Paris-based photographer Alex Huanfa Cheng was born in a small, rural village in the province of Hubei in central China. He explains that “life there is very conservative and poor” and that because of this, “my parents expected me to be an office guy and have a stable life.” Having worked hard throughout his education, Alex was admitted to study engineering in Beijing, but he found that the course bore little relation to his interests and personality. “I hated what I was doing,” he tells us. “I thought I had failed to follow the real me.”
It was in photography that Alex found an outlet: “Taking photos gave me more confidence. I felt a new connection with the world. I studied photo skills by myself and I shot some serious documentary projects off my own intuition.” Having built up a portfolio of self-initiated projects over several years, Alex travelled to Paris to attend L’École des Beaux-Arts. “Contemporary art education changed me completely,” he says.
At a distance from his home country, Alex began to reflect on China’s place in his own experience and in the modern world. He states: “I started to re-observe the culture of my country. I often went back to China to travel and capture the faces of ordinary Chinese people, their lifestyle, their dress, their aesthetic and their environment, bringing up questions about contemporary China.”
With his series Chinese Wonderland, soon to be on display as part of this year’s Aperture Summer Open exhibition under the theme “Delirious Cities”, Alex presents the face of modern China in dialogue with its traditions and customs. As he describes it: “China is an evolving country and is full of contradictory duality. There are many problems in this ancient country but people are filled with vitality and unconscious humour. This kind of complexity is precisely what makes contemporary China so exuberant and fascinating.”
Alex’s photographs are celebratory, discovering beauty in eccentricity and playing up the disjunction between human activity and China’s natural landscape. In one image, a sea-swimmer’s head is entirely veiled in spandex flora; in another, a man displaying the circular marks of cupping therapy stands, looking out over a bay of people riding neon inflatables; a photograph of a hillside is punctuated by huge fake butterflies and a haphazard scaffolding of technicolour slides; and in another picture, an unlikely rose tree blooms amidst urban rubble.
For Alex, it is “the people in the real world” that inspire his gaze, for as he says: “The real world always surpasses our imagination.” He has a particular eye for the fantastic that punctures the fabric of the real, drawing it out in his framing of an incongruous colour, an alignment of shadows, an expression, a gesture, a contradiction.
When it comes to photographing people, Alex’s focus is on the genuine rapport that exists between his subjects. He says: “Most of the time I get close to them and talk with them, try to know more about them. In shooting, I do not fashion people with a presupposed concept, I try to show their true character and particularity. The people and I improvise spontaneously.” As such, the portrait shots are composed according to subtle correlations that convey the precise nature of the individuals and their relationships with one another. This is most clearly executed in a photograph of a shirtless man and a trouser-less toddler, their bond represented by the sartorial correspondence and the framing of the pair with the backdrop of a patterned curtain.
Although Alex has been able to explore contemporary culture and ancient custom in his travels across China with Chinese Wonderland, he feels an estrangement from his place of birth that he is keen to address in his future work: “I’ll come back to my hometown in China to photograph my family and the people in the hometown, to break the alienation between us.” Listing his influences as Zhang Kechun, Patrick Feigenbaum and Robert van der Hilst, Alex plans to continue pursuing the personal in his artistic practice. He states: “Photography carried out over a long timespan has always fascinated me. I’m currently photographing my pregnant wife as part of a series I’ve been doing for five years. And my baby will be born at the beginning of this July. He’ll be the new hero in my lens.”