Peng Wei’s Diverse Feminine Spaces

Wu Hung

Peng Wei’s works conceal multiple kinds of spaces, and the interactions between these spaces and viewers are often faster and more direct than the images that present them. The grand scroll in Old Tales Retold (2019) pushes viewers a dozen meters away—the long arc descending from the ceiling is akin to Richard Serra’s metal sculptures rendered in paper. The series This Is Her (2018–2020) pulls viewers in closer, so close that they almost want to cross the boundary of the frame to look for cut off or concealed images. The Buddha’s hands in Material World(2016–2019) still seem to be shrinking, and they will invariably end up as specks of dust. Seven Nights (2017–2019) and Hi-Ne-Ni (2017–2020) restore the conventional viewing distance, no longer compelling viewers to be aware of the presence of their bodies.


These different scales, proportions, and distances, as well as the consciousness and unconsciousness they embody, turn works united by a title into a self-sufficient series. Its creative motivation and anticipated effect do not have to rely on the harmony or tension between the series; what determines its internal logic is its one-on-one relationship with the artist. The collective presence in the same exhibition is an unusual occasion. When a series is appreciated individually in a more natural setting, it spontaneously captures a time and space for looking, starting in an appropriate place and ending at an appropriate moment.


However, as with many retrospective or semi-retrospective exhibitions, the opportunity for collective viewing is rare and precious, because it shows the multiple connections between the artist and her work, but it also inspires us to think about these interconnections on a deeper level. In the end, all of these series—from objects just a few centimeters high to a scroll installation dozens of meters long—come from the same artist’s interior space. This interior space encompasses the artist’s knowledge and training, emotions and thoughts, pursuits and creations. The viewer’s curiosity about the artist eventually leads to the construction of this space, because this is the “gene pool” for her art and the origin of her differing concepts and visions. The starting point for the exploration of interior space is the external space of the work—the externalization of interior space.


When we consider this and reflect on the observations that began this essay, we see that the multiple spaces in Peng Wei’s work reveal the diversity of her ways of thinking. However, one thread runs through these series; whether the works are large or small, three-dimensional or two-dimensional, they begin and end with women, or more precisely, they convey Peng’s era-spanning dialogues with women from the past. She is not pursuing real or fictional female types, however; instead she is responding to or remolding these types. The differences between these two approaches are rather fine, so more explanation is required.


At different historical moments, Chinese culture has created female characters in text and image. They often had first and last names, and were even given long biographies, but they could not avoid the pitfalls of categorization. In the Western Han period, Liu Xiang paved the way with Biographies of Exemplary Women (Lienü zhuan), which divided more than one hundred women into seven types, from “Matronly Models” to “Depraved Favorites.” Even Buddhist and Daoist women outside the Confucian tradition could not avoid this logic; they also became models and prototypes, and in this process, any trace of truth that may have once existed was watered down. As time passed, this tradition, which blended art and ethics, fostered two opposing yet complementary veins of logic: one takes aim at the categories to create contemporary versions, presenting a continuous line of female models, and the other takes the categories as fodder for deconstruction, creating individualized figures with a cultural foundation. In the former case, there are too many examples to count—they fill volumes of historical biographies and family lineages. However, there are very few extraordinary examples of the latter—the Twelve Golden Hairpins in Dream of the Red Chamber and the fox spirits and female ghosts in Strange Tales from the Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi), which come from types but will always be the individual creations of Cao Xueqin and Pu Songling.


The “women martyrs” in Peng Wei’s Old Tales Retold—a modern miswriting of the character for “exemplary women”—are outstanding examples of this second kind of creation in contemporary art. These images of women originate from Ming-dynasty illustrations in Paragons of Feminine Virtue, but this reference is not important for understanding this series. What is important is that these model women, who were categorized for two thousand years, have finally been extracted from a context in which they injured themselves out of filial piety, to be magnified into independent, larger than life individuals. Their perseverance and dedication are no longer held up as examples; they inspired in Peng a respect and admiration for them that far exceeds sympathy. The rough, direct modeling in ink adds to the simplicity and power of the paintings, a departure from the fine ink sensibility of recent literati painters. It does not matter if one considers these images without brush and ink; what’s important is that Peng Wei has taken back her own exemplary women through these images. On this level, she followed the precedents of Chen Laolian’s The Water Margin Playing Cards (Shuihu yezi) and Venerating Antiquity Playing Cards (Bogu yezi); but no one in Chen’s time created such monumental painting on paper.


Whereas the violence in Paragons of Feminine Virtue inspired the heroism in Old Tales Retold, the historical dialogues in Migrations of Memory (Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank) seem to refer to Ming-era literary sketches (xiaopin) that originated from Song ci poetry. (This last series was not shown in the current exhibition, but I think it is necessary to discuss it, in order to understand Peng Wei’s creative logic.) I say “seem to” because these meaningful little paintings are not based on a clear prototype. The corresponding painting medium for Song ci is the fan or album leaf; the fishing boats on misty waters or beautiful women looking at the moon in these smaller paintings are like visualized songs, where the rhythm moves between presence and absence. All of this entered into Migrations of Memory, but even the profoundly emotional poetic painters like Ma Yuan and Xia Gui never depicted solitary men or women singing in landscapes. Such images emerged only when the “green pavilion” culture rose in the Ming dynasty, when love (qing) unconditioned by traditional ethics took root and sprouted in Chinese culture, and when the art of love finally bloomed and bore fruit. Gifted scholars and beautiful ladies entered painting, but they more often occupied woodblock prints. However,Migrations of Memory is permeated with a still silence, which is rare in Ming paintings or prints. The series once again brings us back to Chen Laolian, but his lonely, silent men and women are much heavier than the figures in Migrations of Memory.


As a result, Migrations of Memory and its historical dialogues are different from those in Old Tales Retold. The latter has a clear antithesis, while the former travels through, investigates, absorbs, and deviates from multiple traditions. However, the presence of the artist in these two series is clear at a glance; it’s just that her presence takes different forms. The monumentality of Old Tales Retold directly announces her presence, while the seemingly placid Migrations of Memory presents a more conceptual challenge to the conventional. The unrelated paintings are paired with seemingly unrelated texts that come from seemingly unrelated foreign writers and musicians and their seemingly unrelated times and places. The words and pictures correspond and diverge, while also inviting and rejecting viewers who attempt to enter Peng Wei’s own realm, which she defines.


This last sentence could also describe my feelings about Seven Nights. It’s another invitation and rejection, but these positive and negative directions are charged with stronger forces. This push and pull give this set of seemingly ordinary line drawings a special psychological tension. We are drawn into the many scenes in every painting, wanting to know what is happening. We also want to uncover narrative threads and hidden symbolism—the way that every art history textbook teaches us to look at paintings. However, Seven Nights questions this method; it seems that the more you try to understand it, the more you miss the point, and the more you miss the point, the more you are drawn in to discover the secrets in the painting. There is no shortage of stimuli for interpretation. The architectural spaces, seemingly drawn with a ruler, provide settings for various activities, and the repeated appearance of certain figures implies the passage of time. Dramatic events conceal cause and effect, and sly gazes suggest the relationships between characters. The issue arises when you lose that thread. It’s like walking in a magical forest; every path that suddenly appears will quickly vanish, but every time you get lost, the forest becomes more enchanting. Why is that? Is it because the paintings come from dreams, so we are drawn in by the unique shifts between the dreams, rather than the stories of the dreams? Is it because Peng concentrated on maintaining the formal vocabulary of narrative painting, but abandoned the goals and expectations of this art form? Or is it because she has unearthed a women’s space on a psychological level, which male viewers must learn how to perceive? Regardless of the reason, the attraction of these paintings proves their efficacy as works of art, particularly because we are unable to weave a story that dovetails perfectly for them.


I want to end this discussion with one more series, because it is Peng Wei’s newest work, both in terms of the time and logic of their creation. The One in My in Dreams features a series of female ghosts from literature, mostly from Strange Tales, but there’s also Su Xiao Xiao from Memories of West Lake (Xihu shiyi). Their narrative language connects with Seven Nights, while their album leaf dimensions and correspondence between text and image echo Migrations of Memory. Seven Nights was produced from the dreams shared between Peng Wei and a friend, and this body of work also sprang from an interaction between two women in the real world—her discussions and correspondence with Judith Zeitlin, an academic who has spent many years researching female ghosts in literature. As a result, we feel the multiple layers emerging when we savor the resonance between pictures and texts in The One in My Dreams. I was particularly touched by the text accompanying Su Xiao Xiao—a passage from a letter that Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote to Sergei von Shtein:


The only good moments are when everyone goes out to dinner to a tavern or goes to the theater, and I listen to the silence in the dark living room. I always think about the past, it’s so large and bright. Everyone here is very nice to me, but I don’t like them.

We are such different people. I am always silent or crying, crying or silent…[1]


Su Xiao Xiao wrote:


I ride in the lacquer-painted carriage,

You ride on the blue-grey buckskin horse.

Where should we tie our love knot?

Under the pine and cypress trees of Xiling.[2]



Translation by Bridget Noetzel

[1] Anna Akhmatova, My Half Century: Selected Prose, ed. Ronald Meyer (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1992),271.

[2] Daria Berg, Women and the Literary World in Early Modern China 1580–1700 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 143.

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