life in the ancient Chinese. The silkworm hints the way to the heaven above and its silk serves as a symbol of spiritual transcendence. Silk fabric wrapped the deceased and clothed the living, nurturing an orderly agricultural civilization with great emperors “allowing the upper and lower garments to hang down” without stirring. Silk can be woven into an ideal textile, and more importantly it stands for an ideal on its own. This is what Chen Nong’s journey to the west on the Silk Road has taught him and what he keeps trying to pass on.

Chen Nong’s characteristic preferences have distinguished him from other film photographers. His choice of themes, ideas of storyboards and locations of shooting make his works unique. He is generous to a fault when it comes to making life-size costumes and props and elaborate sets, just as he is adamant on getting his cast into the right mood. He demands perfection from his work, richness in the coating and coloring of films, and solemnness from the history captured in the final works. To Chen Nong, photography means more than “correctly” recording what’s real. It is about recreating a reality that makes visible the “form” of the objective. To enjoy this special journey of art creation again, Chen Nong, along with his cast, animal props and his precious equipment, went on an odyssey from Beijing. Each of the 25 scorching days in the ancient city of Gaochang was a witness of the grandiose plays the photographer now presents to us.

Written in Shanghai
January 16, 2016
Translation: Chen Dan
翻译(中-英): 陈丹
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