Arts & Culture

Review: Photographs of RongRong&inri at the Modern act as diplomatic emissaries of love

Caochangdi, Beijing, 2004 No. 1 is as much a portrait of the coming baby as of the RongRong&inri, hand-dyed on gelatin silver print
Caochangdi, Beijing, 2004 No. 1 is as much a portrait of the coming baby as of the RongRong&inri, hand-dyed on gelatin silver print Courtesy of Three Shadows Photography Centre

The universal imagery of life’s sweet moments and occasional troubling events is on exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It is the work of RongRong&inri.

This is the first solo museum show in the U.S. for Chinese husband Rong Rong and Japanese wife Inri, whose professional name is a combination of their nicknames.

They met 15 years ago at the Tachikawa International Art Festival in Tokyo. He could not speak Japanese, she could not speak Mandarin, but they fell in love and communicated with a mash-up of Japanese, Chinese, English, their own made-up language and photographs. Inri began to learn Mandarin. They collaborated, in their work and in their lives. They were married within the year.

Rong Rong had been documenting his artistic neighborhood in Beijing. Inri had been a photojournalist, then left the commercial world for what she considered more creative pursuits and was gaining some renown in Japan.

When she followed Rong Rong to Beijing, their work coalesced, and they began making romantic images of themselves.

“It naturally happened, but it is strange to cooperate so well,” says Inri, through her interpreter.

They are physically alike — lithe with long dark hair. In the early days, they often photographed themselves nude, looking almost gender-neutral — not particularly male or female, definitely human — and together they radiated love and gentleness.

Their good friend, internationally recognized artist Ai Weiwei, wrote of the pair, “She has a calm, elegant, naive energy, her eyes have a clear and tough glitter. This is a contrast to Rong Rong’s effeminate, bashful introversion.”

Their life became the focus of their work, and they documented it with a poetic sensitivity. Rong Rong brings the tragedy, Inri the drama.

When their studio and first home in Beijing was demolished by the government to make way for gentrified housing, theyphotographed the destruction as if it were a wake. From the posted notice for eviction to a field of shards, they photographed the demise of their home.

In one photograph, they place themselves on top of their doorway; all that is left is the supporting posts and lintel, now a bier of white lilies. The house has been reduced to rubble. They are immobile, as the workmen who are doing the razing are blurs of industry below. It’s a funerary depiction; the world goes on, while only RongRong and Inri are saddened and affected by the demolition.

This is part of their “Liulitun” series. It is the second time Rong Rong’s neighborhood has been mowed down by the Chinese government to displace the art community. He keeps moving but stubbornly refuses to abandon Beijing.

Another series on display at the Modern is “Caochangdi, Beijing 2004-2009,” a progression of 13 family portraits that begins with the couple and ends with a family of five — Rong Rong, Inri and their three sons, now 6, 8 and 10. The parents wear antique and traditional clothing; the children are in contemporary kidswear. For Focus curator Andrea Karnes, this series is an allegory for the cycle of life and the vitality of humankind.

One especially lovely aspect of the series is that whenever Inri is pregnant, she allows her vastly protuberant belly to escape the bounds of her clothing, and the baby, although still in utero, makes his debut. It is so much more compelling than the cliched belly-cupping stance of American women who look as if they are apologizing for looking fat because they are, in actuality, pregnant.

The third series of photographs is of the family in Japan.

“It is not a family album, but an art series,” Inri explains. This is something she has to reiterate to her sons; they are participating in their parents’ art, and as they get older they need more cajoling. Once cajoled, “they have suggestions and ideas,” Inri says.

To escape the pollution of Beijing, Inri and the boys spend the school year in Japan while RongRong travels between his family and the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre that the couple built in Beijing. This studio/gallery/school is of critical importance to contemporary photography in China, as is their allegiance to it.

They explain the name: “There is an old saying in Tao Te Ching that goes, ‘The Tao produced one; one produce two; two produce three; three produce all things.’ For this reason, we chose the name Three Shadows to embrace all the possibilities of photography and the art center.”

The photography of RongRong&inri is the ambassador for the art center, which functions like an artistic embassy in Beijing, and the series of photographs RongRong and Inri have brought to the Modern are as polite and as gracious as one would expect from a diplomatic envoy.

Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113

Twitter: @GaileRobinson

Focus: RongRong&inri

▪ Through April 5

▪ Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth,

3200 Darnell St.

▪ $5-$10, free on Sundays

▪ 817-738-9215,