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Issue 223

Peng Zuqiang Finds Meaning in Small Gestures

The artist’s poignant solo exhibition, part of Antenna Space's Antenna-tenna programme in Shanghai, captures queer life through fleeting touches and whispered speech

BY Alvin Li in Reviews Across Asia | 21 SEP 21

Comprised of only two works – the five-channel video installation Keep in Touch (2021) and a single sculptural object – artist Peng Zuqiang’s first-ever solo exhibition, ‘Hesitations’, is poignantly concise. Spread across two floors of a villa-turned-boutique furniture studio, it dwells on oftentimes neglected moments of everyday queer life – silence and melody, gazing and touching, gossip and rumour – to amplify the social and political resonances of these minor modes of communication.

Peng Zuqiang, Keep in Touch, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

The five vignettes of Keep in Touch (2021) – all under four minutes and all but one shot on Super 8 – depict intimate scenarios based on loose scripts sketched out by the artist, performed and largely improvised by friends met during a residency in Maine. Underlying is a critique of contemporary mainstream visibility and the way it works to produce and acknowledge some proper subjects to the exclusion of others. The artist responds to this representational episteme through an exceptional use of close-ups that fragment the bodies on screen – formally disavowing the complete or coherent subject – as well as by casting strictly non-white bodies, situating the work firmly in a lineage of artistic practices concerned with ‘minor’ and minoritarian aesthetics and politics.

Peng Zuqiang, Keep in Touch, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

In one of the most striking scenarios, two men, one Asian and one Black, step outside an overheating car in a forest and wait for it to cool down. Bored by the silence, one of them gets back into the vehicle and puts on a CD. As a house track starts blaring out, the otherwise dull atmosphere is suddenly charged with energy, and their gazes begin to gleam with an erotic ambiguity. Such ephemeral gestures, while often deemed trivial, are integral to queer lives as historical evidence. So too is rumour: elsewhere the artist eavesdrops on gossip – the informal talk through which discussions of homosexuality have always circulated. A small TV set placed on the gallery floor shows two pairs of hands, this time seen playing cat’s cradle, accompanied by a conversation in which two friends share their experiences of queer encounters and aggressions. Here, a silent game that involves constant failing and parsing becomes a symbol of interpersonal interaction more generally, just as gossip opens up room for intimacy and solace.

Peng Zuqiang, ‘Hesitations’, 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Other vignettes broach mundane instances of touch. A projection displays two pairs of hands, which we see cutting each other’s nails to a soundtrack of frantic yet rhythmic glitches, while a television set on the gallery balcony presents a moving camera following another pair of hands as they apply Tiger Balm to soothe mosquito bites. By probing the violence that such small contacts can both occasion and shield from, Peng departs from the commonsense romanticization of touch as bodily intimacy, evoking its varied effects and ramifications for different bodies split along sexual, racial and gendered hierarchies.

Peng Zuqiang, Keep in Touch, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

On July 6th 2021, dozens of major university LGBTQ+ rights groups found that their subscription accounts on WeChat – currently the most popular social media platform in China – had been suspended and scrubbed of all content overnight. The account names had been replaced by the uniform designation ‘Unnamed Account’. This was the latest episode in the country’s erratic approach to LGBTQ+ policies since decriminalizing homosexuality in 1997. One might question, against such a moment of silencing, the efficacy of an artist’s turn to minute gestures and moments of contact. But Peng may have an answer to that ready in the exhibition’s Chinese title, which would more directly translate as ‘Moments Yet to Be Named’. Rather than a withdrawal, Peng’s exhibition, to me, is a call to resistance: reminding us of the insurgent potential of the illegibility that continually returns to haunt wild and precarious things.

Main image: Peng Zuqiang, Keep in Touch, 2021, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor of frieze, and The Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai, China.