“I like objects that don’t have much of a style. Like patterns in colouring books, clean black lines, and primary colours. Things that aren’t trying to sell you an ideology or concept,” says Peng Ke, who calls from her home in Shanghai, where she has just closed her first solo exhibition in the city, I Have Seen Many People Although They Have Not Seen Me. “Most visual languages are so coded, so if I see things that are almost innocent, they really stand out to me.”
Peng Ke’s exhibition coincided with the launch of Salt Ponds, her first book published by Jiazazhi. The project has been ongoing for five years now, but only became a solid body of work after her friend and graphic designer Pianpian He approached her to collaborate on a book. It began in the cities where Peng’s parents grew up, and quickly expanded to other fast developing, smaller cities in China. Though they are shot hundreds of miles apart, her photographs are anonymous; you can never tell which city she is in. So the project became less about her own hometown, and more about the collective experience of Chinese people who live in these places, “because in a way, everyone comes from the same city”.
“Through the process of modernisation, contemporary China and its city planning isn’t paying attention to establishing their own style, everywhere looks the same,” says Peng. The cities are identical masses of concrete, meticulously planned with huge grey highways and four-lane roads that run underneath. New apartments and high rise buildings shoot up every other week, and the green spaces in between are planned down to every tree.
But Peng tries to offer a different way of looking at these repetitive places. She finds patterns and colour in places that feel obvious or familiar, and presents them in frames and from angles that challenge our usual vision of city life. “You look at the city and it all looks like a huge, dull, grey container. So the things that I find comfort in, the pop-y, plastic-y colours, they stand out to me.” Peng doesn’t approve of the aesthetic choices made by city planners in China – like the off-white paint that over time turns grey from dust and pollution – describing them as “unconfident”.
But living in these cities is a reality for many people – after all, just 112 of them are home to more people than the whole of New Zealand. “People are forced to move if they want a better quality, or a better chance, in life,” says Peng. “They are victims of fast development….I wanted to make my photographs more mysterious”.
Peng was raised in Shenzhen, one of the largest cities in China. Her parents, who work in architecture and engineering, gave her her first camera when she was 13 – a first-generation Sony digital that was given to them by the company. As a teenager, Peng was troubled, and though she excelled in her studies, she was uninterested by the subjects offered to her at school. “I was looking for a physical and mental space that could open a gap between the things imposed on me in school and a lack of guidance at home.”
Peng would take the long route home from school, taking photographs of objects, people, and places as a way to make better sense of the world around her. “I’m thinking all the time,” she says. “When I see something, I react pretty fast. But I wasn’t seeking out to them consciously, it was a while before I realised that these are the things I’m interested in”.
Before she studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she graduated in 2015, Peng was completely self-taught. She says she can’t name many influences, because she was never exposed to photography books during the years she was discovering her style. “I try not to look at too many photographers because I’m scared that I’ll like them too much and start copying them,” she says.
The concept for her book, Salt Ponds, was to “bring out the aura of the work”. It includes an interview with Peng and a story she wrote about her grandmother, both with English translations, printed onto pages of milky pink paper. A game of “connect the dots” – the kind you get in children’s puzzle books – runs throughout, providing patterns as well as the page numbers, and the whole book is designed to feel a bit like a school textbook. “It’s innocent and naive, but it’s not simple,” says Peng.
Salt evaporation ponds are shallow artificial salt pans, built to extract salt from sea water. Sometimes, due to algae, the ponds change colour. They can turn vivid green, hot pink, or paler blue and purple colours. Although they are feeding grounds for many species of birds, the artificial ponds are also inhabitable for many plants and animals, who can die from ingesting too much salt. Peng was attracted to this as a metaphor for the experience of living in cities.
“You’re surrounded by these colourful reflective surfaces, like plastic, but at the same time it’s a really inhabitable place,” she explains. “It’s also hectic, and confusing, and troublesome, but at the same time you’re excited all the time.”
The title of her recent exhibition at Gallery Vacancy in Shanghai, I Have Seen Many People Although They Have Not Seen Me, also referred to the experience of being in a city. “I was trying to describe the moment where you’re in a really crowded area, and the more crowded it gets, the safer you feel,” Peng explains “You’re just standing there, observing everybody doing their own thing, and there’s a moment where you realise nobody’s watching you, and you actually feel really safe”.
Peng treated the exhibition as a space in which to experiment with the way she displays images, an approach she also takes for her Instagram account. Her main page, @ke_peng, is a mixture of personal photographs, images that interest her, and posts to promote her work. But she’s also created @plasticairlines, because she wanted to make a visual diary for the photographs she takes on her phone, of objects and places that entice her. Over time, accounts with similar aesthetics – which she describes as “subtle but complicated” – began to follow her, and now she has small community of Instagrammers who share her way of seeing.
Salt Ponds was published last month by Jiazazhi, one of the few independent publishers of contemporary photo books in China. According to Peng, independently publishing art books in China can be incredibly difficult. It can cost up to $3000 USD to purchase an ISBN number, and the state’s censorship regulations means it’s hard to predict what content will be deemed reasonable. It can also be hard to find factories that see the worth of printing just 300 copies of an art book.
Jiazazhi, which was founded in 2009 by Yanyou Di Yuan, gives young Chinese photographers the unique opportunity to publish their books as they see fit, and are committed to making high-quality publications. Peng has seen them grow from being a small online blog to a globally-recognised publisher, now publishing their 27th book. “Making this book has been a really emotional and grateful experience,” she says.