Peng Wei’s Quiet Celebration of Music
Tina Keng Gallery | Sponsored Content
For a celebration of music, Peng Wei's installation Migrations of Memory—Wild Geese Descend on Level Sands IV (2017–2021) is paradoxically quiet.
Installed in a dimly lit room at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) (19 November 2021–8 May 2022), nine music stands assembled against the wall facing the entrance are placed on a short stage in a V-formation reminiscent of geese in flight. Each stand supports a sheet of paper, but upon closer inspection, no musical scores are present.
Instead, they reveal ink paintings of landscapes on one side of each double-leafed sheet—whether cascading rivers, craggy mountaintops, or a flock of geese descending upon a pale green plane. On the other side, letters written by Western composers are delicately rendered in Chinese calligraphy.
'I've never thought of separating the East and West. I think my paintings are a kind of translation,' Peng explains in the accompanying exhibition video. 'How to present them is also a means of translation.'
The fusing of musical references with classically informed landscapes speaks to ancient Chinese poets' multidisciplinary approach to the arts, often having engaged with painting and music alongside writing. At CMA, these elements come together to celebrate the power of music and the arts in the absence of live experience throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, including the enforced pause of the Cleveland Orchestra—one of the 'Big Five' orchestras in the U.S.
Curated by Clarissa von Spee, the serene installation is accompanied by Chinese paintings selected from CMA—which has one of the largest Asian art collections in the U.S.—along with classical Chinese instruments. Among these are the pipa (lute) and guqin (seven-stringed zither), plucked string instruments that emit characteristically soft sounds.
Where male scholar figures are at all present, they are set aside so that the artist takes over as the main protagonist.
Peng learned the guqin herself, and it was during this process that she was inspired to create Migrations of Memory—Wild Geese Descend on Level Sands IV. The instrument appears in several paintings in the installation, including Migrations of Memory III No. 1 (2017), in which the artist is draped in orange robes, standing beneath the feathery outlines of trees, cradling the instrument under her arm.
In their relatively small scale, Peng's paintings invite viewers to observe them up close—an invitation that reveals subtle painted details along with the mica-laden surface of the papers, resulting in their glittering sheen. Visible also, is the artist's presence in many of the scenes. Where male scholar figures are at all present, they are set aside so that the artist takes over as the main protagonist.
In Migrations of Memory III No. 3 (2017), for instance, a male scholar sits at the top of the mountain and is turned away, almost appearing to fall off the cliff, as curator Clarissa von Spee points out in the video. The woman playing the guqin below becomes the central figure.
It is these tweaks to classical conventions that give Peng's paintings a contemporary edge. At CMA, her dialogue with classical painting is furthered through the selection of paintings from the institution's collection, such as Cloudy Mountains (1130)—a large scroll painting of a river scene painted by Mi Youren during the Song dynasty. In Migrations of Memory IV No. 3 (2021), Peng reworks the river scene in vibrant blues and greens, rather than the muted, earthy tones of Mi Youren's.
The river scene in Migrations of Memory IV is juxtaposed with a personal letter by Shostakovich and other texts derived from letters by composers including Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart. Peng confesses she believes that music may be more successful a medium than painting when it comes to expressing emotions, while the letters reveal the human nature of these expressions.
Their music may be sublime, Peng muses, but the letters reveal the composers to be 'much like ordinary people'. Her observation grounds the lofty aspirations of artists and, more specifically, the Chinese literati who approximated themselves to geese—a frequent motif in literati poems and paintings—in the birds' courage and 'consistency of purpose' necessary for their heroic migratory paths.
This act of grounding also feels like the artist's self-designated permission to subvert the tradition of Chinese ink painting. Having founded her practice with technical mastery and philosophical underpinnings of the medium, Peng has, over the last decade, pushed ink painting into new realms.
In recent years, paintings on objects such as shoes and moulded torsos of rice paper offer material reflections on femininity alongside a lyrical undermining of tradition. At CMA, her 'silent theatre' does just this, while proving that subversion and celebration need not necessarily be loud. —[O]