For artist Chen Ronghui, photography is an edited language used to record his perception of this world. Each story and scene he creates in his works are reconstructions of reality. They stand not only as an exploration of photography as mass media but also as an introduction to a personal experience and journey.
“Instead of communication, I enjoy using photography more as a way to introduce my own story, to have a conversation with this world and myself.”
This group exhibition includes two series of works from Chen Ronghui-Meyer Lemon and 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.
Chen Ronghui was born in Lishui, Zhejiang, China in 1989, and currently lives and works in New Haven, a small town in Connecticut (the location of Yale University). He used the Meyer lemons he saw while visiting local supermarkets to “restore” a forgotten fact that plant hunters crossed between China and the U.S. a hundred years ago to discover economically useful plants, and also to introduce a story about “distance” under this backdrop of globalization.
Another series of works presents “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” in the form of writing, using photography to reconstruct the artistic conception of poetry, and exploring the possibilities of photography with the familiar Chinese aesthetics are also reflections on cultural pluralism.
This article will focus on exploration and understanding of history backgrounds and the creation process behind these two series through in-depth conversations with the artist.
Since Chen Ronghui came to study at Yale in 2019, he often went to local markets looking for fresh ingredients because of his interest in culinary. One day, he came across this special Meyer lemon which turned out to be juicier and more delicious than the ordinary lemon. With curiosity, Chen researched this lemon online and found out this “American Lemon” actually originated from China.
After a deeper dive-in, he unsealed the forgotten story behind this lemon about a plant hunter a hundred years ago.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a plant hunter named Frank Nicholas Meyer was sent to China by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 2,000 plants were brought back to the U.S from China, including this Meyer lemon which was named after him.
Frank Meyer passed away on his fourth trip to China which resulted in his story remaining forgotten for a long time. The Meyer lemon is a metaphor of globalization during the western colonial period, and also became the creative direction of artist Chen Ronghui’s Meyer lemon series.
This series consists of three chapters, which are still life of lemons and daily goods, collages of Meyer’s archive records with large-format landscape photos, and Chen Ronghui’s “Pose Photo” of himself as a plant hunter in the United States.
Chapter 1: Lemons and Daily Goods
Commercial photography is chosen as the primary way to represent the first chapter of this story in order to express Meyer lemon and these daily goods as globalized commodities. The selected colorful backdrop is also a necessity for commercial shooting from Taobao (a Chinese retail platform). These objects are mainly from daily goods used by Chen and his families, such as disinfectants, cosmetics, etc., and most of them contain lemon as an ingredient. Presenting these daily goods and lemons in different status, colors, and luster during the change of time, Chen intends to understand and extract the meaning behind by gazing and shooting them constantly.
Chapter 2: Meyer’s Archive Records and Large-format Landscape Photos
After researching and reading a tremendous amount of archives of Frank Meyer’s experience, Chen collaged Meyer’s recorded selfies with landscapes he took in China. A visual dialogue crossing over countries and a hundred-year time is presented here.
Chapter 3-Plant Hunter in the United States
This chapter is shooted after Chen went back to the US from staying in China during the pandemic. He began to imitate Meyer’s gestures and poses in the outdoors of the United States as if he was searching for plants that had been introduced to the United States from China. The clothes and shoes he wore were all American brands but made in China. A hundred years after Frank Meyer, the story of globalization is still continuing.
Q: By including both modern environments along with historical figures in the same series, what do you think of the peculiar temporality of photography?
A: Even though photography has a distinctive manner of representing temporality, capturing frozen moments, it is still hard to represent this capacity and to experience the passing of time within a single image. Thus, I used “juxtaposition and contrast” here to express this idea through the collage of photography from different periods.
Q: Do you find any similarities between your personal experience as a Chinese student in the US and Frank Meyer’s journey to explore plants in Asia?
A: Meyer was a remarkable plant hunter who worked hard and did lots of explorations, producing his own photo as a record. This floating journey he took is similar to my creative process as a photographer.
However, as an American, Meyer was obviously more privileged than me in the U.S. I think my experience is much more similar to Chinese laborers in that period. For example, in the beginning of the pandemic, once I left the United States, there was no way to come back. This case has some similarities with previous laborers under the Chinese Exclusion Act of that time.
Q:This pandemic has made us all begin to discover and think about things that were easily overlooked or forgotten in the past. How do you think this has affected your creative process?
A:This emergent situation has amplified lots of contradictions such as the complex relationship between China and the U.S.. In this present moment, we all have to bear with these issues. However, this pandemic has also brought us the opportunity to rethink the details hidden behind all those complexities, such as this story of a lemon. We used to ignore the relations between different countries and races, which turns out to be much closer than we thought during this special time. I consider myself to be a committed globalist, which also means that my artistic creation will be a more open process from now on. Even though my choice of media is always photography, my standpoint of view has broadened my future directions and possibilities.
19 Ways of Looking at Wangwei
Two years ago, I quit my job in Shanghai and came to New Haven to study. Whenever I feel stressed, I climbed up the mountain in East Rock park for the view of the grand field. Most people drove halfway up to the mountain and then climbed to the top. I had to travel along an adjacent river because I don’t own a car that can lead me up the majority of the way. Even though this path was much harder and less traveled, the secluded and graceful scene was merited.
When the sun came down, there were two deers gradually roaming closer to me. The dusk light shone upon deep woods, and deers stepped into with a sunset glow. The secluded scene held my breath, while Wang Wei’s poem “Deer Enclosure” unfolded in front of my sight.
No one in sight, in this empty mountain.
Yet, only voice echoed.
Slanting light coming back to the deep woods.
It shines upon the green moss, once again.
At this moment, New Haven has become my Wangchuan. (Wang Wei’s reclusion place)
The scatter perspective in Chinese painting translates to photographic language is all in focus. Chen uses the camera’s focus stack function to point the lens on this forest he often went to and superimposed the trees from all depths of this space. The presented works have both Chinese abstract aesthetic and photographic substance.
Another tradition from Chinese painting is blank-leaving which is hard to express accurately in photography, so photographers always tend to avoid shooting white objects. In this way, Chen chooses to leave a large area “black” instead of white in this series which results in a similar representation of Chinese painting. In order to achieve this effect, he intentionally chose to shoot at sunset time which provides the background with a dark tone.
Meanwhile, he handwrites 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei in his hanging scroll works. This book is an English collection of nineteen translations of Deer Enclosure compiled by Eliot Weinberg, the American Literature Award winner. For Chen Ronghui, the experience of viewing an image is close to the experience of reading a poem, in which fragmentary and momentary perceptions are all so subtle. Instead of looking for rational expressions or logical consensus, Chen pursues human experience in both poem reading and his photography. He also photographs branches in his studio which were picked up from the forest and collages them together with Chinese poems and their English translations, which not only enriches the visual experience but also emphasizes the diversity of culture as a medium.
Q: Why do you handwrite English translations of Deer Enclosure as shadows of photographed branches in your hanging scroll? Under this expression, is it still necessary to use photographs?
A: The scroll actually echoes the other large-format black-and-white works. Of course, I am still in the experimental stage. I can use traditional Chinese visual language in photography, vice versa. This scroll looks like an ink painting from a distance, but it is actually a photo of tree branches I took in the studio. After all, this is still life photography, the substance I am exploring the whole time. In the end, I wrote down the English translations of Deer Enclosure into this work, considering this expression as the main language of photography-light and shadow. Shadow is a relatively missing visual element in traditional Chinese visual works. In this way, I borrowed the “shadow” from photography into the hanging scroll.
Q: How did you choose the size of your final print of this series?
A: This series of works are relatively large in order to provide an immersive visual experience. Considering most of the classic black and white photographs are in small sizes, I also make this choice of large scale as another experiment which turns out to be satisfactory. This scale especially works well with a matte finish paper, bringing up rich details for viewers, which has always been my pursuit. One of my favorite visual artists- Robert Longo, his large scale black and white painting has also posted a huge impact on me.
Q: How did your peers and professors respond to this series in Yale during your critique?
A: My professors and peers were all quite impressed with this series of works. The chair of our department, Gregory Crewdson, thought this is the most visually representative series of works I have created at Yale. Thus, I also chose to exhibit this series during our thesis show. I think the main point is that I use the basic language of photography to explore the common things in daily life in this series, which turns out to engage the viewer tremendously.
Q: Could you talk more about the topic of cultural diversity according to this series?
A: I recently found out that Meryl Streep, the Oscar-winner who graduated from Yale, had collaborated with Yoyo Ma on a performance of Deer Enclosure. I listened carefully to her recited version and came to the conclusion that not only was the tone different, the understanding of the artistic conception of this poem also differed significantly from mine. For the text itself, this poem has been translated into more than nineteen English versions, each one owns a different understanding and expression. There is no better or worse translation, only because each translator’s starting point and background are diverse, which is also another manifestation of cultural diversity. A Tang dynasty poem that we have learned since childhood has “experienced” so many versions in the process of being understood by foreigners. What a wonderful thing this is!
Q: Are the works you created at Yale a new artistic experiment and direction, or are they related to the photojournalism you did in the past? What do you think about your study and creation in the past two years in the U.S.?
A: I have been in the journalism industry for almost 10 years which has brought me observations and questions towards society. Essentially, I am curious and passionate about everything, whether as a journalist or as an artist. Of course, if we are talking about creation itself, my current works are not related to my past photojournalism works.
My original envision towards the life of studying abroad was more “fashionable”, but because of the epidemic, it is now full of “ups and downs”. During my time at Yale, I met excellent professors and peers. It was a learning environment full of critical thinking and collisions of multiple cultures, all of which have made my study and creation process full of challenges. I think this uncertainty is the greatest gift for artists.