The human vitality in Jiang Pengyi’s experimental photography
Review of “Streams over the serried stones”
Jiang Pengyi has many titles - the "explorer of light", the "artist who makes strength and time visible", and "the person with the largest collection of polaroid films in China". His practice can be categorised into two groups. He experiments with the studio's methodologies, materials and concepts and focuses on field studies in nature and location-based documentation. Jiang has been ingeniously disassembling and exploring the possibilities of image-making in various unconventional conditions and creating his characteristic work style for years. Not only is he paving an enriching new path for how photography can be viewed, but he also adds layered dimensions to discourses of self-expression and image research.
Jiang’s works tend to be non-objective or non-semiotic; he rejects the direct description of an object. The connection between the being photographed and the potential interpretation of the image seems untraceable. As critic Luan Zhichao observed, “Be it man-made or natural objects, these objects only exist in the sense of signifier, without any trace of signified”. The human-related demonstration as an indistinct metaphor of concealed negative appears to lurk beneath the surface of the amorphous patterns and the systematic methodology of his photographs.
Although Jiang is mostly acclaimed as an abstract photographer, he discreetly attempts “to reinstate people into their own life, histories, bodies, and imaginations” , like an anthropologist. It’s worth unearthing the measurements, motivation and goals he puts into practice, which could encourage reflection on how the experiments triggered his thinking and how the inspiration leads to the implication. How does he convey compassion for people’s fragility, insignificance and tenacity? How can we distinguish the patterns of change from documentary photography? Upon interpreting the innermost vitality of the photographed objects, the clues lead the viewer to the dynamism of human thoughts.
This essay departs from the established discussions and perspectives to put forward original ideas in three sections – medium, light and objects, based on the artist’s recent solo exhibition “Streams over the serried stones”. Through examining the practice and concept of negative film, which is one of the necessary conditions for imaging, Jiang comprehends his use of the anthropomorphic method in photography. As a Chinese photographer, he extensively reinvents the cultural implications of his photos by redefining light. And from the non-object descriptions to the natural landscape and collective portraits, his works reveal his ultimate driving force – describing the human condition.
Body · Touch
"Once a light-sensitive material is 'illuminated' by light, the consequential impact will have perpetually adhered to it. The same applies to the fragile nature of life that makes us impossible not to depend on others or anything else. The body (the light-sensitive material) belongs to the individual, but 'I' don't belong to the individual entirely and cannot exist without sunlight."
Jiang Pengyi takes photography, especially focusing on its nature, as the primary method for exploring the cognition of images. He unveils his conceptions through experimenting with the medium, challenging fixed criteria and expanding the territory of methodology to resist the daily stereotyped associations. Each image generated by considering the properties of the materials manifests from the artist's self-reflection to portray ubiquitous inexpressible sensations, subtle intimacies and conflicts in relationships. The photosensitive materials are alive and become the carrier that bears the artist's extensive tactile vision.
An accidental adjustment to polaroid film triggered a contemplation of the medium and led to Jiang'sJiang's series "Trace" and "Inconsolable Memories". The magnificent images embody remnants of the direct laborious actions while disguising and pacifying the artist's internal battle and endeavour to explore and push further. Additionally, the era of rapid image reproduction and permanent preservation made him question the meaning of images nowadays. He photographed religious and classical paintings, then stripped off the films which contained images and fabricated them into improvisational forms. The series "Medium", presented as a reconstructed body of sculpture with an incomplete context, contributes to a new way of viewing and interpretation.
The enigmatic colour patterns and compositions of the "Intimacy" series resulted from the subtle movement between fluorescent paper and photosensitive material in a darkroom. The negative film absorbs the indelible impact of the fluorescent papers through time, distance and the artist's subconscious behaviour. Moreover, the image-making process alludes to the imperceptible mutually dependent and influential relationships between people in the social system. Jiang Pengyi proposes the possibility to visualise the hidden feelings of mundane life through his unique technique.
Containing Light · Sheathing Shine
"My work can be called 'improvised experimental photography. That indicates I indulge in my openness to ignorance to see the light-sensitive material as a canvas, a space or a living body based on non-prejudgments or non-predictions by utilising my language barriers.”
In the series "Intimacy", we can see how fluorescent paper reserves, transfers, and releases light, one of the necessary conditions for photography. Critic Gu Zheng commented, "Jiang Pengyi is one of the few Chinese contemporary artists who take nature and the representation of light as their main concern ." In the context of "improvised experimental photography," the presence and trace of light subvert the cognitive boundary of the image and transfer it to an unpredictable, alienated visual experience.
In the series "Dark Addition", the subtle light generated by fireflies breaks through the limits of the darkroom, a portable miniature device made by the artist, and redefines the exposure method. The long exposure films delineate the life trajectory of fireflies shielded from the naked eye. Works from the series "Foresight" pinpoint the hidden enlightenment of thinking through occasional painterly brushstrokes and glorious colours obtained from direct contact between rotten vegetables and sensitive film. At the beginning of Jiang Pengyi's first roll of film, the sun is one of the consistent subjects in his life. "Sun! Sun!" ingeniously refracts and absorbs the light energy into the film sealed inside a small dark box, where Jiang liberates the absolute control of the photographic objects to the unknown image created through the fermentation of time. The peeled or fantastical notion is akin to irreversible wounds caused by imperceptible "forces" permeating daily life.
"Containing the light and sheathing the shine, hiding the traces and disappearing from the scene ". It is not a coincidence that "light", as the absolute condition for this series of works, is born in the darkness. Light is pregnant within the substance, and the brightness is disguised in plain sight. Jiang contemplates the relationship between light and shade, shifting his perspective from the physical appearance to the implicit characteristics of the objects. Under his individualism, which connotes cultural aesthetics, are concealed violence, corruption, and the cruelty of reality. The real meaning conveyed through the images often transcends their direct embodiment. As Jiang clarified, "I want to use a negative to capture humans' unavoidable death, mutability, fragility and firmness. I attempt to express the state and change of a person exposed in a certain space for a long time”.
Nature Landscapes · Collective Portraits
Roland Barthes writes in La Chambre Claire: "The photograph possesses a power of evidence, and its evidence is not objects, but time.” One photograph depicts waterfalls scattered in the mountains and fjords of Norway; another, a region of the black Gobi that used to be the bottom of the sea; while another is a mundane group portrait captured on the streets of Chengdu. Does a photograph bear weight beyond the distant past and future? When photographs are displayed on a wall, can they still reflect the 'evidence of time’?
Landscape photography is an essential thread of Jiang's parallel development, the situational representation that the artist extracts through his experience. Like an ancient Chinese literati, he utilises aesthetical sentiments through mountains and rivers. As critic Wang Che stated, "The photographs are the extensions of the artist's eyes, thoughts and senses in the 'landscape'" . Jiang earnestly walks through the natural landscapes, such as mountains, deserts, and waterfalls; he relocates the depicted objects into the coordinates of time, history and geography. Through works from "Grace" focusing on a waterfall rushing down a cliff or the endless black Gobi from Gravel Fathoms the Sea, Jiang unfolds the regional geographical changes, alterations and disappeared civilisations in nature that are independent of man's will. The images penetrate the loneliness, insignificance and fragility of individuals in the vastness of the cosmos and reveal a realistic inevitability – "all things return to dust”.
Documentary photography is Jiang Pengyi’s visual training for the long-term observation of reality. His early work Semi-Finished Product documents the landscape of rapid urbanisation and rural construction throughout China, spanning from 2000 to 2019. More than ten thousand negatives have reproduced the social landscape over the past two decades through a twenty-channel video installation. Meanwhile, the three-channel video installation, Streams Over the Serried Stones, focuses on daily group portraits in the streets of Chengdu during the global pandemic in spring 2022. Each photograph solidifies the random moments of everyday life through a plain and gentle perspective. The natural landscape and individual portraits of the city dissolve the distinction between watching and being watched and are placed side by side. They become evidence of each other’s time references. Simultaneously, the artist weaves hundreds of black and white images and colour documentaries from the past into the present. The artwork becomes a time capsule to accommodate new cognition.
Jiang Pengyi uses photography to explore the relationship between himself and the status quo and the boundary between media and methodology. He observes the photosensitive materials invented in the West while deeply cultivating the connotations of his cultural aesthetics. He projects images through documentary records based on his experimental perspectives. His ten-year practice collectively shows the artist's long-term exploration of the creative process of photographic expressiveness.
With these multi-layered perspectives on the evolution of individuality and historical status, a delicate line of visual metaphors appears from the exhibition's title through its curatorial concept. It flows slowly through the crease of Trace, follows the meandering track of Dark Addiction, falls into the silent torrents of Grace, then converges amid vast nature and the faces of surging crowds, and eventually fades away in the changes of time.
The article was published in magazine INTERNI, September edition, 2022
 Luan Zhichao, How to Make Vitality and Time Visible, The Logic of Jiang Pengyi’s Art Creation, 2014
 Andrew Irving, The Color of Pain. 2009. In Public Culture 21(2):293–319
 Gu Zheng, 2014, The Gift from Jiang Pengyi, The Explorer of Light
 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, (Volume 1 of the official chapters on the river), "The constant Tao should use inaction to recuperate the mind, calm the people without incident, contain the light and hide the shine, disappear and hide the traces, and it is not commendable."
 Gu Zheng x Jiang Pengyi, 2019, Jiang Pengyi’s statement
 Wang Che, 2021, wildlands