Issue Number: 1∕1
On Guo Peng’s Works
Guo Peng is the youngest artist I have written about. He is exactly twenty years younger than I, yet when I happen to spend some time with him and his friends in Kunming, I don’t feel any wide generational or cultural gap between us. We share many ideas and I really appreciate his attitude towards life and art – which is a full-time, sincere and intense commitment.
Utopia vs. Realism
My thoughts on this subject are very traditional in some respects. By this I mean that I consider the quality of the individual person before the rest. Like ancient literati, I believe that only those who have cultivated their inner qualities to a certain extent can then express themselves ‘producing’ works (of art, literature, etc) which might possibly reach (if there’s the will, the concentration and the ability) an outstanding quality.
It seems to me that in contemporary society, perhaps more than in other epochs, young people are instead pushed to privilege other aspects: easy success, easy money, and external achievements. It is not easy for young people to see clearly amid these mundane incentives and to find their own way in this society, which pretends to be very open, but actually strictly follows just one direction: the material one. All other choices are regarded as crazy utopias which will take one nowhere. These people are considered unrealistic, and as such, condemned to fail sooner or later. I must admit that I am one of those Utopians and am very happy when I find some companionship on my way.
Not many young people feel such all-encompassing nostalgia for the past as to live in another dimension, and when you happen to meet them, you perceive them as clearly ‘anachronistic’: they seem to be living ‘in the present moment’ by sheer accident. You feel that if only they had been born several centuries ago, they would have found themselves in a suitable environment. Guo Peng is not one of them. He loves craftsmanship and respects and revivifies the modes of being and skills of the past, while at the same time being proficient in the technological skills most young people have mastered, such as the use of computers, digital techniques and so on.
He is not thus one of those nostalgic, maladjusted people who can hardly stand reality and only live in their dreams. Rather, I would say that he is constructively critical of many aspects of contemporary life, which has been progressively impoverished of many pleasures, wisdom and nuances. A few days ago he sent me a brief statement he considers emblematic of his way of thinking. I have picked out the following, as it is very concise and explicit: ‘We’ve already changed the nature of this planet, changed the water, the air and the soil…’
A respectful attitude towards nature also entails having a good relationship with one’s human nature, which is very complex. The progressive simplification of activities and needs in one direction, which can be satisfied exclusively through the use of money, through a production/consumerist attitude, has left us with few things to indulge in. On one side, craftsmanship has been neglected, has lost its importance and fascination; on the other, human relationships are becoming shallower. There are fewer and fewer activities that are ‘aimless,’ ‘for free,’ truly deriving from an inner need for creativity and self-expression. We have been slowly deprived of them, and many of us are not even aware of it.
All of these words, which I hope will not be considered as stemming from a boring, moralistic attitude, to say that Guo Peng has developed a unique sensibility which is definitely ‘against the stream,’ and which enhances many ‘qualities’ of the past he considers important for his personal way of being.
Looking for Criticism
Some time ago, Guo Peng gave me a call to inform me that he would soon be showing his work at the Ofoto Gallery, and wondering whether I would be willing to write something for him: “I really need to get some critiques from you, as I want to be able to see the shortcomings of my works. This is the only way I’ll be able to make some progress.” Although this attitude of his is not new to me (in Kunming, he often ‘forced’ me to ‘criticize’ his works as harshly as I wanted), I was really struck by his request. Who would ever want to have a list of critiques printed on his exhibition catalogue? Who would dare to express such a request? Anyway, this wish of his made me want to change the format of my essay. From this point on, I will go from my usual prose commentary to a series brief statements in which I will try to describe what I think are the qualities and shortcomings of his main photographic series. This is an experiment for me, as well as a challenge, and in doing so I intend to delve deeply into my feelings and to try to express them clearly and succinctly. I hope this will really be of benefit to my young friend.
But first, I wish to enumerate some really unique characteristics which are common to all of Guo Peng’s photographic works.
Amazingly, each image is a unique piece, and this is mainly due to the fact that the artist manually adds pigments to the gelatine prints and cuts a decorative contour along their white edges – a practice that was very common in the photo studios of the old days. I still have many photos like those in my house, dating back to my parents’ youth. I remember that when I first saw his small prints, I felt a strong sense of familiarity and thought he had found them somewhere. Instead, Guo Peng had managed to find an old paper edger, which he bought, repaired and started to use in his practice.
Another surprising aspect is the size of his prints. The largest I am aware of are 30 x 45 cm, while the smallest are a mere 2 x 5 cm. Whereas most contemporary Chinese artists love huge sizes – both for their works and studios – Guo Peng has chosen to concentrate on minute surfaces. Viewers are completely puzzled by such tiny, meticulous, old-looking images, each painted using an array of translucent colours.
Guo Peng mainly photographs and/or utilises the environment around him. It might be the Green Lake, which lends Kunming a special aura; details of the pavement/sidewalks we would otherwise hardly notice; even pictures of himself when he was small, or TV stills, illustrations from fashion magazines, etc. He then recasts them into something different. Time and place become uncertain: have these pictures been taken many years ago, or do they just look old? Are they taken from reality or are they reproductions? Black-and- white shots become very colourful, but the colours don’t look natural – Guo Peng does not want to be ‘realistic,’ he wants these images to be evocative, poetic, dreamy. Their size also helps to subvert things: tiny objects, such as a cigarette thrown on the ground, and the ground itself, are the only subjects of a shot; the face of a doll becomes a star in a close up; cover girls from international magazines have an ambiguous, almost evil appearance… In another series, a snowy landscape is captured in a 6×4 cm image; the artist has chosen to keep it unfocused so as to simulate the visual effect of falling snow. As we look at these miniatures, we might feel frustrated: we would like to examine them better, but their tiny size prevents us from seeing all the details clearly. Herein lies the effort we must make: we should give up our ‘scientific,’ ‘technological’ attitude, which teaches us to analyse and section the world, and change our approach. We should regard these tiny worlds as fragments of poetry, as microcosms imbued with a special aura of reverie. I am reminded of that childhood game called kaleidoscope: a tube containing little fragments of colourful glass that are rearranged into a new pattern whenever the tube is shaken. By looking into the tube from one extremity, one can admire countless fantastic motifs. I am also reminded of the stained-glass windows in old churches, which are often very sophisticated and exquisite, casting a beautiful array of colourful lights on the floors, objects and people, thus infusing those ancient buildings with a special atmosphere.
I wonder whether Guo Peng has ever actually seen such windows; I know he likes them because I’ve noticed that he has included some pictures of them in his blog.
Series by Series: Some Observations
As mentioned above, Guo Peng has requested that I ‘critique’ his works; I will thus write a short statement about his main photographic series. My comments only express my personal feelings about the works, and in no way should be considered a ‘standard’ or a series of directions to follow: I believe that every artist should follow his or her own instincts above all.
1) Vertical memory , 2003, 8 x 12 cm. Here the artist has used photos of himself when he was small, re-elaborated them on the computer, printed them, manually enlarged and touched them up, finally adding colour.
I have noticed that there are different versions of this series; in the one I have, which differs from the one on the website, Guo Peng’s face as a child has been digitally modified as if a bucket of water had been thrown on a transparent surface overlying it, devastating the boy’s features. I wonder whether this is a psychological need of the artist’s to distance himself from what he was and/or was considered to be as a child…
2) Top One, 2003, 2 x 5 cm; photos taken from fashion magazines, then refashioned into small, yellowish, apparently old pictures。Personally I am not very keen on this series. This may be because I am so deeply bored by fashion magazines, or perhaps because I feel that this experiment of making photos of contemporary ‘cool’ faces look as if they were old is not so relevant to Guo Peng’s poetics.
3) Landscape, 2003, 8 x 5 cm, hand- pigmented silver gelatine prints of squares and gardens, to which the artist applies blurred effects
These are some of the first works made using this technique. Here the artist deliberately transforms the views of the landscape around him so as to render it unrecognisable. He recreates an alternate world which he likes better, given that it is suspended, silent, evocative. A very good idea, although in some images the colours could have been chosen more carefully.
4) My baby, 2004, 6 x 4 cm, hand-pigmented silver gelatine prints. Photos taken by the artist of dolls appearing in fashion magazines.
These pictures provoke a very strange feeling of estrangement, making us lose the boundary between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction,’ ‘living beings’ and ‘objects’… It is a kind of beauty that leaves us with a sense of coldness and artificialness. I think it is a well-conceived work; aesthetically appealing yet disquieting.
5) Unseen Landscape, 2004, 6 x 4 cm, hand-pigmented silver gelatine prints.
Demonstrating an authentic attention for the details of reality, the artist has taken pictures of small objects (bits of rubbish, etc) lying on the ground, and transformed them into ‘landscapes,’ with the help of the colourful nuances he has added. I wonder whether the effect would be stronger in a bigger size. The idea is good – perhaps its execution could be improved.
6) White Ground, 2004, 6 x 4 cm, hand-pigmented silver gelatine prints.
Guo Peng has taken some pictures of Kunming’s old buildings after a snowfall. I feel these tiny pictures are highly lyrical and evocative. They are a microcosm that makes me dream.
7) Frightening Dream, 2005, 6 x 4 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints.These are photos of Beijing opera actors, other actors (probably all from TV) and an airplane. The expression of coldness and even wickedness on these faces suggests that dreams can be ‘nightmares,’ and that many nightmares are created by a very human soul, as in Goya’s famous phrase: ‘The sleep of reason generates monsters.’
8) Earthquake, 2005, 6 x 9 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints. The artist has taken pictures of the doors of old, traditional buildings, conveying the feeling that they are trembling. I suppose he wants to stress the fact that most of these buildings no longer exist, having been destroyed not by a real earthquake but by motor scrapers.
It is a good idea, although aesthetically I prefer other works.
9) Unhappy Garden, 2005, 6 x 5 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints. These are images of Chinese cityscapes; the colours have all been turned pink or violet. The title is very explicit: the artist feels life is unhappy in such environments, made of skyscrapers and ‘monumental’ buildings which all look very inhospitable and not human-friendly. I think this is a pretty successful series – Guo Peng manages to communicate a feeling of uneasiness to the viewer.
10) Green Lake ，2006, 30 x 45 hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints. I remember when the artist showed me these works, in January 2007. Here the colours have been applied in a different way: instead of matching the subjects of the picture, they follow a geometric-schematic-abstract decorative pattern. Looking at them, I remember thinking they looked rather ‘disharmonic.’ I have the feeling the artist wants to stress the idea that there are many different ways to look at things. Whereas I completely share this idea, I think that the work looks a bit awkward.
11) A Dream of Beijing, 2006, 6 x 9 cm hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints.
Close-ups of Beijing opera actors that I believe have been taken from TV and to which the artist has applied colour in certain specific areas (as in Green Lake). They seem to be in some way associated with the Frightening Dream series. I think they are quite interesting in their almost abstract, detached appearance.
12) Beyond the Sky , 2006, 30 x 45 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints. Photos of the sky beyond the trees to which the artist has either added colours in a geometric pattern, or in a looser way. I personally prefer this second style, and consider these pictures to convey an yearning towards higher ideals; a desire to abandon earthly worries in favour of a loftier inspiration. As such, and in terms of their aesthetic appeal, I like them.
13) Green Lake 2007 , 19 x 25 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints.
The Green Lake is really the heart of Kunming: a beautiful, ‘anachronistic’ place where things seem to always remain the same. Here Guo Peng has taken some gorgeous shots of the park and the lake and coloured them in the old style, so as to imbue them with an air of nostalgia; to me, this is one of the most successful series because it does not want to express too much at once and has achieved a good balance of concept and form.
14) Water, 2007, 19 x 25 cm, hand pigmented on silver gelatine prints.
Here Guo Peng has focused on the Green Lake’s waters and on a few garden elements, such as the kind of rocks called ‘fake mountains’, which are very important in Chinese traditional gardens. I really like these works, for the same reason I mention in Green Lake 2007. Actually, I think these are even better, given that they show viewpoints that are not so frontal and standard. The colours are beautifully added.
I know Guo Peng uses several other media as a means of artistic expression, including painting, installations, videos, and performance pieces, but I have chosen not to discuss them here.
Finally, I hope the artist will continue to show us his poetic, nostalgic, colourful, dreamy, unique interpretation of the world for us to float in, abandoning the limitations of time and space.
Vigolo Vattaro, 26 April 2008
(Thanks to Francesca Giusti)