Author: WANG Jiabei
During the Spring Festival this year, artist Jiang Pengyi decided to return to his hometown a few days earlier.
Many years ago, he moved to Huizhou with his family from Yuanjiang, Hunan to Huizhou, Guangdong where his mother from.
However, Yuanjiang is still Jiang’s hometown. He plans to publish a photo album called “Caowei River”.
He was born on the shore of the Caowei River.
He was born and raised in the countryside before 6 and went to Beijing at the age of 16 or 17. While, until Jiang was back home during adolescence, for the first time, he felt what the word “hometown” means.
Yuanjiang lies on the south bank of Dongting Lake. No matter once or now, passenger and fishing boats sound their sirens every day as they enter and leave the harbor. The siren sound is not obvious during the day, but late at night when a boy who has just entered adolescence and cannot fall asleep in future anxiety, the sound of a long and deep siren in the distance can give him such a relief. Although he knew that this would not solve any of his problems and he would definitely leave here, he always knew that he had to remember this voice – after living in the north of China, he never heard the steam siren of the boats again.
In 1997, there was a severe flood, when Jiang was on his way home from the summer vacation. The road less than 20 kilometers away from his home was flooded, so he had to stay at a local village cadre’s home (a friend of Jiang's father). A few days later, a colleague of his father rowed a small wooden boat to take him home. They encountered a strong current on their way and the boat even overturned once. Fortunately, the water was not so deep. For Jiang, who could not swim at that time, it was a catastrophe. When the boat rowed to the city center, what he saw was exactly the same as the disaster movie scene of tsunami – all the buildings were soaked in the water, the sunlight at noon in early July was blazing, the water was like a huge mirror and the reflection of the sunlight was so strong that he can barely keep his eye open. The world was silent, without any mechanical sound, except for them rowing on the road where cars used to be running. After back to Beijing, Jiang learned swimming, and now he can even dive and surf.
In Yuanjiang, people call the children living in the 90s “the generation grew up in floods”. The mindset of the locals was deeply affected by obstruction and poverty brought about by floods. Unlike them, in that remote place, Beijing, Jiang felt another kind of huge tension between those skyscrapers and the rapid variation of trends – he always has his own persistence and passion behind the various weaknesses, emptiness, and pessimism that appeared in his later works.
Besides, Jiang often discusses the evolution of the outside world in his works rather than thinks about himself subconsciously. For example, he would not talk about the impact of time on him, nor would he describe his own characteristics as a generation born in the second half of the 1970s. Although all things in the world are in his works, he claims that he didn’t pay much attention to variations in the outside world. He does not care what people call him, and he was not affected by the outside world much.
“Do my works one by one, and face troubles one by one, there is no way to escape or fight against them. Life is like this. People all get anxiety at similar time points, and this is how we are here.”
In his memory, the only time he had the craziest urge to the outside world was when he was 14 or 15, this teenager ride a bike to the 50-kilometer-away downtown area just to buy tapes of the Tang Dynasty and the Black Panther. He went back and forth for 100 kilometers in a half-day without letting his family know.
Those two years were also the first time Jiang took photos with a camera. During a spring outing with his classmates, they took a boat to visit Junshan Island in Yueyang, and Jiang's mother was the headteacher. There, Jiang’s mother rented a point-and-shoot camera for Jiang, without saying why. It is interesting to think about it now: Jiang’s first roll of film in his life was to keep pressing the shutter against the sun. Until now, those photos are still preserved in his hometown. There are photos of the sun on the lake, the sunshine gleaming on the water, and the sun itself.
Whether it is rock music or photography, the passion of the teenager continues. From the teenager whose hormones were nowhere to be placed, to the middle-age man whose thoughts are increasingly calm, those curious explorations of the sun, light and life since childhood are interlocked with today’s cautious perception and thinking of life, history, and time that became another “swimming style” of Jiang in this world after the flood.
As in his view, photography should be exploration rather than determination.
In 2006, Jiang Pengyi participated in his first formal exhibition in his life, “New Folks Arts Movement”.
In 2021, Jiang will present his latest solo exhibition at ShanghART Gallery in Shanghai – “Birds Bring Forth the Sun”. The exhibition consists of two parts: the large-format black and white series “Gravel Fathoms the Sea” and the large-format color series “Sun! Sun! ”.
“Birds Bring Forth the Sun” is the most relaxing sentence in the collected short stories As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories published in 1986 by the Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod. The main characters are men and women who struggle with their destiny in Cape Breton Island. The seven collected short stories are mournful like elegies. Some are stamped with ominous fatalism, and some are as strong as Gothic novels.
In the exhibition, “Sun! Sun! ” and “Gravel Fathoms the Sea” are also full of invisible and irresistible forces and mournful stories as Alistair’s collected short stories.
“Gravel Fathoms the Sea” was shot in the Heigebi (which means black Gobi in Chinese) near Dunhuang. Scientists believe that the Hexi Corridor area that Jiang photographed was once an ocean 200 million years ago, and now it uplifts into a high and dry Asian belly. 2 million years ago, it used to be a alluvial plain, which was full of rivers and lakes. While it is now a sun-dried black-colored Gobi without a drop of water. In cold nights, the gravel here will absorb the moisture in the air. During the daytime, the moisture evaporates under the burning sun. Under this cyclic process, the iron-bearing manganese in the gravel gradually dissolves, overflows and precipitates on the surface of the gravel. This layer of black iron oxide and black manganese oxide film solidly wrapped with the gravels.
In 1907, the British explorer Marc Aurel Stein found eight letters written clearly on paper in Sogdian in a dusty beacon tower room near Dunhuang. Scholars have concluded that the letters were family letters written in Sogdian between 313-314 AD. Two of them were written by a Sogdian woman, Miwnay, who was forced to be a slave in Dunhuang and the letters were sent to her mother and husband for help. She was hoping they would take her home, while that was during the period of the “War of the Eight Princes” in the Western Jin Dynasty. Obviously, the letters have been buried here for thousands of years, and no one knows the fate of the helpless and frustrated Miwnay and her family. All these things existed like gravels were once deep in the sea.
Jiang has been to Xinjiang once to have a trial run for the new project in 2019. On his journey, he took many documentary photos including weddings, funerals, and births.
Unlike the documentary photos taken in Xinjiang, this time his works are presented in landscape photography and the image of “human” is hidden behind his works. It doesn’t mean that “human” does not exist because they are invisible in the photos. No matter from the perspective of the historical background of the area, or the artist holding the camera, or the audiences gazing at the photos, they are all sailing on a variety of waterways in the sea of meaning and seeking their own pearls.
Nature is included in landscape but not equal to landscape. Landscape consists of two eternal elements – nature and human. In today's highly modernized society, it is difficult to find a pure natural landscape. All the common landscapes can be called political landscapes. While, in Heigebi with hidden stories, politics, landscape and culture come in one.
The same for “Sun! Sun! ”.
In 2013, for the first time, Jiang tried to get rid of cameras and put dozens of fireflies into a 24-inch film-sized cassette for long-term exposure, leaving traces of light and life on the film, which became the work “Dark Addiction” (2013). Later “In Some Time” (2015-2017) was created. Since then, the lens and shutter are no longer his main tools for photography.
“Sun! Sun! ” is also created without cameras and lens, and everything emerges from the inside. The artist put films in film holders in the darkroom, covers them with pieces of opaque black paper, then placed them in the sun, used a magnifying glass to gather the sun’s rays on the black paper, removed until smoking – like the children’s game, burning paper and match heads with a magnifying glass. There was no special method. When the sun is nice, it is easy to do it near the window at home or outdoors, which full of contingency.
“Precisely, everyone believes that the sun is an indisputable and highly recognized symbolic object, so that I am interested and confident in expressing my beliefs through this medium.”
Whether the Gobi or the sun, they are the pure natural things where “human” always exist inside. However, different with Jiang's previous perspective on small (micro) creatures or the relationship between people and city, this time the works in “Gravel Fathoms the Sea” are even more transcendent. The icy Gobi in black and white and the sun in gorgeous color achieve ingenious harmony between these two extremes. In Chinese Yin-Yang theory, extreme Yang brings forth Yin, extreme Yin brings forth Yang. It may be difficult for us to distinguish between the continuous whispers behind the Gobi and the endless silence behind the burst of the sun, nor can we truly explore traumatic rebirth and eternal disintegration. In addition to the birth and death of the individual, the works also interrogate life's own circumstances with the torture of wind, sand and the sun, as well as the weight that human spirit and body can carry.
In the great chasm between life and death, the camera (even without “lens”) is as terrifying and powerful as the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance – anything false (or real) cannot escape its clairvoyance in any action. It is a sheer conflict between internal and external, also the instinct of a person with a camera. For Jiang, photography is both a method and a medium. In front of the “camera”, those being constantly washed, exposed, wrapped, burnt and reborn are not only natural objects that existed in ancient times, but also the fragile but tough flesh and soul of our human beings under the washing of time.
Besides, there are 6 small-scale 135mm black and white photos. They are only a small part of this solo exhibition and can be easily ignored. However, these six small-scale photos gave the title of the exhibition “Birds Bring Forth the Sun” and the “reason” for the works’ titles. What’s more, the exhibition does not try to let the viewer bear all the heavy theme – the exhibition name hopes to bring the viewers a light perspective of fairy tales to look at the sense of destruction and loneliness in the works. Meanwhile, it also reminds viewers that images can serve as evidence of lies.
The elapse of things changes the way they exist. Last year, Jiang Pengyi was one of the winners of the BarTur Photo Award 2020 with his series of photos “Semi-Finished Product”. The award-winning photos are only a part of his work “Semi-Finished Product”. Jiang has taken more than ten thousands of negatives systemically in 20 years, thoroughly selected, elaborated and arranged. It is also one of the first documentary photography series that is published.
“Semi-Finished Products” begins with China's political, economic, and urban construction from 2000 to 2019, and extends to towns, countryside and borders which covers the discrepancy between north and south, east and west, big cities and rural areas. It is a photo album of Chinese people’s daily life who make up 1/5 of the world’s population since the millennium. It is a plain and concise image archive without any dazzling skill that reveals complex confusion, disparity, separation, rejection, belief, ideals, order and so on result by individuals living in the fast-deformed society and the subtleties of individual emotion such as thoughts, illnesses, life and death, loneliness, joy, confusion etc. A small part of the photos of Yuanjiang currently taken are also included in “Semi-finished Products”.
Other than conventional documentary photography, which only captures the partial instants one by one, the unfixed way of displaying “Semi-finished Products” breaks the independence, uniqueness and sanctification of documentary photos. Although the theme has long been hidden in Jiang’s own life experience and creative thinking, in Jiang’s view, it is still different from the so-called “meta-narrative”, which is hard to reflect the “fragmentation” and “individualization” in the present era. In other words, the artist hopes to liberate himself from the cage of meaning, also liberate the instants captured by chance.
After the BarTur Photo Award 2020, Jiang turned photos in the “Semi-finished Products” into a 20-
screen video installation at the 2020 Jimei×Arles International Photo Festival. 20 old TVs simultaneously broadcast videos made of photos taken in the last 20 years that included in his work “Semi-finished products” with different lengths.
“When I want to create a new work, I always start with experimentation.” Before starting any work, Jiang had no predictions about the form, story or emotion of the work. Rather than saying that he loves experimentation, he loves to immerse himself in a state of not knowing what he wants and have to do. In the midst of such ups and downs, the artist has always resisted the temptation inside himself – of course, no matter what, the influence also comes from the outside world.
In 2020, the global pandemic has made a profound impact on every individual, as well as the culture, spirit and urban space of the society. For Jiang, he had no plan making “Gravel Fathoms the Sea” at first, however, under the pandemic, the black-colored Heigebi, the silent gravels and the cloudless sky are undoubtedly more like a symbol of the state of current human beings.
After the crustal movement ten million years ago, the gravel produced by the uplift of the ancient sea or riverbed, experienced the impact of waves or floods, collided and rubbed by other stones in moving water. It is fierce but silent, mournful but heroic.
However, at the same time,
Birds bring forth the sun,
Gravel fathoms the sea.
Related Artists: JIANG PENGYI 蒋鹏奕