Chen Man

[slideshow_deploy id=’5322′]

What images does the city called Beijing call forth in our minds? Perhaps we would see the grandeur of the Forbidden City, or the sleek modernity of the CCTV headquarters. Maybe old memories of the hutongs with their windy alleyways and cosy neighbourhoods of old friends, gradually giving way to concrete motorways and condominiums. Whatever image Beijing inspires, there is a central theme connecting them all – haze.

China has gone through a most startling economic growth in the last several decades. An affluent middle class and an enormous migration of workers have turned Beijing into the metropolis as we know it today. But there is a price to be paid, and that price is environmental decay. One only needs to walk down the street in Beijing to appreciate the unnatural colours of the sky, the lack of natural greenery and the frequent sandstorms from afar. The decay in the environment may also be a metaphor for something deeper – a decay of traditional morals and values.

On the one hand there is a rising appreciation of craftsmanship, art, and beauty. But on the other hand the pursuit of economic growth means that money and materialism trump everything else. There is the desire for high fashion and luxury, but predominantly to be used as tokens for achievement and wealth. These paradoxes have not escaped Chen Man, the leading fashion photographer in China.

A Beijing gal through and through, she has witnessed the rapid and chaotic changes in China’s society. “Our era is a messy one,” she says and goes on to explain that the chaos in her work is probably the reason that it resonates in the hearts of her audience. “I want my work to have a bit of the past but a sense of the future, to be somewhat mainstream but also avant-garde, and to put paradoxes upfront but also make them beautiful. I want to take traditional philosophies and wisdoms, especially those which have been adversely affected by our materialistic worldview, and to give them a brand new visual language with a contemporary sensibility.”

Looking at a Chen Man photograph, one will immediately get a feeling of what she’s saying – it’s something akin to a punch in the stomach. The use of primary colours is pervasive throughout her work. Bright reds, vibrant yellows and deep blues are set against washed-out browns or greys. Or white as sharp as blades, cutting across backgrounds of gilded gold or overexposed landscapes.

There is a jarring sense of disharmony as well – something is always just a bit out of place. A piece she did with Kevin Tsai and Dee Hsu (of the popular Taiwanese variety show Kangxi Lai Le) features the two celebrities standing in a fiery, greasy Chinese kitchen. Tsai is wearing a butcher’s apron, but Hsu appears as a maid adorned with pure white lace. Her shrug, the broken white porcelain plate in her hand and her jet-black rubber gloves make her look like a maid who just does not quite belong.

The entire photo is washed in the cool blue of the stainless steel walls, which contrasts with the centre of the photo – Hsu’s red lips. It is whimsical, warm, yet tells a story about the relationship between the two characters; the disharmony jolts the mind of the audience into probing deeper into the meaning of each object, colour and expression in Chen Man’s surreal world.

Chen’s works bring out the disharmony between that which is disturbingly sharp and confusingly hazy, but at the same time inviting us to search for harmony. Her latest collaboration with M·A·C Cosmetics is themed Love and Water which heavily features a mesh of images from the natural world and the manmade world. “I want to provoke us to think about coexisting with nature,” she explains.

“Love is something immaterial and intangible; water is physical and tangible. Love also reminds us of Western sensibilities while water represents the East… this dichotomy illustrates the concept of tianren heyi, the meshing of heaven and man, between the natural world and human civilisation. I think this is something that the world needs today – a focus back on the natural world – and it’s nice to be given a platform to relay my message. The products themselves use pinks and blues as the base colours: pink representing love, and blue representing water, but at an even more primal level, pink speaks to our passions and emotions, while blue calls forth our rationality and common sense.”

“Our society has gone through an incredible metamorphosis,” she continues. “We saw the realisation of living standards our parents had only dreamed of… but we have also become overly materialistic. We are so obsessed with our tangible wealth that our attention to the natural environment is not in balance. What should we do? Our predecessors have already told us a lot of the answers, but our society today does not allow us to see things that are more muted. I think there is a lot of wisdom we can draw from our traditions to help us refocus on the intangible aspects of life, to understand that which is messy. So maybe I can help to bring those answers forward a little bit. At least I hope people who appreciate fashion and art can understand my message. I am very grateful to M·A·C for giving me the opportunity and for allowing me a lot of freedom in the design of the overall project.”

On a more personal level, Chen Man embodies this disharmony of which she speaks so eloquently. She is a nonconformist to what people may stereotypically associate with a fashion photographer. “Personally, I am rather carefree,” she maintains. “Though I work with the language of beauty and fashion, I am not terribly fashionable myself… I mean I don’t present myself in what’s fashionable in the mainstream sense. I am a pretty lazy person most of the time. When I’m not working, I’m basically spending time with my two kids. Otherwise, I have taken up some interest in traditional Chinese thought, things like Buddhism, Daoism, traditional medicine and acupuncture.”

Her carefree nature was also the guiding force behind her dropping out of the prestigious Central Academy of Drama after her freshmen year there, for another shot at an arts university. “The school monitored our daily life pretty strictly, like putting us all in the same dorm,” Chen recalls; “even our moms had to sign in before they could come inside. I didn’t like that at all.”

When asked about how she sees her own path as an artist, she muses; “so far I think I have been through three phases; the first two phases I was explaining and defending myself, but in the third phase I am just describing myself, trying to tell the world about where I come from and my ways of thinking… in the beginning I was just going after beauty, but as I had more experience as a photographer I was able to infuse more of my thoughts into my work. Of course everyone will have his or her own interpretations; but as a contemporary photographer producing works for a contemporary audience, I think most people will be able to take away something deeper.”

As for the future, Chen doesn’t like to plan too far ahead of herself. “I don’t really plan too far into the future. I just want to do what I want to do today, do it well, and then see where things take me. But if possible I would like to remain a photographer. I like this medium and the voice it gives me in the world, to say some things that are important to me.”

Through the haze, it is hard to tell what Beijing really looks like. The city is constantly evolving, going in every direction at the same time. Consumerism and materialism seduce the young into generating and spending ever larger piles of money, while traditional values and wisdoms stroll through quiet, cool street corners. Standing in the middle of this great, ancient yet modern city is Chen Man: photographer, philosopher, provocateur. Through her work, she has something to say; about life, about China, about our era, about disharmony, about the haze.

by Chieh-Ting Yeh

From the Glass Archive issue 11 – Trust

About The Author

Related Posts