Jonathan Chen
Photography

Longer Version

The above digital artwork, titled ‘Gotham Gardens,’ was released in 2001 by artist Ryan Bliss. I was only thirteen years old at the time, but I found myself immediately captivated by its magnificence. Perhaps this was no accident.

Since a very young age, I’ve had lulling dreams of wandering through a peculiar spectrum of abandoned locations. Some are distinctly urban while others are not. In one dream, an immense planet with a resplendent dust halo hovers lightly above the horizon of the vermilion-colored planet I am on. In every one of these dreams, I am the only living thing; all other inhabitants have long passed. I walk alone, usually at the periphery of a towering city or along the shores of a placid sea. I ruminate about my existence, and then I feel both profoundly joyful and somber. The worlds in which I exist are so inescapably beautiful and haunting that their evocative qualities pursue me without end even in the waking life. I so desperately sought to draw them for a time, but my attempts were sophomoric at best. When I discovered Bliss’ artwork, however, I was immediately transported to my dreams. In ‘Gotham Gardens,’ a solitary man stands in awe and fear before a dormant metropolis. Softly lit trees and an idle pathway stretch across the foreground. The city is quiet and calm, except for the steady humming of the neon lights. A few leaves rustle as a gentle wind passes through. How truly sublime. All of it. To be able to witness such grandeur, and to experience it alone without intermission… what more could existence offer? Yet, to acknowledge the inevitability that our experiences will all be lost to us someday – that our existence is finite – arouses nothing but heartache. Then suddenly, without warning, I am overcome with a rush of melancholy and – in a brief instant – my state of bliss is gone.

To say that I condemn or detest this melancholy couldn’t be further from the truth. How could I? It is indicative of our vulnerability to some of the bleakest truths concerning our delicate existence. If anything, it seems like I want more of it. In fact, upon writing this, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite films are quite skillful at teasing out this feeling (e.g. Solyaris (1972), Blade Runner, Lost in Translation, and The Fountain). In 2011, I caught a break and got a potent dose of melancholy as I set off to Shanghai to study abroad for a year. For the first time, I discovered that this corporeal world is capable of mimicking the ones in my dreams. The brilliant neon lights produced by Shanghai’s sleepless urban sprawls’ seeped out into an otherwise quiet night sky, and the mile-long stretches of crumbling infrastructures in long-forgotten districts gave way to feelings of remoteness and futility. One can’t help but think what others have already felt: How wistfully lonely one can be in a city of twenty-four million people. If there were any differences between Shanghai and my dreams, it’s that Shanghai actually had people in it.

Six years have passed since then, and I’ve only become more fascinated by my dreams. Regrettably, I still can’t cultivate any sort of artwork that resembles my dream worlds, and I continue to rely on others to conjure up images that reflect them. Fortunately, all is not lost. Before I left for Shanghai, I gathered up all the money I had saved and purchased a camera to document my year-long experience there. It wouldn’t be evident until much later that this was a sound medium for which I could explore my sentiments. I could use my photos to evoke what I essentially feel when I dream: longing, emptiness, sadness, and elation. The mere thought of having to forfeit all that I’ve ever come to know is entirely unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. The feeling comes without welcome, and then it lingers for a while. Its bitterness, like that of a good ale, was an acquired taste that became more intoxicating as I became better acquainted with it. All there is left to say is this: How beautiful it is to know that we were once able to experience the ever tragic nature of our fleeting existence…

The synthesis of photography and travel is a platform for which I both exhibit and explore my thoughts and sentiments. Through photography, I get to share with you how I feel, and you get to feel how I feel.

Here’s to chasing melancholy.

Here’s to halcyon times. – Jon