Above Beijing 2003, No. 8 2003. Gelatin silver print 100 x 100 cm in an edition of 8. 50.8 X 61 cm in an edition of 12. (©RongRong & inri/Courtesy of the artists and Blindspot Gallery).
In 1993, a group of young artists took up residence in a collection of low-rent homes designed for migrant workers on the eastern fringe’s of the Chinese capital. At the entrance to the site the artists, who included Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, Cang Xin and RongRong, posted a sign which read, ‘Beijing East Village
,’ a name which was directly inspired by New York’s East Village. Just a year after its founding, Ma was arrested for cooking whilst naked in the shared courtyard of the village, and the police moved in rapidly closing the community down. But despite this, the artists would continue to collaborate on avant-garde performance pieces, in stark contrast to the accepted artistic practices of the Yuanmingyuan artist village in the west of the city, which then dominated China’s artistic community.
Born in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, RongRong, who studied painting at the Fujian Industrial Art Institute in the late 1980s, and moved to Beijing in 1992 when he enrolled in the photography department of the Central Industrial Art Institute, was one of the original inhabitants of the East Village. Over the next five years he was to document this rich and varied community in, East Village (1993-1998), a series of gritty black-and-white photographs, which not only reflected the environment in which the village artists lived and the art which they created, but also formed what may be considered a visual diary of RongRong’s life, and also reflected the social conditions in China during the period.
Approaching his subject in a documentary form, RongRong’s raw images depict the East Village’s artists during their various performance pieces; in East Village, Beijing 1995, No. 9, Zhang is depicted lying on his back, whilst a clew of earthworms emerge from his mouth; Ma takes a shower in East Village, Beijing 1996 No. 21, a shoal of fish circling her naked form, whilst the antiquated plumbing casts a wave-like shadow on the wall of the bathroom; and in East Village, Beijing 1997, No. 29, Zhu is shown naked encased in a plastic bubble.
Whilst RongRong documented his fellow artists and their performances, he also produced a series of self-portraits, which in themselves could be view as performance art. In Self-portrait, East Village, Beijing, 1995
, RongRong’s head and naked torso emerge from an inky darkness; whilst the artist makes direct eye contact with the camera in, Self-portrait, East Village, Beijing, 1994
, a portrait marked by harsh shadows and the visible scars to the photographs physical surface.
Above We are here, Beijing 2002 No.1 2002. Hand‐dyed gelatin silver print, set of six 180 x 240 cm each in an edition of 3. 100 x 145 cm each in an edition of 6. (©RongRong & inri/Courtesy of the artists and Blindspot Gallery).
RongRong co-founded the New Photography magazine with celebrated photographer Liu Zheng in 1996, and in that same year he began a second series titled, Ruins (1996-1998), which documented the eventual demolition of the East Village site, which like many other areas on Beijing’s fringes was raised to the ground during a period of rapid and uncompromising urban expansion.
By the late nineties, RongRong held a key place in contemporary Chinese art and was enjoying a rapidly emerging and significant reputation in the larger international art community. In 1999, he held a retrospective of his work in Tokyo, where he met the Japanese photographer Inri, who would become his future wife and artistic collaborator. In the earliest days of their relationship neither spoke or understood the others native language, hence the photographic image became their primary form of communication.
Their first body of work together, Liulitun (2000), followed a similar path to that of the East Village — which was recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — in that it documented the couples life together living in the Liulitun Village, which RongRong had moved to in 1995, and which like the former was an area of Beijing mainly inhabited by migrant workers. And would meet with the same fate as the East Village in 2002, with the pair holding a private funeral atop the ruins, each holding fresh white flowers in their hands. This series, along with the East Village, and the couple’s subsequent bodies of work form, Three Begets Ten Thousand Things at the Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong, marking the first time the pair have exhibited in the territory.
Whilst continuing to work in black-and-white which, a style which had marked RongRong’s earlier series, the pair adopt the square format for this body of work, which forms a series of single and double self-portraits, in which RongRong and Inri frequently appear nude against the changing backdrop of the Liulitun village. In Liulitun, Beijing 2002, No. 16, we encounter Inri photographed from behind, her arms wrapping around her taught torso, and her head dipped as if in some romantic embrace; through a doorway we glimpse Inri’s naked body, her long dark hair obscuring her face, whilst the foreground of Liulitun, Beijing 2003 No. 2, is littered with refuse, the skyline dominated by a modern apartment building the construction of such buildings rapidly encroaching on the vulnerable village.
Above Caochangdi, Beijing 2004 No.2 2004. Hand-‐dyed gelatin silver print 102 x 109 cm in an edition of 8. 50.8 x 61 cm in an edition of 12. (©RongRong & inri/Courtesy of the artists and Blindspot Gallery).
The self-portrait is a photographic theme that would continue in RongRong & Inri’s subsequent series, In the Great Wall, China (2000), In Yulongxueshan, China (2001), and In Bad Goisern, Austria (2001), all of which depicted the couple’s travels around China and Austria, and the self-discoveries that they found in one another. Whilst they continued to utilise the square format for these works, these new series saw two distinct departures in their artistic output. Firstly, In the Great Wall, China, we see the medium change from back-and-white to colour, which continued with In Bad Goisern, Austria, along with the adoption of the the triptych.
In 2007, RongRong & Inri founded the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing’s vibrant new art district Caochangdi, the first private contemporary art space dedicated to photography in China, which has done much to promote photography as an artistic medium within China, and further afield. And it also marked two new series of works, Three Shadows, begun in 2006, focuses on the couple and the physical space of the art centre, both pre-and-post construction. Here in, Three Shadows, Beijing, 2006, No. 2-1, we see Inri entering the site that will soon be transformed into the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, here amongst the rubble sits RongRong talking with a young child; and two-years later we see the couple standing hand-in-hand, amongst the cherry trees of the centres courtyard, facing the Ai Weiwei designed buildings in, Three Shadows, Beijing, 2008, No. 20-3.
Whilst the second series, Caochangdi, is marked by the circular vignette first seen in the Three Shadows series, we also see RongRong & Inri selectively hand-colouring the photographic image, which depicts the same front door, outside of which we encounter the couple in various poses, as their life, and young family evolve. In the second image in the series, Caochangdi, Beijing, 2004, No.2, we see RongRong standing behind a seated Inri, whose heavily pregnant stomach protrudes from her long white gown, whilst two white cats sit at her feet; four years later, we see the couple in an almost the identical pose in, Caochangdi, Beijing 2008 No. 5, RongRong standing and Inri seated and pregnant, but between the two stands a young child, whilst a second sits at his fathers feet.
The practice that began in 1996 with the East Village, expands through the collaborative works of RongRong & Inri, with each series forming a distinct and overlapping chapter in their shared lives of one China’s most significant and influential artistic duo’s.
Three Begets Ten Thousand Things is at the Blindspot Gallery (Central) and Blindspot Annex (Wong Chuk Hang), Hong Kong until 13 November 2011.