Chi Peng’s “Mood Is Never Better Than Memory,” currently making its American debut at Kiang Gallery after its Beijing launch in the spring, is a suite of five stunningly panoramic photographs that symbolize more than the literal imagery of shore and swarming seabirds might initially suggest.
The literal content, though, is nothing short of astonishing. These are digitally composed images in which each distinctly individual gull has been hand-placed. The full resources of Photoshop manipulation are used as they ought to be but seldom are, to create seemingly literal images that turn quickly into haunting allegories.
The most obvious image, in terms of familiar symbolism, places this young superstar artist at the center of a small, symmetrically oval island, with a tight cluster of birds above him. He appears as two dark-suited figures, facing away from each other. The symbolism turns subtle when we realize that the two aren’t just mirror images like the halves of the island; one has a slightly more downcast posture than the other.
Another photograph shows a long pier, at the end of which an older couple faces the ocean. Two men approach them, holding the hands of a small boy between them. A third photo shows a figure in Chinese opera costume, gazing not only at the ocean and swooping seabirds but at the two suns that glow dimly on the horizon through the mist.
What is going on here? It’s important to realize that Chi Peng has been wildly successful in the context of an overheated global art market while being the only openly homosexual artist in China. His sexual orientation hasn’t impaired his career in the People’s Republic; the government is undisturbed by artwork that raises any social question other than political matters.
Thus Chi Peng has been able to present himself most recently, as in the “Journey to the West” photographs exhibited a year ago at Kiang, as the mischievous Monkey King, defending the values of inner integrity while caught in the cultural conflicts of a China being turned inside out as it makes its spectacular appearance on the stage of the global economy.
You will recall that the Monkey King in the well known classic novel “The Journey to the West” was assigned to guard a Buddhist monk on a long, hazardous journey to bring the Buddhist scriptures into China from India. This mythic figure has turned into a children’s superhero in today’s Chinese pop culture. Chi likewise sees himself as a sort of guardian superhero of authenticity in a culture of inauthenticity.
Thus, in the first photo of the mysteriously mistranslated “Mood Is Never Better Than Memory” (the word for “mood,” as in “moodiness,” implies a much more uncertain emotional condition than the title might suggest), Chi in his costume as the Monkey King is on the seashore near the small town where he grew up. The impossible twin suns signify that this is a mixture of dream and recollection, in which the dual cultural forces tearing him apart have receded to a cosmic but manageable distance.
The couple at the end of the pier in the second photo are Chi’s parents, seeing only what they choose to see regarding their son. He and his partner are approaching them with what might be termed a spiritual child (or the intuitive child within them) in this dream zone composed only of water, sky and seabirds.
Thus does the artist’s drama of inner stress and isolation play out in these remarkable fictional photographs. Removed for a moment from the entanglements of the auction houses of a Web-linked art world symbolized in “Journey to the West,” he confronts his own duality in a setting in which he is firmly in control of himself, just as he is literally in control of the image he is creating in Photoshop.
In one of the twin panoramas of an earlier series, based on J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and exhibited in the rear gallery at Kiang, Chi portrayed the host of children in a wheat field that Salinger’s character imagined saving one by one just before they fell over the cliff into the abyss. (The other image replaces the children with scarecrows.) In the new works, Chi has become the catcher of himself, returning to the margins of his early life in order to find the space and spiritual freedom provided by the vast spaces of a sea where only birds swarm.
This poetic metaphor works very powerfully. The psychological inwardness of many viewers responds intuitively to these works even before they learn the back story.