On Chen Zhixian's Works


One Square, Thirty Years

Chen Zhixian


On the eve of Chinese New Year, only one member of staff was left in the lobby of the Jincheng Grand Hotel in Jincheng, Shanxi Province. As a solitary traveler, I chatted with the man. He asked, a bit surprised, “All the other tourists have left for the Chinese New Year holiday. Why haven’t you left yet?” I said, “I’ll leave eventually, but I’ve come to Jincheng specifically for the holiday.” He didn’t really understand, and I found it a bit hard to explain. “Yes, this is my twelfth time.” There was only one reason that I, a southern traveler, had come to spend Chinese New Year in Jincheng: to take more, and better, pictures. In the few days around Chinese New Year, people bring friends and family to the square in the center of town, which has already become an established pastime for city residents during the holiday. In order to photograph the human landscape of Jincheng during traditional festivals, I have spent twelve Chinese New Years, five Lantern Festivals, and three Mid-Autumn Festivals in Jincheng over the last thirty years.


Thirty years ago, in 1985, I came to the newly-founded Jincheng. When I stood in the square in the center of the city, I was drawn to the September 1968 statue of Mao Zedong with his arm extended. I felt compelled to raise the camera in my hand and record the lives of ordinary people under this sculpture. On the way back to Beijing, I developed these pictures; they received the recognition and approval of a number of people in the industry, encouraging me to continue with photography. I have taken pictures in this manner ever since, and they have naturally constituted a long-term photography project.


In order to capture an impression of the course of history, I thought it would be more powerful to examine immense change using a permanent statue. My photography practice proved the feasibility of this plan, clearly manifesting the passage of time over thirty years of photographs. These images reflect the historical changes that took place under the sculpture in the square, depicting the multiple faces of society and ordinary people, the paths of memory, and the rings of history in pictures.


You might wonder why I was willing to travel the 1,358 kilometers from Wenzhou or the 1,060 kilometers from Shanghai to get to Jincheng. You might also wonder why I photographed this place for thirty years, despite all the changes in society and myself. I believe that recording a city in photographs is the most sensitive and most effective mode for our times. I can depict the face of the city using the city center, its most important point. This unmoving statue helps me to explore the lightning changes in aesthetic values, as well as modern social and urban spaces. This thirty-year process has revealed multiple elements of our times.


When photography became a form of mass entertainment, something that was already rather easy to learn became even simpler. When everyone believes that they are photographers, photography becomes easily obtainable. What is a photographer to do in this situation? I don’t know how everyone else is reacting, but I continued with my long-term project.


I am an ordinary photographer, passionate and hopeful. I will continue to photograph multiple themes over long periods of time, until I can’t do it anymore. I hope that these historical images will be forever kept in the memories of my viewers as visual chapters in the annals of history.