In Sideways Looking at London’s Cell Project Space, the Chinese artist’s moving-image installations consider connectivity and its absence
In Peng Zuqiang’s first solo exhibition in Europe, the Chinese artist presents three moving-image installations ostensibly about connectivity or the lack thereof – whether interpersonal, cultural or historic. Arranged across two floors, Sideways Looking begins on the ground level with The Cyan Garden (2022), which foregrounds the ways memory haunts place. The video focuses on a friend’s Airbnb business in the artist’s hometown of Changsha and, in parallel, the site of the old communist underground-radio station ‘Voice of the Malayan Revolution’ in Hunan, destined for conversion into a luxury resort. Alternating between fictional memories of real conflict in the Malaysian countryside, audio of radio static and the physicality of commercial hospitality work as his friends turn down their lodgings, the film contemplates the bodily and cognitive damage of the Communist Insurgency in Malaysia. The ruthless transformation of a revolutionary site to a hospitality nonplace underscores the inevitability of erasure in the name of economic progress.
Peng’s five-channel installation keep in touch (2021), spaced across the two levels, investigates the exhibition’s titular phrase via various indexes of interconnectivity and the sense of touch. The first channel in a ground-floor room features two men standing on either side of their overheating car while listening to techno music in the middle of a forest. An air of tension pulsates between the two and throughout the remaining channels: a woman rubs Tiger Balm menthol ointment on herself; footage of a man’s torso as he twirls a pen and struggles to recount a story he can’t remember; a closeup of two pairs of hands engaging in a game of cat’s cradle while voices are heard gossiping; the last concentrates on two people cutting one another’s fingernails. These overlooked, casual forms of touch intimate various degrees of familiarity. The held objects – the scissors, string, etc – become the means of acquaintance.
In the back room of the second floor, Sight Leak (2021) transplants Roland Barthes’s memoirs of a 1974 trip to China into the mind of a tourist who visits the artist’s hometown, and who is preoccupied by questions of outsiderness and belonging. Here, as across the exhibition, Peng’s multilayered deliberations on dichotomies of absences and presences play out in footage of quotidian life and the eloquence of subtle gestures.