Reflecting on Her Southwestern Chinese Bai Roots, Peishan Huang Captures Human Traces on Objects and Spaces
By Amy Qian
Published on January 19, 2023
“I love beads. I love things that have no color. I love water fountains because they are alive yet they are dead. I love fish hooks because they are sharp and dangerous. I also love chandeliers and fireworks.” At her studio on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn, New York, Peishan Huang and I talked about our preferences for media, objects, and landscapes. She listed all the things she currently enjoys, objects and textures that can be discerned in her works. While talking photography, exhibition-making, and curation, we stumbled across our shared love for shoe brands Melissa and Camper.
Peishan Huang is an artist born in Dali, Yunnan Province, China. Having just obtained an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, she is now working and living in New York. I came across her account on Instagram and was attracted by her use of color, the empty space as well as the mysterious and uncanny feelings evoked in her photographs. Interested to learn more about her practice and artistic career choices, as well as her multicultural views about China and the U.S., I decided to contact her and visit her at her studio.
Amy Qian: You were born in Dali, Yunnan Province, in south-western China. For the readers, can you describe daily life in your hometown? How do you think the city of Dali has impacted you as an artist? How did you first get interested in artistic practice?
Peishan Huang: Definitely, a lot of my work revolves from images of my childhood. I think my inclination to use beads and other transparent, colorful materials derives from traditional Bai [an ethnic group living mostly in Yunnan, China] clothing. What home left on me was not only visual aesthetics. My friend once commented that my music taste was very surprising and has a contrast with my visual style because I would say my top music genre of 2022 is Chinese Viral Pop. I usually listen to those or uplifted acoustic music when I work. In my hometown Dali, when we went to local markets, Chinese Viral Pop music was playing on the streets. It was part of my life and has unconsciously planted inside my head.
A.Q.: Moving from Dali, China to Beijing, and then Baltimore, US, I was wondering about the path to finally pursuing an MFA in Maryland Institute College of Art. How was your experience studying there?
2. Peishan Huang, Artificial Nature (series), 2017-. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.
P.H.: When I studied advertising in Communication University of China, people started to ask me questions about my associations with Bai culture. Questions such as “Do you ride elephants to school?” made me realize how unusual it is to be a minority and I started to rethink about my own identity, my hometown, my community, and my culture. In Dali, some people can only speak Bai language. I was told by my parents to speak only Mandarin. If I became comfortable speaking Bai, I would have a heavy southwestern accent when I grow up, which might be a point of discrimination at school. During my study in Beijing, a city where ethnic minorities are not that common, I got more and more interested in the process of transmitting of language and culture.
In my senior year, I developed a project creating new Bai characters, during which I was able to see my own culture as an outsider. Because Bai language is usually spoken and not written, I designed new Bai characters and invited people to participate in the project by creating and writing their own Bai character. Inspired by the traditional Bai tie-dye technique, involving indigo-and-white-colored patterns using techniques like drawing and brushing patterns, knotting and soaking, everytime I received a new character, I would write the new one on a white cotton cloth and trace over the previous ones. I then put this cloth inside a washing machine, so after the characters were washed, it came out with different colors of blue. The process itself was mirroring how my generation learned about our local root culture. We are the white cloth and growing up, we learn, passively and actively, about Bai language and culture, just like everytime a new Bai character is being written.
The washing machine symbolized modern civilization. Every time a new color is being put on the white cloth, a washing machine washes it and the color fades a little. However, on and on, just like that, we keep writing and the colors get tenser. We would have intervention or washaways, but the colors would settle and form unwashablebe traces.
We are the white cloth and growing up, we learn, passively and actively, about Bai language and culture, just like everytime a new Bai character is being written.
I had a great time at Maryland Institute College of Art and within the Mount Royal School of Art (Multidisciplinary Fine Art program). It was funny because applying for a multidisciplinary fine art program was not my intention. I originally applied for both photography and multidisciplinary fine art because I worked as a commercial photographer before. It was because of an interview with the director of our program that I decided to choose that track. I do not regret it because I would like to have more possibilities and the program pushed me to step out to try more art forms such as installations.
I am also grateful for all the conversations with visiting artists and curators who visited our program. We would have one-on-one critiques every week and they would not only give me helpful feedback but also teach me a lot about the art industry. I would not start to make moving images and incorporating texts into my work if I was not encouraged by them. Once, a visiting artist said that I have a pair of filmmaking eyes, and I should go out into the world more. She encouraged me to see things in a dynamic way. Overall, I really enjoyed the program and my professors gave me a lot of support and love, when I was not so confident about trying out new things.
Once, a visiting artist said that I have a pair of filmmaking eyes, and I should go out into the world more. She encouraged me to see things in a dynamic way.
A.Q.: I really like your series entitled Artificial Nature, could you tell us more about this project and how you got into photography?
P.H.: Moving from Dali to Beijing and Shanghai, my perceptions of cities started to contradict each other. Humans built cities out of nature. They put man-made objects whose appearances imitate natural creatures in these urban areas. This made me think about the idea of humans building a new nature in cities. I find it interesting because I view cities as something alive. Every city has their metabolism, their system and essentially what inside cities are cycles. I designed and installed my solo exhibition Paradise in Ultramontane Gallery, Hangzhou, China based on this idea.
Humans built cities out of nature. They put man-made objects whose appearances imitate natural creatures in these urban areas. This made me think about the idea of humans building a new nature in cities.
The idea of Artificial Nature came about after my first group critique during my MFA. It was so early that I had no idea what works I would show for the critique. I went over all the photographs I took and realized that I was always interested in artificial objects, human traces and living places. So I started to look more into the topic. I got interested in the idea of control and intervention. From constructing dams, introducing foreign species to fertilization and grafting plants or shaping plants, there are so many examples of artificial interventions in our urban life. Apart from controlling, I was also interested in imitation, which we can find in materials, scents, and visuals. Humans would use imitation to imitate nature and natural objects. Later, I combined all the concepts I was interested in and developed the idea of “artificial nature”.
I have always liked to take photos. Back in Dali, I took photos of local Bai people and their daily life. The colors of Bai were very beautiful, especially when people wear traditional costumes during festivals. I am used to taking photos with my phone in daily life because I am attracted to common objects. Sometimes, the placement of the most common objects can be visually appealing and I would be surprised by it. Their existence is merely of possibility and accident, which I find very romantic. I also feel very grateful to be able to spot these objects. I would look at pictures I took and they would have an influence in a subtle way—-they serve as a visual and emotional guidance when I create my works.
It was not until I studied at Maryland Institute College of Art that I started to make more sense of how diverse contemporary art can be. Conversing with other visiting artists and professors has inspired me to venture into other possibilities than photography such as installation, sculptural photography and moving images.
Sometimes, the placement of the most common objects can be visually appealing and I would be surprised by it. Their existence is merely of possibility and accident, which I find very romantic.
A.Q.: How does place and space affect you or your ideas?
P.H.: When I work on exhibitions, I like to physically be in the space and form a connection with it. I observe the whole space, the wall, the floor, the lighting, the movement, and every tiny detail of the space. I believe it is necessary for artists to form a connection between the works and the space.
There is a traditional saying in Chinese called 因地制宜 [pronounced as Yin Di Zhi Yi], which means “use different methods based on different environments”. I am not used to giving instructions before the installation actually begins because when I put the works in the space, I constantly change how I position them based on the space’s characteristics.
A.Q.: From photography to installation, you seem to be exploring into different mediums. In your work Abundant space as a temporary studio you seem to have occupied the space and created a site-specific installation. Could you tell us more about the process? Where is the space? Who do you think is the audience? What is your hope/goal of this work? How would you approach an object and a space?
P.H.: I like to visit abandoned spaces and I explored some in Shanghai and Baltimore. I’m attracted to human traces left in space. The fact that these abandoned objects in the abandoned place were once owned by someone and eventually left behind fascinated me, and I feel they have stories to tell. My friends and I would go into these abandoned spaces and pick things we found interesting to creat a scene. This picture [see below, 6, top] was taken in an abandoned hotel in Shanghai. I grouped the artificial plants, the chair, the dispersed foam and fiber together as if they were objects in my studio and I took the photograph. When I group these objects together, they started to have a conversation not only among themselves but also with the space, which I find interesting. Standing in the space, I’m the audience of my work. I staged all these objects for myself. When I leave space, there are no human viewers but other natural forces such as the wind or the sun or seeds enter the space.
I like to visit many abandoned spaces at the seaside. What I love about those places is that because the air is so humid near the ocean, plants grow back in the gaps or corners of floors and walls. It is as if nature has come back and taken over the place in its own subtle yet powerful way. This is also connected to my concept of cities in a cycle. Nature goes away and nature comes back, in an eternal full circle.
Nature goes away and nature comes back, in an eternal full circle.
A.Q.: You mentioned that you have always liked fountains. Could you tell us why?
P.H.: I love fountains because they are exceptionally beautiful to my eyes-- they exist as exquisite dead water. They are alive because the water is always moving, so they appear to have movements and life. They are dead because the water is fixed and the same amount of water cycles back into the fountain. When you see the fountain in a longer time span, you would believe that the water is still and stagnant. This is why I choose to use still materials to make water fountains, such as acrylics.
A.Q.: You mentioned the element of repetition in your artistic practice in your documentary. Could you talk more about repetition?
P.H.: Making art is similar to cooking in some ways. I think the fact that the element of practice found in both cooking and art can explain the concept of repetition.
Cooking is similar to using mixed media. You have to think about the traits of materials and think about how they would taste or look like when they are grouped with each other. When I cook, I choose and combine different ingredients and when I make art, I choose and combine materials.
When I cook, I choose and combine different ingredients and when I make art, I choose and combine materials.
A.Q.: Are there any other art forms that has impacted your artistic creation?
P.H.: Films and books. At a certain time, my visual style was heavily influenced by the Voynich Manuscript. It is a book with illustrations and scripts that no one has interpreted and understood until now. Some people say that those hybrid creatures of humans and animals in the book only exist in dreams or imagination. However, to me, what makes them exciting is that I believe these nonexistent forms may occur in the future. Humans never stop changing nature.
For movies, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence directed by Roy Andersson and The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowsky have influenced my visual style in my recent videos. I wouldn’t say music has affected my creation but I do listen to two kinds of music when I work: Chinese Viral Pop music and spiritual acoustic music.
Humans never stop changing nature.
A.Q.: Could you please tell us about your solo digital exhibition at :iidrr? How was your experience? How did it come about and what do you think about virtual exhibitions?
P.H.: It was my first open call submission and I was honored to be selected. We had a great time working together. The exhibition was completely virtual.
I think video and sound work great for virtual exhibitions because more people can be engaged with digital media online. Other more traditional media such as sculptures need that element of physical experience for full appreciation.
A.Q.: Your work Be Suspended in 2020 seems to combine multiple materials together. Could you tell us more about it?
P.H.: That work was made during a residency named Pararailing in Shanghai.
I got the idea of suspension from a body suspension practice involving temporary perforations in the skin. Many people who practice suspension see it as a spiritual experience that has therapeutical effects. Inspired by this practice, I use thin fabric to represent the skin of my artist identity, hung by sharp hooks. The structure of the work is the skeleton of "me". I was there in a space without my presence.
I use thin fabric to represent the skin of my artist identity, hung by sharp hooks. The structure of the work is the skeleton of "me". I was there in a space without my presence.
A.Q.: To wrap up, could you tell us about your recent projects and future exhibition projects? Anything new you would like to try in the future?
P.H.: In the future, I really want to make more moving images. My video work Chronos is my first attempt into filmmaking. I like spaces that are filled with human traces, without actual human presence, and I was trying to capture that mood in this video.
9. Still from Chronos, 2022, Single channel video, 3'12''. Directed by Peishan Huang. Courtesy of the artist.
Peishan Huang is an artist born in Dali, Yunnan, China. She received a BA from Communication University of China in 2018 and an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2022. Peishan now works and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Amy Qian is from Wuxi, China. She is a third-year student studying Art & Art History at NYU Abu Dhabi. Amy has worked as a gallery assistant with galleries from Shanghai, Bergamo, Kampala, and Dubai. She has also curated the exhibition territories of bodies for NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Proxy Program in 2022. Interested to learn more about her own culture, she is now studying East Asian Art and Chinese Film in New York.
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