Narrative Photography
The Photography of the Chinese Artist Chi Peng ( de )

Eikon #57, Spring 2007

In the West, the narrative celebrated its return to art in the work of the New Leipzig School. But what was long dismissed as naive had always been present contemporary Chinese art. The variants of visual narration in Chinese art are thus accordingly numerous. The digitally edited photography of the Beijing-based artist Chi Peng (born in 1981) expand the repertory of this art form in an autobiographical, literary, mythological, and virtual dimension.

Chi Peng’s photographs, often several meters long, refuse any beginning or end of the visual narrative. In terms of subject matter, they could not be more timely. In his work, the separation between cyberspace and living reality is already a relic of the past. Paranoid agitation and egomaniacal self-referentiality characterize the artist’s alter egos that multiplied like a clone and mutated into a flying humanoid fly across urban landscapes. For example, the series Sprinting Forward (2004) shows locations easily identified by those familiar with Beijing, like the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where Chi Peng himself was a student, or the glass façade of the Hyatt. Apollo in Transit (2005) shows the wall of the Forbidden City. While in Mirage (2005) the dragonfly-like hybrids fly towards the special economic zone Shenzhen, in the series East-West (2005) they have already arrived in the West, as clearly shown by the Brandenburg Gate.

Using the same montage technique he uses to maneuver this cast of figures into his pictures, Chi Peng also employs additional fantastical elements. For example, the running figure in Apollo in Transit is distorted into huge raindrops. Red airplanes accompany the runners in Sprinting Forward. Like film stills, Chi Peng's photographs capture moments of the highest psychological tension, physical exertion, or arousal. It is never about exposing the represented figure—after all, it is the artist himself. The naked body rather functions as a surface for projection. Chi Peng’s photographic works show movements of seeking with an unknown goal. An expression of this diagnosis of (not only) Chinese life reality is made with great intensity: man here is a restless lone fighter, even love relationships become a public act of self-adulation, as unmistakably demonstrated in the series I fuck me (2006).

Chi Peng is one of the youngest contemporary Chinese artists. The influence of his teacher at the Central Academy, the artist Miao Xiaochun (born in 1964), is very clear. Miao Xiaochun’s early digital photographs also feature the recurring format of the traditional Chinese scroll. Both artists work with their own alter egos as protagonists. While Miao Xiaochun emphasized that his photographs are not manipulated afterwards, but rather montages of numerous single shots, for Chi Peng the real urban space becomes a backdrop for a fictional plot.

In his new, still unfinished series Journey to the West (2007), Chi Peng positions the entire scene in virtual space. A mountain landscape extends over more than six meters. The lumpy rock formations seem almost to float in a sea of fog. In spite of the artificiality of the arrangement, every expert of Chinese landscape painting will notice how precisely Chi Peng adheres to the formal guidelines of the genre in Hua Guo Mountain. For example, there is no clear perspective. The endless size of the mountain, only shown in part, is suggested by the fog. Indeed, Chi Peng’s Hua Guo Mountain refers back to the Song dynasty masterpiece The Light Snow in the Fishing Village by Wang Shen (1048–1104).

But this is just one dimension of Hua Guo Mountain. The tiny monkeys that populate this mountain landscape are reminiscent of a scene in a fantasy film. Precisely this association and the overall title of the photo series Journey to the West activate an entire spectrum of layers of meaning for the Chinese beholder. There is a reference to the story of the journey by the monk Xuan Zang in the seventh century AD, who went to India to study the teachings of Buddhism and bring his knowledge back to China. According to legend, a flying monkey became the monk’s traveling companion, living through countless adventures with him. This material was adapted in a fantastic novel in the sixteenth century, which in turn has been taken up by countless TV-movies and films. In such mediated forms, Journey to the West takes part in the Chinese cultural heritage across the generations.

The question about what is original about Chinese contemporary art, so often posed in the West, is answered in many ways by works like Hua Guo Mountain: it is the immense space for reflection that is translated and made current in the work of artists like Chi Peng.