Feasts as Dreams are Made on
—ESSENTIALLY EMPTY, ESSENTIALLY FULL – Guo Peng Solo Exhibition
by Hu Man
“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” I see it quite fit to begin this article for Guo Peng’s solo exhibition with this quote from Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book I read years ago.
In fact, Neil Postman’s book was published 30 years ago when television first became popular. It describes a society that quite resembles what we have today: entertainment has encroached on all public discourse to a point that it has become the spirit and rule of our culture. All cultural contents bend over backward to be accessories of entertainment, begging for greater public attention. This makes us a species that amuses itself to death. Strictly speaking, I don’t consider Guo Peng as a photographer but rather an artist that expresses his concerns for the world and his own emotions through multiple media including photography.
For the “Layers of Curtains” series displayed in this exhibition, the artist selected thousands of pictures in the public domain and punched holes on them just the way viewers plaster “danmu” (comments) on top of uploaded videos on the Internet. And then he put all the pictures up on the wall, forming another curtain of danmu on a larger scale. This wall might strike the audience as “full”, but how do we define “full”? The artist seems to be trying to help us distance ourselves from a so-called “practical world” by changing the way we define certain concepts; however, images have taken place of words as the dominant media in the world today. We now live in a “world produced and reproduced as images” rather than a “world conceived and received as images”, which is a great challenge to artists. To represent the lonely effort of the artist, there is the “Known and Unknown” series in which thousands of pieces of empty photographic paper form clouds in various sizes on the wall. Data in the “clouds” are ephemeral, posing an ironic contrast to the busy scene of “Layers of Curtains”. This reminds me of some lines in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. In this act, the Duke of Milan Prospero calls in an airy spirit and asks him to summon spirits to perform a masque and then says to the prince in love with his daughter, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Going through Guo Peng’s works from 2003 to today, I can see a gradual but clear change of focus from intuitive self-expression to social exploration. He is fortunate to be able to find a path out of the boundaries of photography by following his own senses and to have found an artistic language of his own. He has his own order and logic in his works but there is still no way for an artist to summarize the beauty of the present and the future with simple concepts. As an artist, the best he could do is to strike a chord.
Guo Peng’s early works, in my understanding, were inspired by memories about the youth. In “Wish You Happy” series in 2003, he took photos of random couples on the street and wrote letters to each other, which was a preliminary exploration of romantic relationships. Then there came “Views” and “Paradise Lost” in 2004, followed by “Sleepwalk”, “I’m Happy Because You Are Happy”, and “Views Disappeared” in 2005. His early works show a deep understanding into the humanities beyond his years. He does all the photo shooting, developing, image cutting, and processing himself and established his own artistic style. About youth, desire, and emotions, he says that photography helped him through puberty and made him a reserved, rational and thoughtful man. Besides images, he also resorted to postproduction, acrylic paintings on canvas, and acrylonitrile paintings on paper, not just as an attempt on different methods, but more importantly on multiple ways to interpret the phenomena in question and recreate the visual context contemporary viewers are faced with. In the next phase of his art life, material in his works grew even richer. He carried those photos with him and rearranged them, thus building a brand new narrative about the world. After years of buildup, he has reached the Zen state of mind. In this new realm of art, he repeats certain image patterns to shift his focus to a world larger than himself.
This is a world full of emptiness. This is an age where the still keeps moving. This makes us sad and confused about fate sometimes, but there is still so much to explore. What Shakespeare laments as a dreamlike world “rounded with a sleep” might as well be a start of a world with deeper meaning. What fragmented information we have now might as well be precious records when we become history. I look forward to what Guo Peng has to offer.
Sept. 29, 2016
Translation: Chen Dan