Beijing artist Chi Peng turns ancient myth into a parable of contemporary life in “Journey to the West,” a sly, witty and visually creative series of photographs on view at Atlanta’s Kiang Gallery.
Chi Peng: “Three Fights Against the White Bones Demon III”
He borrows the title from a popular adventure story, whose protagonist, Monkey King, protects a Buddhist monk journeying to India in search of holy texts, using generous amounts of magic and derring-do to defeat their many assailants. Mischievous as well as heroic, this demon has remained a fixture in high and popular culture, starring in everything from literature and opera to martial-arts movies and children’s cartoons.
In Chi’s version, the West is America and globalization; the demon, whom he plays in his digitally manipulated tableaux, is his alter ego.
“Five Elements Mountain” finds our hero entangled in a spiraling mass of high-rises. The title refers to the place that served as the seditious Monkey King’s prison for five centuries. It would seem, predictably, to address the rapid and rampant development in China that chokes cities and their inhabitants.
Yet Chi subverts the seriousness: The squirming figure’s predicament is rather comic, reminiscent of the attack of a B-movie giant squid.
In these photos, meaning is as nimble and elusive as the protagonist, and globalization is not necessarily a villain. In fact, Chi seems very comfortable with the blurring boundaries wrought by globalization and new media. Cultural fusion is both a wonder and a fait accompli in “Three Fights Against the White Bones Demon III.”
As I wrote in my review in Friday’s AJC:
“Monkey King, dressed in his medieval garb, stands in profile in a contemporary room, his head disappearing into a computer monitor like Alice going through the looking glass.
“In the manner of Late Gothic paintings and 17th-century European still lifes, the image is rife with symbolic objects. A second monitor open to the Google home page is, of course, the beckoning frontier of the World Wide Web. DVDs of the “Matrix” movies, American films based on Buddhist precepts and Asian martial arts movies, suggest that cultural fusion is a two-way street.”
In a mixture of respect and cheek, Chi makes his own scroll painting, digitizing photos of bonsai plants to stand in for the craggy, cloud-enveloped peaks of traditional landscapes. In this updated version, he celebrates his own magic powers. Wielding the instruments of Photoshop and the other tricks of his trade, he creates memorable art.