What place does exhibiting hold in the evolution of a young photographer? For Ronghui Chen, it represents movement—both physically and in ideas. He grew up in Lishui, a small village in China’s Zheijang province, and started making photographs in high school. Now a photographer based between Shanghai and New Haven, where he is currently pursuing a MFA at Yale University, his work has travelled across the world.
Chen’s project Freezing Land, recently published as a photobook by Jiazazhi and selected as a project in the LensCulture Emerging Talents 2018, is an exploration of northeastern China’s youth culture and the tension between rural seclusion and urbanization. Working with a large format camera, the materiality of showing his work ‘offline’ has been an important rite of passage for the young artist, providing viewers the chance to really engage with the work and giving Chen a space to experiment with his existing project.
In this interview for LensCulture, he speaks to Cat Lachowskyj about the turning points in his career, gallery representation and how exhibiting his work has helped him better understand his practice as an artist.
Cat Lachowskyj: When you first started photographing, what was your understanding of galleries and exhibitions? Did they feel unattainable and distant?
Ronghui Chen: When I first started photographing in 2011, I thought that galleries and exhibitions were just about the art market and money. I never thought that I could show my work in a gallery or attend a fair like Photo London, and you couldn’t find much photography in China’s galleries at the time. If anything, I thought that my work might have the opportunity to be exhibited at a photography festival. In China, the local government is willing to invest in holding photography festivals because they can attract many visitors to a given region, and photographers have the opportunity to exhibit their work and receive rewards, like money or project support.
CL: At what point did you realize that exhibitions could be an interesting way to present the subject matter in your work?
RC: In 2015 I went to Austria, where a large retrospective on Joel Meyeroitz was on display. It was the first time I had ever seen an exhibition solely consisting of photographs, and it was also the first time I saw large-format photographs made so beautifully. I had only seen his work on the Internet before that point, which was so different to seeing it in real life.
CL: When was your first exhibition? What did it look like?
RC: In that same year, I had my first solo exhibition at a non-profit organization in Shanghai attached to a cafe. At first I felt a little frustrated, because it wasn’t a traditional white cube, but I soon realized that there were more than enough possibilities for interesting interaction. I primarily exhibited news photos about the refugee crisis in Europe, and the integrated space minimized the distance between my photographs and the audience. I also held two sharing sessions to introduce my work, and the exhibition ended up attracting more than 10,000 people.
CL: How have you exhibited your work since then, and what are the things you pay attention to when considering an exhibition of your work?
RC: After the first exhibition, I started getting more exposure, and I held three solo exhibitions and participated in more than twenty group exhibitions around the world, from China to Arles, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris. Photographic exhibitions often need to re-export works, because transporting photos is very expensive, so I usually re-export photos locally. This means that I find a way to make samples for the curator, so that the output is more accurate, and then I make adjustments according to the venue. I pay more attention to the lighting conditions than the size of the wall, because the lighting in different scenes allows viewers to have multiple experiences of the work. For example, some of my exhibitions in the Netherlands and France were in churches or historical relics, so I make the works have a dialogue with these sites, and then I’ll adjust the size and materials. If it is in a fully-enclosed white box, I choose my fixed output size and paper.
CL: How has exhibiting your photographs changed how you think about your work?
RC: I think that a photograph is complete only when it is finally printed, rather than when I press the shutter. When I work, I think about the exhibition situation, because that is how viewers interact with my photographs. I want people to see how I think and view things as an artist. Many details of an exhibition, such as the size, location, and sequence of images, slowly form in my mind as I walk through a space. Of course, sometimes when I have the opportunity to exhibit at a good museum or gallery, I wonder whether I have enough good work to present. When I was in New York, I would often visit bigger museums and galleries, and I would imagine that it was my exhibition on view, thinking about how I would present my work in the space, and how the audience would see my work.
CL: So when you make images, do you think about how they will look exhibited?
RC: I focus on ensuring that I am making a good photograph. Exhibiting is not the purpose of the artist’s creation, but a way for the artist to display their work. As long as my work is good enough, I can definitely find a way to exhibit it. Good curators also help artists sort out a good context or sequence to display work. That being said, my creative methods determine certain exhibition factors. For example, I have always liked shooting with large format cameras, so my print size is relatively large.
CL: Do you think exhibiting your work shaped how you put together your first book, Freezing Land? Do you prefer seeing your work as a book or in exhibitions?
RC: When I was first working on Freezing Land, I wanted to present it as an exhibition, not a photobook. In fact, I only had the idea to make a photobook after quite a few exhibitions of the work. In this era of rapid change, publishing a photobook is even more difficult than making an exhibition. With a photobook, I have the opportunity to present my work in its entirety, which is different from an exhibition, where I only have the opportunity to show a small sample of my photographs. In an exhibition, I show new possibilities with each installation, such as adding archival materials, video, or some other multimedia interaction. I want everyone to find something new in the exhibition environment.
CL: Have you ever thought about gallery representation? Do you think it is necessary for emerging artists?
RC: I think it is a complicated situation. When I was in China, I was in contact with some galleries, and I also cooperated with some agencies. There, many people, including those in the art system, do not understand contemporary photography that much, so galleries are a good way to disseminate the idea that photography is an important medium in contemporary art. For me, working with galleries is a current choice, but it wasn’t necessarily a goal.
I think the biggest advantage of gallery representation is more people seeing my work offline. Galleries participate in photography fairs and exhibitions, such as Photo London or AIPAD, and although the Internet is very convenient, offline viewing and online viewing are completely different experiences. I want to ensure that people can see the materiality of my photos, rather than experience them as electronic images.
CL: What’s next for you in terms of exhibitions? Is there anything you would like to try in an exhibition space that you haven’t yet?
RC: In my latest solo exhibition I added more media, including videos and text. I hope to find a more powerful way to present still photos in future exhibitions, because I think there are many possibilities for still images.
Editor’s note: If you are serious about a career as an artist, download our new, free Photographers’ Guide to Working with Galleries. This 136-page guide includes insights from gallerists, curators, exhibiting artists and fine-art educators — an essential resource for anyone who dreams of seeing their work on gallery walls. Download today!