REBEL WITH APPLAUSE I was recognised by the United Nations [Development Programme] as one of 12 'outstanding young architects' in China in 1999. The public liked my projects, I am proud of my designs and I enjoyed the freedom of creativity. But I didn't really care about the comments from government officers or clients. What they were concerned with were their own interests. I refused to go with their ways. In the 1980s and 90s, you could never be happy being an architect or property developer, even though you may have had lots of money. At that time, the country was chaotic: triads and government officials, all on the same stage at the same time. If you wanted to get things done, you had to pay a price.
BUILDING BRIDGES My architectural style combined British modernism and Chinese traditions. People said the way I used space was Westernised; I agree, but Chinese wisdom has talked about the relationship between space and the environment for thousands of years. My projects include the Shanghai Library and the Yinhe Dynasty Hotel, in Chengdu.
My first trip abroad was to Hong Kong, since for us, in the 80s, Hong Kong was a foreign 'country'. In the early 90s, I went to New York, also for work, and it was chaotic. I preferred London, where I worked for P&T Architects. It was calmer. In the late 90s, I was invited by The Red Mansion Foundation [an organisation that promotes artistic exchange between the mainland and Britain] to organise a contemporary Chinese exhibition. I was the first person to take [surrealist painter] Zhang Xiaogang and [contemporary artist] Yue Minjun outside China.
REALITY BLURRED I partnered [the state] in setting up a company. The best thing about being a developer was that I could build my thoughts and designs. But [in 2001] it went bankrupt; nothing is worse than that. Changes were taking place all the time - the financial system, policies affecting property developers, the continued alteration of laws - it took me three years to [go broke].
You lived, but you did not know what was right, what was real. The country, the society and reality were covered by a red curtain. You were never able to see through [it]. In China, there were three cultures: traditional Chinese, Western and socialist communism. You would never know [what was really going on]. I was completely fed up. You could never be a real architect in China at that time; they did not care about your designs; it was connections, relationships, money and labels of who you were. After my bankruptcy, I had lots of opportunities to resume my career but I decided to leave it. I wanted my freedom back. I decided to grab my camera and shoot in remote rural areas; places like Jiuzhaigou Valley and Tibet, and somehow my hobby healed my mind. It soothed me; so I spent three years taking photos. I love my country - it's a complex sentiment though; I want to tell my story, express my feelings towards my surrounding through a camera. The most important thing is that I have enjoyed life since then.
SMOG AND MIRRORS My themes are the issues that Chinese politicians and sociologists worry about. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution and I witnessed the emergence of all these social problems. One of an artist's responsibilities is to reflect the issues and make people think. Modern China has had a sad history and people have suffered a lot. I also want to remind people that, while we now enjoy the fruits of the economic boom, millions of forgotten fellows are behind us. They had absolutely no choice, no hope - simply hardship in their lives.
I originally planned to return to Chongqing [the city of Chen's birth] to shoot a series of photographs titled 'Shadow', to show the after-effects of its rapid development, but the whole city, as well as the Three Gorges region and downstream Hubei province, was cloaked in perpetual smog. Without sunlight there are no shadows. Smog has become the marker of the city's existence, and within it people are unable to make real distinctions. This became my new motivation. I travelled around the Three Gorges region - to places like Chengdu, Chongqing and Wuhan - to shoot this series.
A TRUER PICTURE It was last year, when Angela Li organised my solo exhibition in her gallery, that I began to think I was a successful artist. I don't care about the awards received in China before - it was not true recognition - but I enjoy the appreciation given by the galleries and collectors in Hong Kong, France, Switzerland, the US and Germany. Collectors in these places understand my work. My latest has been nominated for the 2009 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. I don't intend to reveal reality. My photos tell a story. I try to remind viewers to think about what we've seen in this world, about whether what we believe is true or not. Sometimes you don't know what's true or fake but, at least, you should remind yourself to be objective.
Chen Jiagang's exhibition 'Smog City' can be viewed at Contemporary by Angela Li (G/F, 90 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 3571 8200; www.cbal.com.hk) until the end of the month.