Ke Peng (b. 1992, Changsha, raised in Shenzhen, China) lives and works in Los Angeles, CA and southern China. She is interested in how the different connect, and distinctions within similarity. The urge, burden and limitation of being in a specific space, as well as active looking is very important to her, while constantly thinking about one’s own self is the least important. She spends an unbelievable amount of time observing people, space.. and cute animals. She is also very fond of milk, jackfruit and canele. She received a BFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design.
Justine Chang lives and works out of Boston, MA and Providence, RI. She writes as obsessively as she photographs, two ways of translating experience into the tangible. She is interested in boredom, and delights in constellations, whether of stars or of ideas, though both are most unhindered at night. She received a BFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Leaky Logic and a Fugitive Fish
Leaky Logic and a Fugitive Fish is a collaborative project by Ke Peng and Justine Chang. The title refers to the quick temporal nature of memory, resembling a darting fish in a bowl of water. The photographs, video, and text slip between China and the United States, closing in the distance through the act of curation. While the work was created separately, the different elements were brought together through close attention and a playful sensibility. Together, the series redefines what is foreign and familiar by paying close attention to moments of lightness and play that would otherwise go unseen.
For the series, Ke turns to the first place she had been in the world: Hunan, a southern province of China, where everything seems suspended and eternal. She also turns to the place she grew up: Shenzhen, a city as young as her, where everything is marked by perpetual movement and rapid change. The population of Shenzhen increased from 30,000 to 15,000,000 in the span of thirty years, and this made her curious and aware of the relation between spatial limitations and the sudden expansion of the city. Ke looks into both the new and the old in modern China by photographing between these two places. She is particularly interested in how human experiences are distinct, yet connected.
Meanwhile, Justine photographs along the East Coast, mainly in and around the Korean-American immigrant home. She sees big moves and winter floods as opportunities to pull out the clutter and pay attention with her camera. In her pictures, the clutter is both lighthearted and serious, the way isolating a paper towel seems simultaneously silly and important. A tension emerges between playfulness and the weight of experience, crisis and delight, and an ever-moving current of images carries them both. She is interested in contradictions and uses writing to better remember the things she forgets.
AB: During your time at RISD, you were working on independent bodies of work. What gave you the initiative to collaborate for your thesis?
KP: At the end of senior year, we had a chance to do a two-person thesis exhibition. While deciding the pairs in the fall, Justine and I came together naturally. We thought it would be great for the two of us to work on a show, since we already spent so much time working in the studio together and often talk about each other’s work. Moreover, photography is such a solo activity. As a photographer, I almost never had to work with anyone else, so we were curious to see what could happen.
At that point, we didn’t know that we were going to completely combine the work together. As soon as I got back from China in February, we jumped right in the planning of the show. We both made a lot of work from the past winter. When we sat down and look at each other’s photographs, the idea of creating a new sequence combining all the work came up. There was quite a lot to be done since we are showing such recent work, made within the past two months. We decided to make whole experience as playful and enjoyable as possible.
JC: Yes, we both thought it would be a more dynamic show if we used the entire space together, instead of having the gallery divided into two halves. I was enthusiastic about working together this way. One of Ke’s strengths is in her ability to connect with other people, and I was eager and curious about what would happen if we brought our work together.
AB: How did you go about editing Leaky Logic and a Fugitive Fish? How did you address the notion of authorship in this collective project?
KP: Originally I had over 100 photographs to choose from, and Justine had a similar amount. We looked at everything we’ve made that we are still happy about, and we started from a pair: Justine’s soaked notebook which survived the flood that destroyed her house and my photograph of a cracked ping pong table board on concrete. Then we tried to build a complete “sentence” around it. Since Justine is also a wonderful writer and poet, and a lot of scenarios, objects and metaphors appear both in her photographs and writing, so we included her piece, Daughter of Judges. It was beautifully written. I remembered the first time hearing it in a critique class and was very touched. In the end, we built four photographic “sentences”. A video piece of mine, Dragon Fish, was included as well. It was installed at the end corner of the gallery, next to the ending chapter of Justine’s writing.
We gave up our authorship. We thought the overall viewing experience for the audience would be more important than being able to know which picture was made by who. Just in case people really want to find out, we also made an exhibition leaflet, with diagrams of the photographs and two additional writing on it.
JC: The video had a soft audio track of trickling water, which you heard before you saw the fish swimming slow loops in its tank. Ke included a text as well – it was the narrative piece in the brochure. The way I see it, both her writing and mine were about a moment where we learned something about the way the world worked, a moment when the world became more complicated. And I think that gave us more incentive to push the playful aspects of the show.
I agree that we gave up our authorship, but not completely. I noticed that most people could not help asking that question: what was mine and what was hers? In fact, my own family could not tell many of the images and writing apart. A part of me was excited about that, but at the same time, there was something romanticized about making work without a name or not taking credit that I wanted to avoid. For me, it was just as important that the viewer could find out who made the picture if they really wanted to know.
AB: In this series, you both approach ideas of home from separate emotional, visual, and cultural perspectives. Can you speak about how each other’s imagery enforce or challenge your own ideas of home and place?
KP: I am looking at cities that are supposed to be my home. They were supposed to be stable, historical, and full of humanity. They were supposed to be the only things I know for at least the first 10 years of my life, instead, they are these complicated, calming, mysterious and fascinating in-between spaces that I couldn’t fully comprehend but can definitely relate to. I had lots of fantasies about them. I think Justine came from a similar place, for a different reason. In terms of formal qualities, my photographs usually depict bigger space and more outdoor scenes, while hers are the opposite, more object-oriented and indoors. I enjoyed seeing the two bodies of work next to each together. It is always very comforting for me to see the how the different connect, and distinctions within similarity. It also challenges me in the way that I am starting to pay more attention to what is happening in the room and items inside the house. Sometimes I find myself wondering if Justine is here to make a photograph what it would be like.
JC: While Ke is looking at unfamiliar places, trying to know and understand more about them, I have been looking at home as something I need to unlearn, see from a distance, or make strange. I don’t know much about my own home either, but most of the time, I act as if I do. In a way, this keeps me from becoming too sure of myself or set in seeing things a certain way.
I feel like these images depict tense representations of domestic spaces. Can you discuss the meaning behind these undercurrents in your photographs?
KP: I think most of my photographs were actually taken in public places, such as parks and storefronts. I am also interested in looking at domestic spaces while visiting Hunan. I mostly stayed with relatives and family friends, but I found those places extremely hard to photograph, despite the fact that they are all very pale and blank. I once thought the flash could be a resolution, but something is still not connected in the way I want.
JC: There’s still an intimacy in the public spaces. I think it has to do with the way we sequenced our work together. The watermelon and my brother’s reflection in the puddle are in public spaces as well, but the environment is kept nondescript, just enough. I think the tension you’re seeing comes from the formal restraint, such as the tightly cropped compositions and limited color palette…
It might also come from expectations of what counts as being public or private. The fruits printed on the paper towels next to the food pyramid – they are oddly commercial and unnecessary, but that kind of decoration and polish has become part of the domestic spaces we know. You don’t see plastic food pyramids in people’s kitchens, but I think the ideas (and anxieties) around nourishment exist there.
AB: The presence of people in your series is either minimal or obscured. What does this signify for both of you?
KP: I think it is because I wasn’t able to figure out a way to make interesting portraits that aren’t cliche or condescending.
JC: Initially, it was because of my own smallness. My inability to be generous towards myself showed up in the way I held my camera up to another person. But I think this shifted as people saw and reacted to the photographs. It became more about how I am only ever seeing a part or a side of a person and my desire to know in a more whole and direct way.
AB: What did you feel were the differences between presenting this work in a more traditional narrative (a website, a book, etc) versus on a gallery wall?
KP: Much more work and money… and just a totally different kind of visualization compared to the book format. The physical scale, the labor, the lighting.. I even made a DIY home theater screen using sanding glass beads and white paint. (Justine looked up an article for me online, it was really fun though. It totally worked and gave my fish tank a gorgeous glow.) It was my first time putting an exhibition together by myself. I was pretty clueless, but luckily we planned ahead enough to deal with everything. Looking at it now, I realized that I tried to put too many things in one space, probably because we had so many images, and because of the excitement of looking at photographs taken only one month ago while you are still obsessed with them.
JC: We had to think in a different scale. At one point, we made digital mock-ups of the gallery walls in Photoshop to lay out the show, and this changed again slightly as we were hanging the actual frames. Storing and transporting the framed work was another challenge, and I agree that perhaps we were too eager and optimistic about including so many images. While a website or a book might have the potential to reach a wider audience, I think the gallery allowed for a more visceral experience. The textures in the images were richer, the story printed on delicate paper rustled as people walked past, there was the audio of the water, and movement through the space began to resemble that of a fish in its tank.
AB: Is there potential for you two to work together again in the future?
JC: Definitely. For now, we’ve been working on submitting this existing project. I think we have this synergy that can be really hard to find. I remember the night after our show opening, feeling immense gratitude to have finished to the smallest detail, receiving so many warm words and encouragement. I hope we’ll be able to collaborate again soon.
KP: After graduation, we now live on the opposite coast. We still discuss projects and helping each other with sequencing and technical problems. I recently wrote a fictional love letter to a real person, Justine is going to look at it for me. We talk about future projects sometimes, although things (non art-related) have always been hectic for both of us.
To see more of Ke Peng’s work, please go to her website.
To view the work of Justine Chang, you may visit her website.