The stark, sandy and white landscapes that Zhen Shi photographed in 2012, just after returning to China from studying photography at EFET in Paris, read as both calm and ominous. She was unsure, when she began making these images, of what she wanted to do and where she wanted to work. “I had to choose a future,” she says, recalling the pressure she felt post-graduation. “But I couldn’t understand why we need to choose such a lot of things at such a young age.” She traveled to the northwestern border of China, far from where she grew up. Zhen thought at the time, “I may choose to choose nothing.”
Out of this moment of aimlessness came a comprehensive and ongoing series of conceptual landscape photographs, called Kwei-Yih. The first chapter in the series, “North by Northwest,” features the northern border, and each subsequent chapter documents her travels along the edges of her homeland.
Zhen, who currently lives and works between Beijing and Paris, left home to study in Europe in the early 2000s, when she was 15. Her early departure led to a fraught relationship to the notion of home. “I found myself falling into a state of anxiety and helplessness, eagerly looking to regain a sense of belonging,” says Zhen, explaining that she still experiences the combination of nostalgia and homesickness as a kind of happiness. Kwei-Yih, a photographic merging of documentation and fantasy, attempts to conjure that odd amalgam of feelings.
Many of the photographs in the series combine Zhen’s striking depictions of the Chinese landscape with small vintage found images of European landscapes. These found images, acquired at flea markets or from eBay auctions, float at the center of Zhen’s compositions, transforming them from meditations on China’s natural beauty to more complex reflections on the nature of belonging. “The two different places and time[s],” says Zhen, “represent two parts of my life and memories.”
Her combinations are precise, the found image often synching up so well with Zhen’s photograph that, upon first glance, it looks as if both depict the same place. Sometimes, the found image appears more obscure, like in the case of a stained black-and-white photograph of a car on a country road, placed above a crisp color image of a small road amidst a grassy and mountainous landscape. Other times — like when she placed a slightly blurred, black-and-white photograph of mountains in water over her own washed-out image of mountains on sand — both seem equally vague. “Personally it’s hard to figure out clearly what is fading,” she says. Such blurriness has become central to the project.
After traveling to photograph the northwestern border, Zhen went south for the second chapter in the series,“South by Southwest.” She visited Blue Moon Valley, a place in Yunnan province known for its turquoise-colored river, and found herself caught, alone and without cell reception, in a hail storm. “It is hard to say where the elements ended and my emotion began,” she recalls of that experience. The resulting photographs are epic and lush, with foliage layered on top of foliage, and wild water washing over a boulder surrounded by moss-covered hills.
From Blue Moon Valley, Zhen traveled along the southwestern border to a village in Anhui Province, where she lived as a child. She has not yet finished the final two chapters. The fourth, “Eastern Home” will document an industrial town in decline, while the final chapter, “Beyond the North,” will follow the Trans-Siberian railroad, and capture her journey from her homeland to Paris. “I felt that I needed to do something… to remind myself where I came from and where I am going,” Zhen says.