Letters From A Distance: The Installation

Peng Wei

The scrolls and album leaves of ancient Chinese landscape paintings provide steady inspiration and the structure for Distant Letters. They are not landscapes paintings; they are painting installations on scrolls and album leaves. Through paintings and printed materials, I show the ambiguous and intersecting visual relationships between representation and replication.

This series hopes to express a few ideas.

1: In confronting traditional landscape painting, I don’t simply look at a few pictures by great masters. I see the whole piece as a material object and a total work of art, which includes the wrapping, the cover, the silk ties, the jade pin, and the box for the painting. Of course, this total work of art also includes the inscriptions. These masterworks are not simply paintings, because they are entirely perfect hand-crafted pieces. When the ancients painted, viewed, and mounted paintings, the entire process was governed by a balanced aesthetic. The depiction of the myriad changes of the landscape, the addition of inscriptions, and the need to personally unroll the scroll means that each piece is a classic handmade text. These masterworks have distant links to ancient Roman painted scrolls and prayer books from the Middle Ages, in that they are all handmade books composed of both image and text. Therefore, I am not painting traditional landscapes; I am “painting and making” scrolls and album leaves according to ancient patterns and my own sensibilities, which is a subtle and delightful twist on the originals.

2: Classic landscape paintings attempt to command nature; my paintings “command” exquisite scrolls and album leaves, but nature is only one part of the work. Because the scroll or album leaf is painted by hand, these paintings are easily misread as ancient landscape paintings. This misreading transposes traditional landscape paintings and modern conceptual art, but this transposition is something I have produced, something I anticipated, and something that gives my work a double meaning.

3. Of course, these games I play with painting come entirely from modern printed books. I observed painting (classical) and literature (inscriptions), and then I used the private correspondence of Western literary masters to “distort” the inscriptions, and even titles, of classic landscape paintings. As a result, the concept of the West has entered into Chinese landscape texts. Even as I appropriated classical painted images, the letters and poems of Western artists replaced the inscriptions, these words still have the same position, calligraphy, and effect of an inscription. Paintings and inscriptions were part of an interesting conversational game between ancient scholars. In my turn, I have started a dialogue between the letters of Western scholars and the paintings of Chinese literati, but they also converse with a modern audience.

4. After I finish every painting, I use modern digital technologies to replicate the work, creating a copy. The replicas are the same dimensions as the works, and are placed together with the originals.

5. On a deeper level, I attempt to separate myself from tradition using the most traditional means possible, such that traditional texts and contemporary ideas become one on the page. This series shows the irreplaceability and persistence of tradition, while also breaking with tradition. Through nearly imperceptible subversion, I carefully protect tradition’s integrity.

   6. The scrolls, album leaves, and boxes that I have replicated and displayed as an installation are offerings to the painted classics that have lasted for centuries yet retained their power. They are offerings to the poems and letters of Chinese and Western writers and mementos of pieces that I have sold and will never see again. These memento are also expressions of gratitude for modern printing technologies; this modern art of replication has provided the inspiration, basis, and vehicle for my work. In my slow journey through many book, I discovered that Jean-Claude Carrière was right. “The past never stops surprising; it is more titan than the present, more perhaps even than the future.”