Zhang Kechun

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Zhang Kechun (born 1980) is best known for his large format photographs of post-industrial Chinese landscapes. He produces epic vistas that dwell on the significance of the landscape in modern Chinese national identity. He is represented in the United Kingdom by Huxley-Parlour Gallery.

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Early Years

Zhang Kechun was born in 1980 in Sichuan, China, and started painting when he was a child. He studied art and design and on graduating he worked as a designer in Chengdu before becoming interested in photography.

The Yellow River

In 2010, Kechun decided to undertake a trip along the length of the Yellow River. Inspired by the novel River of the North by Chengzhi Zhang, Kechun wanted to experience the river’s “overwhelming fatherly presence in the country.” The project took him on a two-year journey along the river from the coastal flats of Shandong in the east to the mountains of Qinghai in the west. He completed the journey on a fold-up bicycle, all the while carrying with him a large format Linhof camera. The photographs he took along the way comprise his first series The Yellow River.

The Yellow River documented the effects of modernisation along the third longest river in Asia, which is also known as Huang He. The Yellow River is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, often called the “Mother River”, but is also considered a threat, capable of breaking its banks anytime. The areas surrounding the river have been devastated by flooding in recent years and Kechun’s photographs capture the emotional impact of this on the local population with an eerily quiet atmosphere. The river constantly dwarfs the people who rely on it, rendering them vulnerable to its might. Kechun writes “along the way, the river inundated my mind with the stream of reality. With a profound sense of pessimism, I felt that the river, which was once full of legends, had disappeared.”

Influenced by Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Kechun finds desolation in the human artefacts left after their owners have moved on. The huge weight of the nation’s history, stretching from the birth of the ancient civilisation to its modern industrial expansion, seems to squat on his shoulders as he navigates the landscape with the camera. Kechun’s emptied out, muted scenes hum with melancholy for a lost landscape. “I wanted to photograph the river respectfully”, Kechun has said, “it represents the root of the nation”. Whilst the project was not intended to confront environmental issues in the same way that Nadav Kander did so in his work on the Yangtze River, Kechun found that ecological matters became unavoidable. “I started off wanting to photograph my ideal of the river, but I kept running into pollution,” he has said, “I realised that I couldn’t run away from it, and that I didn’t need to run away from it.”

Kechun’s works are quietly beautiful and hugely atmospheric, using a soft and subtle colour palette. Whilst Kechun imbues the altered landscape of China with a tragic beauty, his photographs are also hugely witty, showing the frequently absurd scenarios in which the inhabitants of the river’s surroundings find themselves.

Exhibitions and Awards

Kechun won the Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles for The Yellow River in 2014. Working with the agency Most, Kechun also undertakes editorial and advertising commissions. He won the National Geographic Picks Global Photo Contest in 1998 and was shortlisted at the World Photography Awards in 2013. He has been exhibited at Photoquai, Paris; the Beijing Photo Biennale and the Delhi Photo Festival, India.

Zhang Kechun's Landscape of China

Transcript

Giles: An increasing part of my time these days is spent reviewing the work of contemporary photographers. It’s a really fun part of my job, but I’ll admit that it’s sometimes hard to see beyond the gorgeous image, or an interesting series to assess the broader qualities of a photographer. Because it’s not just about image, it’s about attitude, it’s about the long view and dedication, and it’s about hard work and an unstoppable desire to record the world and take pictures. It’s also, of course, about having soul, and making soulful pictures that appeal to other people and hook them in. Despite the huge number of brilliant photographers out there, it’s not very often that we find someone who has all of this stuff in spades. However, last year I had one of those rare moments when I did. And not only that, but he’d never had an exhibition with a gallery in the West despite huge critical acclaim and many awards. His name was Zhang Kechun.

Our first exhibition of Zhang Kechun’s photographs focuses on a series that he started in 2010 when he began an extraordinary journey down China’s epic Yellow River. The river has huge significance in Chinese history and literature, and its known as the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Zhang Kechun grew up in Chengdu province, and had never laid eyes on the river but he was intrigued by what this place of poetry and legend would be like today. So, inspired by Alec Soth he armed himself with a huge Linhof format camera and a fold-up bicycle, and travelled the length of the river from source to sea, cycling a large portion of it, making a full photographic record of it from what he saw.

The results are staggering. The river today is a great snaking over stretched resource that’s massively industrialised and polluted. And yet it’s still essential for the water and livelihoods of hundreds and millions of Chinese people. It’s an environmental disaster, and it’s an economic disaster waiting to happen. It would have been so easy to take a purely critical negative view of this, but Zhang Kechun did not. His photographs retain a delicate, poetic balance between objective photojournalism and an unbridled love for his country and what the river represents. They’re epic and cinematic in their breadth, but also contain tender and subtle observations about living in that environment: life goes on, sometimes charmingly, amongst the chaos and desolation. Often surreal, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, these beautifully composed pictures have an amazing rare quality to them that reveals a true artist at work.

Zhang Kechun was awarded the 2014 discovery prize at the famous Arles photography festival, and he’s won several other significant awards. His work is gathering momentum amongst critics and curators, and I’m thrilled that he’s chosen us to stage his first exhibition in the UK. I really encourage you to come and see this show.

Related

Notes, News and Press

Press

It’s Nice That: “An Unstoppable Force is Spreading Across our Natural Landscapes” – Zhang Kechun

Notes

Zhang Kechun: Reflecting on Cao Jinging

Notes

Pollution and Poetry: Zhang Kechun’s ‘Sky River’