Chinese Family: Chen Qiji’s solo exhibition
TCG Nordica Gallery
Curator: Dong Zhong
Art Host: Guan Yuda
Art Director: Mao Xuhui
Exhibition organizer: Liu Lifen, Xia Yan, Gu Xu
A Chinese Family’s Photographic Memory
Chen Qiji’s “New Family Tree”
By Guan Yuda
Translated By Jeff Crosby
The Chinese just might be more conscious of familial relations and family values than any other people on earth. In the Confucian idea of “cultivate the mind and body, keep the family in order, rule the nation and keep peace in the world”, the idea “keep the family in order” is a very important part. If “cultivate the mind and body” points to only taking care of oneself, then rule the nation and keep peace in the world talks of pushing your values and character on others, or working together for the benefit of society. So keeping the family in order means managing and running the small household, or as the Chinese often say, with a peaceful home, everything is possible. The Chinese classic Dream of a Red Mansion is permeated with affairs of family and state, and in the eyes of many scholars, the family affairs in the book are all affairs of the state, the grand view of the world is the history of gratitude and revenge (the words of Nie Gannu). The fall of the Rong and Ning houses led directly to the rise of the Qing Dynasty.
As one of the most fundamental groupings of social organization, “family” has always played an irreplaceable role in the drama of Chinese culture and society. The family tree is the projection of blood ties as the core of human kinship. Before mankind entered civilized society, blood ties were the first and most important of links for human groupings. The earliest groupings of humans were random and scattered like the wild brush; the state of knowing the mother but not the father was an integral part of the primitive group. For the over three million years of human existence, man spent roughly 2.9 million years in primitive groups, and the clan system was only produced in the last hundred thousand years. The integral primitive group began breaking up into smaller groups, and as that developed further, it distinctions became finer, and the recognition of family ties as a concept was born. The people were brought together by benevolence, and I began to have knowledge of the mother that bore me. Knowing that I have a mother, I realize that there are others of the same mother. Knowing that, I gain knowledge of my mother’s mother, and know that there are others who were born of her mother. This was how we came to know of family ties. These are the core and the beginning foundations of the Chinese family tree. The distinction between familial relations and the recognition of clan ties are the roots of the genealogical tree, and the oral recital of ancestry is the fountainhead. In seeking out the roots of the family tree, we will discover that its original purpose was to differentiate familial relations, condense the clan and optimize reproduction, as in all relatives succeed together. Afterwards, though never departing from the basic functions of distinguishing and uniting, through the tides of time and different social systems, the specific use has changed a bit.
The Chinese family has seen great changes over the past century under the onslaught of modernization. First it was the decline of the clan system in local societies that lead to the disintegration of the traditional family structure. The traditional family values that had survived as clans lived together were challenged. This phenomenon was been touched on time and again by the great modern Chinese authors after May Fourth[ May Fourth, 1919 marks a massive protest by Chinese intellectuals against the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. It also symbolizes the birth of modern Chinese literature and political thought.], as in Xiao Hong’s Story of Hulan River, where the disintegration of the family structure goes hand in hand with the disappearance of pastoral songs; in author Ba Jin’s (Pa Jin) works Family, Spring and Autumn, the divisions and conflicts created by the disintegration of the traditional family units and its values escalate into a “Change of an Era”. The most perceptually rich material for the visual sociological study of the changes in the traditional family structure and values in Contemporary China however, is to be found among the works of Chinese contemporary artists in the past twenty years.
In the late eighties, the art critic Wu Liang once used the term “visual deficiency” in his discussion, expressing anxiety over the deficiency of original visual resources in Chinese contemporary art. In fact, the phenomenon of copying in Chinese contemporary art images is closely related to interaction. Entering into the nineties, the visual deficiency was no longer a problem. Just as in business and the economy, there are all types of bubbles, image bubbles, product bubbles in the blink of an eye everything had already been created. The flood of images has already become a visual disaster. This type of image production is the same concept as the production of goods; they are not originals, they are things that can be produced and reproduced in bulk. And against the backdrop of internationalization and globalization, the creation of the image bubble has already become a globally shared spectacle. In other words, whatever images are liked abroad will be produced domestically. This is not a purely aesthetical issue, it is a sociological issue. This situation created the “Old Photo Craze” and such family soap operas as “Longing” and “I Love My Family”, bringing family issues once again in front of the whole society. Those “Old Photos” that are so like family trees were originally a private collection that was transformed into a public image. By looking through the image forms of the “Old Photos” at the relation between image and society, image and man, image and art, we can explore the effects on the family of the changes of the entire societal structure and the background of cultural knowledge.
In fact, whether or not they are aware of it, Chinese contemporary artists have entered into the realm of visual sociology through their creative works. Take for example Zhuang Hui’s group photos, which can be taken as evidence of China’s collectivist spirit and the national ideology in the nineteen sixties; Weng Fenâ€™s work Wall Riding symbolizes the marks of urbanization left behind in the countryside and the disintegration of family in the transition from localized to urbanized living; there is also the documentation of daily youth life in Yangjiang by Zheng Guogu and the candid shots of â€œcool youthâ€ by Yang Yong, both of which are filled with socialistic evidence of the changes in the family brought about by the recent transition in Chinese society.
Chen Qiji began his “new family tree” project about three years ago. Observing from a sociological perspective, he is using images to address the important issues raised by the changes taking place in cultural memory, historical memory, societal structure and especially family structure. Chen Qiji relies on his own personal life experience to “visualize” the collapse of the family unit, a growing problem in Chinese society since the nineteen eighties, and create a “new family tree” art form. In the reappearance of “the past”, he has recreated a history of the Chinese family. Because the old ways of living, such as the courtyard house with all relations living together according to filial status, have already come unraveled, the traditional way of life for the Chinese family has already undergone great changes. From the traditional head of the house family in Ba Jin’s Family to the revolutionary family of the fifties, the three member family that arose out of the one child policy, or the single parent household, cohabitation, etc, all of these forms are evidenced in Chen Qiji’s photos. For example, through Chen Qiji’s collection of Lu Hongxing’s family photos we can see that the Lu family became a great clan during his grandfather’s generation, often gathering together for all festivals, and building up relations and affection. Mr Lu has a sister who married a Beijinger whose father drove the first train to rural Guizhou in the sixties, and now speaks with a perfect Guizhou accent. Husband and wife have one daughter, now studying in another city. The young generation is even more spread apart, with no more of the intimacy of the last generation; the daughter’s generation places more emphasis on friendship than kinship. They have their own social gathering events, such as birthdays and Valentine’s Day. Chen Qiji uses these Chinese family photo collections, interviews and arrangements to express a sort of cultural recollection of family based on personal experiences. This type of “recreation of the past” has two levels of significance: first, we can look at these photos to observe the transformation of the entire family structure in Chinese society; second, we can condense all of the changes of the past few decades into the pictures of a family. If we say that the old family tree was a reasoned text-based record, then the family tree of today is the precious photo collection that every family now has. Maybe this is the reason that Chen Qiji titled this work “new family tree”? Here, the artist’s collection efforts and interviews are a type of field work and in the process of collecting and selecting there are the beginnings of exchange and communication. This type of work is just like that of the anthropologist, both have their ways of convincing people to allow them into their homes to interview and document. So in a sense, Chen Qijia’s piece is actually an “action work” of mutual cooperation.
Also, the way in which this series of works is exhibited is quite interesting. In Chinese custom, one way to express respect for someone is to stick their picture on the wall, such as Chairman Mao. Chen Qiji utilized this traditional method, that of putting friends and relatives photos in frames on the wall, decorating these family photos in the form of certificates or awards, and rearranged each group of photos as visual family trees, inviting the audience to take group photos with some of the family tree subjects. He attempts to use this method to reawaken the people’s cultural memory of the Chinese family, and reveal his own pain at the demise of the traditional family. Aside from this, something that is especially notable is that Chen Qiji’s personal experience imperceptibly affected his work of collecting these photos. His interest in family photos is directly linked to the experience of being orphaned as a child. Chen Qiji spent his youth in a floating state, and he projects his experiences and feelings into these photos, using these photos to tell the tale of the life and death, joys and sorrows of the Chinese family. So, among Chinese artists whose works deal with visual sociological representations of family, Chen Qiji’s work should count as an excellent case his piece provides us with a complete visual recollection of the changes that have taken place to the Chinese family in the past few decades. In these photos, the first thing we see are the early group photos, where the people are not willing to stand close together even husband and wife maintain their distance and everyone seems uptight and formal; after that are the fifties group shots, where everyone is expressing strong feelings of unity; then there are the photos from the sixties and seventies, where everyone seems to be acting the part of revolutionary, and they all seem as props on a stage; by the eighties and nineties, casual and travel photos abound, and all the pictures show the marks of faked happiness and staged shots. Another thing that I noticed was that in the photos from the sixties and seventies, many were originally black and white but had been colored in. Is this maybe because color photos were a luxury and a symbol of the desire for a better life? The colorization of the black and white might symbolize the ideal of another kind of “Chinese family” that was imagined during the times of material shortage.
In his representative work Tokyo Story, the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu used the growth of parents and their children to describe the collapse of the traditional family system. This type of upheaval is just like what is happening to thousands of Chinese youth and their parents as the youth set out to the city in search of work. The artist Chen Qijiâ€™s work of creating a family tree through old photographs is not a work of genealogical research, but a way of using artistic methods to tell the tale of the Chinese family, and inspire us to return home.
March 15, 2004,In the shadow of Yuantong Mountain