Review: Third Front by Chen Jiagang


Book Reviews, Photobooks

We have recently witnessed a vastly increased interest in photography done in China by Westerners. At the same time, Chinese photography has gained a certain amount of exposure in the West - as part of Chinese art being the latest big trend in the art world. For the most part, though, finding Chinese photography (or art) in book form is still a challenge - a few notable exceptions, as always, proving the point. And it would seem that most Western (publishers’) attention is directed at the new and shiny and its repercussions. Photographs of the rapid growth of various Chinese cities and factories and of the growing ecological price being paid for them have now become almost another one of the many photographic clichés: Lots of shiny skyscrapers, young Chinese people with mobile phones in discos (or at car shows), factories mass-producing cheap products to be sold at Walmart - OK, we get the picture.

The main reason why I might sound a tad dismissive of the wave of this kind of photography is not only because things have become a bit too obvious now (and how many more books of shiny Chinese cities do we really need?), but also because there is a very large number of Chinese photographers (the work of quite a few of them I was lucky to see in various galleries and museums) whose attention is directed towards something else. China can look back on a history that is significantly longer than that of any Western country, and even its somewhat recent political and economical history contains quite a bit more than just the economic ‘miracle’.

Chen Jiagang’s Third Front provides a wonderful example for this. During the 1960’s, China moved a lot of its heavy industry and armament factories inland, to get them away from areas perceived as being at risk from foreign aggression. Thus, the so-called “Third Front” was created. As part of that effort, not only new factories were built, but large numbers of people got actually involved in trying to produce steel in tiny “foundries”. As can be easily imagined, the results of this effort were not necessarily successful - in fact most of the “steel” produced by people with no background in heavy industries turned out to be what is called “pig iron” - anything but steel and ultimately useless.

Apart from the economical repercussions of the “Third Front”, there are of course the larger effects it had on the local societies, and those areas got hit again when the new industries that we are now so familiar with popped up elsewhere. This is what Third Front aims to portray. Chen Jiagang, an architect and former real-estate producer, took his large-format camera to these now desolate areas to capture what they have become.

Alongside the photographs, most of whom show people (some apparently placed in the environment), there are short statements (instead of captions). For example, right next to what looks like an extremely drab backyard: “We’ve produced endless steel and electricity, but we still live in a place like this. None us [sic!] matters; we’re just shadows. So called ‘civilization’ is just a slogan on a wall.” And indeed most of these statements talk about the people and about how what we see - the factories and all - ultimately should be about people (and that means about us as humans) - all that seen with the eyes of someone who grew up in the cultural context of China.

So Third Front becomes more than a book about the “Third Front”, because the questions Chen Jiagang poses are equally valid for the shiny new places: Where is this all going? What does it do for the people? What if we stopped just staring at economic growth and the GDP and started to look at what economists call “externalities” (which are usually ignored). This is why Third Front is such a relevant book: It expands our view of China’s development, it ultimately makes us look at more than China, and all of this is seen and reported on with the eyes of a Chinese artist.