Guan Yuda: In Search of Lost Time

In Search of Lost Time

Guan Yuda

Guo Peng studied sculpture at the Yunnan Academy of Art for five years, but for reasons unknown to me, I’ve never seen any works of sculpture made by him. As a post 80’s young artist, Guo Peng’s life interests are nostalgic compared to the cartoon and hip-hop styles favored by his contemporaries. For example, his affinity for ancient Chinese literati style is evident at his apartment: a neat tea set on the reproduction Ming Dynasty furniture under calligraphy of Gu Qin musical notation gives it the feel of the house of a typical Chinese scholar spending his time with music, chess, calligraphy and painting.

Guo Peng started working on images in 2003. He re-took pictures of cover girls, developed one-inch silver salt black and white photos and hand-colored them. He put these photos with their saw-tooth borders in a plain paper photo album of a sort popular among Chinese urban families in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and named this work “Top One”. At the same time, he did his photo-based performance “Wish You Happiness” which involved taking pictures of young couples in Dazhou, Kunming, Chongqing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Nanjing and Hangzhou, developing these pictures in his own darkroom, coloring them with tea and sending them back to the couples. As the one-inch photo was a standard form in the identity production of Chinese society after 1949, the classic feel of these image types offered younger artists a way to recall and revive that lost time. Those old photos evince that period’s intertwining of modernity and history. Guo Peng’s way of making “fake classics” showed Chinese people’s spiritual complex and sense of history, and becomes a sharp knife inserted into the materialism of our time. Guo Peng’s early attitude toward the image was based on self-reflection and criticism.

Different from some new media artists who consider themselves as spokesmen of “progress”, Guo Peng queries the view of progress represented by technical progress and instrumental rationality. We can also say that Guo Peng considers the past carefully. His works “Green Lake”, “Scenery Line” and “Paradise Lost” made in 2004 are sentimental elegies for lost time, and they remind us of the poet-recluse Tao Yuanming’s sensibility expressed in his verse “the distant cloud had no intention to float out of the mountain side;even birds knew to return to the woods when they were tired”. Guo Peng continued using silver salt black and white photos with saw-tooth borders in these three groups of works, but added more reflection on time. These works are more emotional and show the artist’s transition from realistic criticism to poetic evocation. The ghost-like people and the intentionally antiquated colors of “Green Lake” express the artist’s grief and sadness.

2005 to 2006 was Guo Peng’s most productive period of making images. In his works “Residual Snow”, “Sleepwalking”, “Doll”, “The Vanishing Scenery” (2005), “Starting Dream”, “Earthquake”, “Beyond the Sky” and “Green Lake” (2006), reality and dreamland are interwoven. Here he is detached and peaceful, stepping between dream and reality. These pictures are able to narrate in interlineated and parallel space-time, creating complexity within homophony, like a vocal duet. In the series“Vanishing Scenery”, Guo Peng created a fantastic site where the narration itself becomes the soul of the art pieces. And in the series“Green Lake”, the scenery has a flavor of poetic realism and aesthetic serenity. “Green Lake“ becomes a channel for time to pass through, and through this channel Guo Peng reproduces the beautiful scenery and old tales of the actual Green Lake, the well-known landmark in Kunming, defamiliarizing the familiar. “Beyond the Sky” also changes our experience of watching, and surfaces the inner poetic flavor of ordinary things.
Such inner poetic flavor is the key to understanding Guo Peng’s works, especially these recent ones of trees, grasslands, rivers and fields. Departing from his concerns of 2003 and 2004, these new works focus on the texture of sunshine and air. Guo Peng has abandoned his critical attitude; the former abominator has changed into a discoverer who considers the nature as eternal existence, trying to find new energy and inspiration through it. So I feel today’s Guo Peng shares some similarities with impressionists such as Seurat. The difference is that Guo Peng’s way of describing nature is literary, cavalier, and indulgent, while Seurat’s method was scientific, serious and abstract.

Time is forever a theme of photo-based art, and Guo Peng always focuses on lost time in his art experiments. He is fascinated with making things by hand, catching subtle changes in light and considering the description of nature as dialogue. In this way, his works have surpassed the simple stage of instrumental progress and reached a higher poetic level. Guo Peng’s works actually stand on the opposite side of so-called new media. What he cares about most is those basic things that have the closest relationship with art. Maybe this can explain why he gave up sculpture after five years of studying it. Art has nothing to do with the progress of media; Guo Peng is simply a devout and sharp “image-maker” in facing nature.

Lakeside of the Green Lake, April 25th, 2008
Translator :Zhou Qiao