Chen Ronghui et Erwin Olaf
— Written by Chen Ronghui
My project Freezing Land is a series of photos made, on the road, across northeastern China’s countryside that mixes landscape photography with environmental portraits. It is a story about about the shrinking cities in northeastern China and their lonely young people.
I grew up in southern China with warm weather, therefore I long for the freezing environment in the north. I’m obsessed with a novel called Tales of Hulan River, which is about the declining northeastern region of China. For years, I couldn’t shake the scenes described in the book, a scene of ice and snow intertwining with peculiar characters. Finally, I got the chance to travel to the northeast for a media assignment. I packed my large format camera and flew to the freezing land I’ve always dreamt of.
The northeast was the wealthiest area in China, bordering Russia and North Korea. With the help of Soviet Union, it developed heavy industries and stayed prosperous for years. This land represented China’s communist roots and authoritarianism. But now, it has become the most recessionary land in China, with shrinking cities and declining population.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping started a campaign for the “Chinese Dream.” But what does this mean to the young people living in the northeast, the once prosperous land? What’s the story of today’s northeastern China? I set out to see for myself. The reason I use an 8×10 larger format camera is mainly for the quality, plasticity, and impression on film, which corresponds to the style of my work. I want to give time to develop both my images and my reflections. Shooting with a large format camera, other than quality, gives me the opportunity to really think about what I’m photographing; what the essence of the story is, and what it means to me.
— Written by Erwin Olaf
This series is the second in a three-part project of multimedia artworks created following my travels and work in different cities across the world. As an artist working with photography, this trilogy is the only time that I have not created my own universe in the studio. Instead, by using locations in cities that intrigue and challenge me, I am trying to create cinematic associations, fantasies and emotions that embody these special places, whether in public buildings, private homes or public spaces.
For the first chapter of the trilogy I travelled to Berlin. Since the turn of the century we Europeans have witnessed, maybe without even having been aware of it, the birth of the first capital of our continent. The dynamics of this reborn city have always overwhelmed me, and for this first series I drew from the rich but also dark history of Berlin, staging the work in the inter-war period of the twentieth century, when post-war hope faded once more, and dark clouds appeared over Germany. The series also looked at the power shift in the youth of the Western world – how over the course of one century children had become more dominant not only in the home, but also as consumers of a growing number of commercial products.
Shanghai reminds me of a young, confident adolescence full of boundless energy, convinced of its own power, and doing whatever it takes to reach its potential. That power is asserted by the colossal skyline and the suburbs that sprout, grow and change almost monthly. It can be scary to see how fast puberty has transformed this city into a morbidly obese young adult, its heart beating faster and faster in a stifling atmosphere of ruthless redevelopment. For me, Shanghai embodies the explosive power of expansionism in which the Asian continent has led in recent decades, with 24 million inhabitants in this Chinese port city alone, working, shopping, and moving continuously, surrounded by brightly lit advertisements, moving images and electronic sounds.