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THE SQUIRE 1985-2016
——An Exhibition of Chen Zhixian

Artists: Chen Zhixian

Curator: Na Risong

Academic Adviser: Robert Pledge

2016.12.10 - 2017.01.10

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Duration: 2016.12.10 - 2017.01.10

a man; a square; a small town in the southeastern part of Shanxi province, in the north of China. For the last 31 years, Chen Zhixian has visited Jincheng every single year, and often more than once. he even recalls having attended 12 Spring Festivals, 5 Lantern Festivals, and 3 Mid autumn Festivals. When he visits, he spends most of his time on People’s Square.
Chen is not a native of Jincheng. he was born about 1400 kilometers away in southern China in July of 1954. Wenzhou is where he spent his childhood and lived until he was 45. nor does he work in Jincheng either, but over a thousand kilometers to the east, in Shanghai, where he moved his successful electric appliance business in 1999.
Chen fell in love with Jincheng and its square on his first stay, in 1985, as it was being elevated from county to town and proclaimed a prefecture. Since, its population has increased by 40 percent to more than 2,3 million. everything has changed on and around Jincheng’s People’s Square but for the statue of Chairman Mao erected in September 1968.
Gone are the carts, the bicycles, the farmers’ outdoor market of the seventies and eighties. Gone too in the nineties, the remaining hutongs and the bus terminal.Today, we see an expanded esplanade that hides a big underground parking lot, with manicured gardens and, in the right season, a playful and colorful nightlife. The buildings are taller. Traffic on the edges of the square is dense, with pedestrians snaking their way around the SuVs, motorbikes, and brightly colored buses. high-rises, fast food restaurants, hair salons and neon lights shape the new urban landscape.
We do see it all because of Chen Zhixian: he photographed it. relentlessly.year after year. he walks us through the square from black- and-white to color, from film to digital. Chen is a committed photographer. He got the bug from his father who loved literature, calligraphy and photography. In the late seventies he bought his first Seagull 4A. He has never stopped photographing since. First, to nurture his visual diary as he became one of China’s very first traveling salesmen following the deregulation of the economy; then, as he married at 23 a primary school teacher, to keep a trace of his family life, and their travels.
Self-taught, he loves the medium, the equipment and the technology. Cameras, lenses, he ‘collects’ them in all shapes and sizes, from today’s small digital cameras to the more ancient medium-format bodies. he photographs from any angles without inhibition. in Jincheng, he seems to have spent a lot of time lying down on the square looking for a other ways to photograph. he likes to engage his subjects. yet, at other times he will prefer to be discreet and furtive. he clearly avoids any pre-conceived or formal approach in taking his pictures. ‘Decisive moments’ or carefully composed images are not his concern. he is fast, instinctive, more in the looser practice of robert
Frank. he sees; he feels; he shoots. Then, he smiles. he profoundly enjoys the act of taking pictures. There is something strongly and spontaneously filmic about Chen Zhixian’s visual writing and direct “snap-shooting” style.
The 85 pictures by Chen Zhixian i present here — less than three a year on the average — are culled from tens of thousands of frames. They constitute an extraordinary and vivid documentation of China’s recent transformation into a major economic and cultural powerhouse. They also illustrate how photography remains such a relevant and powerful tool in the observation and understanding of history. especially when recorded with passion.

Robert Pledge (Exhibition Curator)

   About the Artist

Chen Zhixian was born in Wenzhou, China, 1954. His father loved literature, ink painting,calligraphy, seal carving, and photography. He became well-known in the ink painting world for publishing two large catalogs, and Chen’s father directly influenced his interest in photography. His mother was a worker in a textile factory, an amiable yet strong woman.
In 1976, the Chinese market relaxed slightly, and Chen took the opportunity to become one of China’s first sales people, which allowed him to travel all over the country on business. While on a trip to Shanghai, he bought a Seagull 4A twin- lens camera. When he used this camera to record the things that happened in his life, he was engulfed by an unprecedented wave of intense feeling, and he began to experiment with using this completely new way to express his emotions.
In 1991, Chen was included in the book project Shanghai Yiri (One Day in Shanghai) with a number of other photographers. That same year, he swept the prizes at the Yimeng Golden Autumn Photography competition. As a result of participating in prizes and exhibitions, he became a professional photographer, named by the government as a top professional in his field. Chen also became a representative to the provincial People’s Congress.
So that he would have the time and energy to devote to this long-term project on Jincheng, Chen stopped participating in contests and exhibitions. He began making the 1,358 kilometer journey from Wenzhou to Jincheng and the 1,060-kilometer trip from Shanghai to Jincheng. In order to photograph the human landscape of Jincheng during traditional festivals, he has spent twelve Chinese New Years, five Lantern Festivals, and three Mid—Autumn Festivals in Jincheng over the last thirty years. Throughout his career in photography, he has maintained a persistent love of the medium despite the changes in society and himself. He has focused on a single subject, photographing it for thirty years.

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