Photos from Jiang Pengyi toy with light

Photographer Jiang Pengyi turns everyday objects into art by using the interplay of light

Experimental photographer Jiang Pengyi's art is derived from commerce, in a manner of speaking.

To source for the materials - Polaroid and photographic films, and fluorescent paper - for the work in his latest exhibition, Intimacy, he turned to online shopping websites including eBay and its equivalent in China, Taobao.

"You can buy almost anything from Taobao. Five boxes of film cost only 1,000 yuan (S$200)," says the 37-year-old Hunan-born photographer.

"I take an interest in the scraps of daily life. There's a lot of good you can mine from it. The trick is separating it from the mundane."

The elevating of quotidian objects into art using the interplay of light is a sleight-of-hand that he excels at, attracting galleries in Berlin and New York to exhibit his works.

His previous works also comment on environmental destruction. The Everything Illuminates (2012) series, where he used long exposure methods to photograph a mixture of hot wax and phosphorescent powder, draws a pointed parallel with the industrial waste flowing into China's rivers.

In the Unregistered City photograph series (2008), he digitally constructed dioramas of ruin and disrepair from urban detritus, in photographs of settings such as abandoned rooms and a disused bathtub.

In the Intimacy exhibition, now on display at the Shanghart Gallery here till May 17, his art continues to distort and toy with light, surfacing things unseen or passed over.

"Intimacy reflects my relationship with the work and the medium of photography. The setting I created it in was a very intimate one - the darkroom. I went inside and it was almost like my body moved involuntarily," he says.

He spent three to four months experimenting on the series, overlaying light-absorbent fluorescent paper on photographic film. The effect - shimmering pastel gradients punctured by the occasional streaks of neon, evocative of novas radiating in deep space.

"I wanted this to be a more naturalistic work. Fluorescent paper was ideal as it absorbs light and glows on its own. So I had no idea what I would get. The interaction of daily things produces effects that can be subtle yet gorgeous," says Jiang, who once trapped fireflies in a black box and shot them at a slow shutter speed.

In an essay on Jiang's work, Chinese art scholar Luan Zhichao wrote that Jiang seeks "a complete break from conventional understanding and true newness... for this reason, he features everyday objects in his works without any narrative setting".

The abstruse, experimental approach to photography is due to the lack of formal training.

Jiang, the younger of two sons of a teacher and civil servant, says: "Everything that I know, I tried it out myself."

Growing up in Hunan province in China, he first encountered the camera at age seven, when his mother's friend brought it to his home.

"I was so intrigued by this machine that was so much more intricate than a toy. I spent hours playing with it," he recalls.

After high school, he followed the path of his elder brother and enrolled at the China Academy of Art in 1999, where he studied fine arts, before finding work as a photographer at an advertising firm in Beijing. He spent two years there before switching to photography full-time.

"I enjoy photography a lot. Every time I produce a work, it's my intention to do something vastly different. If something comes too easily to me, then I know I have to change what I'm doing," says the Beijing-based Jiang.

But the serious artist also has his moments of levity. Asked about his marital status, he cracks a smile and says: "I'm single. Why, would you like to matchmake me with someone?"

jianxuan@sph.com.sg