This winter, MoCA gives its first ever solo show to Beijing photographer Chen Man, who made her name designing digitally enhanced covers for Vision Magazine. Despite her success, Sam Gaskin finds her still fighting old battles - against the ‘truth’ of raw photos and the ‘falsity’ of commercial work
Two days after her show opened at MoCA, Chen Man (pictured above) sits down at a table on the museum’s third floor terrace. Behind us, a make-up workshop sponsored by Sephora is about to take place, but Chen’s handlers assure us it’s in no way connected to the exhibition. Assuming they’re right, it seems like a missed opportunity: imaginative, innovative make-up is integral to Chen’s work, which bridges fine art and fashion photography; she’s worked on ad campaigns for luxury brands such as L’Oreal and Dior; and MoCA, which hosted a Chanel show last year, is hardly reluctant to sidle up to corporate sponsors.
Still, Chen, 31, seems to resent the implication that filthy lucre is somehow involved. ‘MoCA didn’t invite me because of my commercial background but because of my talent. They see a future for me; that’s the main reason,’ she says.
At the same time, she acknowledges that branding tie-ins are a key part of contemporary Chinese art museums’ purview. ‘While their purpose is to focus on art, the economy is booming right now and all the luxury brands want to show not only the commercial side, but also the crossovers – how they’ve worked with artists throughout their history.’
The exhibition, entitled Man, is itself a kind of crossover, with Chen’s work for magazines and brands mixed in with her own independent art projects. It’s a balance that, without any provocation from us, she defends. ‘Lady Gaga is a good example of commerce and art being mixed together. It’s hard to survive as a pure artist, and if you’re purely commercially motivated you can be successful for a time, but you cannot last.’
The invocation of Gaga makes all the more sense looking at Chen, who’s dressed much like she was for the exhibition’s opening. Shod in white fur boots, her small frame and fine features are almost lost behind a loose blue and pink changshan (traditional Chinese shirt) and an oversized pair of mirrored John Lennon glasses. She says she doesn’t always dress like such a celeb – she laughs about walking the red carpet for a Shanghai Tang show wearing 'a bathrobe with long boots, my hair tied up, very simple makeup’ – but at our meeting, her look is almost as heavily mediated as the 2003-04 Vision magazine covers that made her name.
Chen was still studying stage and graphic design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts when, thanks to a connection of hers, she was offered the chance to work for the leading art magazine. At the time she didn’t even own a camera, but with no other work commitments Chen was able to devote an entire month to digitally building up each image. The results were so successful she went on to do 14 covers for Vision, and began working on fashion and cover shoots for Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Elle and more. A few of the early Vision pictures are uninterestingly computerised, but most exhibit the strong eye for colour and good sense for the weight of artifice an image can bear that remain hallmarks of her work.
There was a period, however, when Chen stopped editing her images so heavily. After the Vision covers, she says, 'magazine photographers said I wasn’t a photographer, and artists said I wasn’t an artist. But it was because of the magazine covers that [famed makeup artist] Tony Li discovered me and brought me into the fashion circle. From there, I started doing more pure photography’. Sensitive to the haters, she began shooting striking portraits for fashion and beauty campaigns that used natural light and needed little retouching. Now, she says, she’s synthesising the things she learned during these two phases.
Like the notion that art and commerce can’t mix, the idea that untouched photographs are somehow better is something that Chen still feels a need to introduce and dispute. When she does, however, she seems bored by the topic, her face slumped on her knuckles, her jaw barely moving as her mouth empties itself of answers in a lazy Beijing burr.
‘There are two kinds of beauty: natural, real things – flowers, children, the sky – and artificial, manmade things, things derived from human wisdom like iPads, cars, design. Now I’m trying to combine those two kinds of beauty.’
The most conspicuous natural beauties in Chen’s work aren’t, of course, flowers or children but the women she shoots, often with a remarkably hetero-masculine eye. The images convey a persuasively sexual interest in various forms of feminine beauty – Asian, Western, small breasted, full bottomed, narrow eyed and so on.
‘It’s not that I like men or women - I just like people. I like life. Sexiness is one kind of natural beauty; it’s something I’m just good at finding. I’ve been photographing sexy people for a long time.’
In particular, Chen prides herself on representing distinctly Chinese beauty. ‘The small eye is typical, in a way, and it’s beautiful,’ she says. ‘No one else [in China] had discovered this beauty before. Chinese girls are very influenced by Western culture; they want to have big round eyes and double folded eyelids, so they often get surgery. I had to show people through my work that the small eye is beautiful.’
In establishing her own style, Chen also sought out conspicuously Chinese (and often playfully kitsch) scenery and props. ‘I’m trying to fill in the blanks because no one has done this before,’ she says. ‘I can’t study from others. You have to be careful when you do this sort of shoot that it doesn’t turn out cheesy. China has lots of things that are cheap – T-shirts and hats, places – but there is also beauty in these things, and I try to find it and make it look fashionable.’
As well as mass produced items, the beauty of manmade things is represented in Chen’s wonderful Young Pioneers series (2009). A girl in a blue mini dress lifts her skirt, sending a satellite into orbit, dives into the Yangtze and poses in front of the Beijing skyline. ‘The girl in blue is my personal work,’ Chen says, ‘and that’s to show the three major accomplishments of modern China: the Three Gorges Dam, satellites, and the new CCTV building.’
Accomplishments, yes, but these aren’t exactly the safest ones to celebrate: the dam displaced thousands of people and had massive environmental implications; the CCTV tower infamously caught fire; and even the satellites are tarnished by their complicity in adulterating communications.
Part of the series’ appeal is its wickedness, its flagrant amorality, but Chen sees Young Pioneers as more concerned with the breakneck speed of Chinese development than the actions of the CCP. She says, ‘post-’80s people are the generation who witnessed this process, a materialistic dream that became a reality.’ She’s concerned - if the word can be applied to such an outwardly unflappable person - with China’s growth-obsessed stage of development, something more developed nations are now questioning. ‘After the opening up, Western culture arrived in China and Chinese people were influenced by materialism. But people who were driving cars in the West are now riding bikes, whereas here we’re doing the opposite.’
These ideas are made more explicit in her most recent series Five Elements (2010), where digitally augmented models representing environmental degradation – fires, deforestation, the plundering of the oceans – are contrasted with plainly shot working class women.
Five Elements (2010)
'The regular women we shot work at the bottom of society. They are the people who damage the environment the most directly and you’re not supposed to be happy when you’re doing such bad things. But they seem happy because by devastating the environment they’re getting what they need to survive.’
Morally, it’s a strange - even tone deaf - position to take, insinuating that poor people are disproportionately to blame for damaging the environment. You could extrapolate a broader stance, that China is itself an upwardly mobile working class country, and it’s joyously engaged in its own destruction, but you sense that Chen’s not all that interested in moral positions, nor the tensions between art and money, image and reality.
The ideas revealed in her more conceptual works are not unlike the dozens of exposed nipples: startling, perhaps appealing, but ultimately unremarkable. Yet when an artist creates such beautiful surfaces - its hard to make remarks when your breath is taken away - why smash them up digging for something deeper, truer or more authentic?
Man is at MoCA until February 7. See our event listing for details