Hidden story of the city

Chen Ronghui

One of a series of essays featuring the answers to questions posed to artists participating in the Megacities project of NGV Triennial 2023

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, the megacity – a city with a population of more than 10 million people – may become the dominant human habitat. The NGV Triennial project Megacities is an ambitious, immersive multimedia installation bringing the creative vision of ten leading street photographers into dialogue with the urban environment. These images offer a counterpoint to the myth of the megacity, an urban agglomeration often used as the antithesis of wealthy European and North American metropolis. Here, the megacity is shown through the lens and explained in the words of those that live there.

Can you describe your daily experience living and working in one of the largest cities on the planet?

Living in Shanghai is a life experience for me. I was born in a small village in Zhejiang province, and I came to live in this city with the dream of art. I am very grateful; this is a very important node in my life. But, in fact, life and work in Shanghai are simple. It used to be the newspaper office and home where I worked, and now it is my studio and home. Most of the time is spent communicating with landlords, customers and galleries. Because the cost of living in Shanghai is very high, I need to do a lot of things to support myself, so that I can have more time for artistic creation.

How has this contemporary urban environment shaped your practice as a photographer and artist?

In Shanghai, the subway is my main means of transportation. I use the subway to help me observe and experience the presence of Shanghai, not necessarily to take pictures, but to feel the pulse of the city. From the construction of the subway in 1993 to the present in 2023, in just thirty years the subway in Shanghai has become the subway with the longest total mileage in operation in the world, surpassing supercities such as New York, London and Tokyo. And Shanghai’s subway is still under construction. This is also the theme of my shooting project this time. I photographed the terminal stations of various lines of the Shanghai Metro. We can see that this huge city is still expanding, and the subway is a certain inner tension of the city.

Our understanding of cities has benefited from the development of GPS and mobile technology – does this impact your work? Has it changed the way that you work ‘on the street’, with the ubiquitous presence of mobile technologies?

I have been shooting with the 810 large-format camera, which, in a sense, is completely unrelated to high-tech technology. However, I think the development of technology does help me to shoot. For example, [in terms of] positioning the shooting location: I can go back and forth to a certain location many times because I have GPS data. I can use my iPhone to shoot some scenes for conception, which is convenient for formal creation, so I can save a lot of costs.

Environmental and social problems are often cited as negative outcomes of urbanisation on the megacity scale, but counterpoints include the development of innovative ways of living and employment opportunities. Negative or positive? Can you discuss your experiences and responses to the high-density urban environment?

My art photography practice over the past ten years has been concerned with the environment and urban development. China’s modernisation process is also my experience. China has developed rapidly in the past thirty years, especially in these megacities, where new buildings grow every day. In [my 2013–15 series] Petrochemical China, I started to shoot the relationship between the petrochemical industry and people in the Yangtze River Delta region. With [my 2015–16 series] Runaway World, I shot the relationship between theme parks and people in the region. As an artist, I don’t want to simply criticise the good or bad of a certain phenomenon. I hope to capture the complexities of real life and provide aesthetic thinking.

Are you witnessing environmental transformation in the city you are working in?

Of course – from the previous petrochemical pollution to the subsequent smog, I have been experiencing the environmental changes in this city. China’s urbanisation has compressed 200 years of development into thirty years. This violent compression has a violent reaction, and now Shanghai is constantly changing and there are new problems. For example, in this commissioned project, I photographed all the subway terminal stations in Shanghai.

Beyond capturing the built environment, we asked you to consider a narrative arc within your images that explores the quality of life in a megacity, the experience of moving around the city, where and how people work, and the impacts for community. With this in mind, what did your project reveal?

Cities are fluid by nature, and even more so for me. As an immigrant, I face many problems, such as hukou: although I work and pay taxes in Shanghai, I have no way to get the same treatment as the locals. Such classic Chinese questions have always troubled me, and also countless Chinese people working here. At the same time, the city has allowed us to stay in a very accommodating way. In this project, I focus on those who live near the subway terminal. They live on the fringes of the city and then go to the centre of the city to work and look for opportunities. The subway terminal is farther and farther away from the city, and migrants live in the land of in-between. This is a very special experience. They can’t go back to the countryside, and they can’t integrate into the city. They can only struggle in this land.

If we accept the premise that the megacity is an engine for cultural and social change, how do you see that reflected on the street?

Shanghai is one of the most special cities in China, where business and politics are mixed. We see Disney, we see art galleries, we see red monuments. All these are reflected on the street. The buildings on the street and the people on the street tell the hidden story of this city.

CHEN RONGHUI | Shanghai, China