‘Amber’: A look at Peng Ding's art from the outside

Chinese artist Peng Ding's bleak vision of the future is explored through his art practice.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Apr 06, 2021

The canons of artistic practice have historically created broad and narrow classifications, that, while allowing for nuanced studies of artists and projects that fall within their confines, have also served to block out the inclusion of certain practitioners and their works. The question of inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity within the art world is an age-old one, and it is ironic to consider that several well-established artistic movements, exhibition formats and distribution channels have all arisen, in part at least, in order to militate against the gatekeeping that they too invariably have fallen prey to. Truthfully, what often serves to limit access to these groupings is not the absence of quality of skill or clarity of vision on part of the artist, but rather, their lack of ‘proper’ qualifications. However, things are not quite so bleak; in fact, we may live in the most wildly inclusive era in creativity, owing to the accessibility of the internet as a distribution tool. This allows many artists whose creative skill may have otherwise been ignored, suppressed or wilfully moulded by the arts academy at large, access to their own niche audiences, on their own terms, and in an environment of their own shaping. Peng Ding, who is from China, and lives in Milan, is one such emergent practitioner, who has not breached the arts as a professional category as yet. He has aspirations of becoming a full-time creative, but as of now works towards supporting himself as a designer while fulfilling his major in landscape architecture. This has not deterred him in the slightest though, and he is gaining some acclaim on social media for his artistic talent.

Discarded plastic bottles surround a human figure in <em>Amber</em> installation by Peng Ding | STIRworld
Discarded plastic bottles surround a human figure in Amber installation Image: Peng Ding

One of Ding’s few but potent artistic projects that is currently available for viewing is Amber, a work that makes use of discarded plastic bottles to surround a human figure, photographed in various poses. These images sometimes feature the figure fighting in futility to avoid being fully submerged, and sometimes, he has already lost. The artist tells STIR, “Amber is an installation that talks about plastic pollution and shows the possible effect of plastic products on the human future”. Ding was inspired by the nature documentary Blue Planet 2, which debuted across BBC channels in 2017, and is narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The programme’s social impact with regards to increasing awareness of rising plastic pollution levels is considered to be so great that its memetic spread has been dubbed the ‘Blue Planet effect’. Ding was particularly affected by a segment which displayed a turtle trapped in plastic bags, and it would seem, reversed the script in a sense, with Amber. Ding elaborates, “The main material of this artwork is plastic bottles, which I collected from my roommates. It took me almost three months to acquire enough for my work. Then, I used scotch tape to connect these bottles and the final size of this cube is about 1.2mX1.2mX1.2m.” One wonders why he specifically chose to use plastic bottles, and he explains that he would see these lying around discarded often, and initially did not have a specific plan for them in mind, but simply knew that he did not want to allow them to go to waste.

The size of the cube for <em>Amber</em> is about 1.2mX1.2mX1.2m | Amber by Peng Ding | STIRworld
The size of the cube for Amber is about 1.2mX1.2mX1.2m Image: Peng Ding

It is tempting to place Ding’s Amber within the admittedly broad grouping of contemporary art, yet this would be somewhat disingenuous as the artist himself does not make any allusions to a wish for genre-admittance, and furthermore, doing so would deny Ding his place as a practitioner who, as of now, operates from outside the boundaries of established creative lineage. When asked what artists have inspired him, he simply says that he has no idea how to conclusively answer the question. However, he mentions that he is captivated by art that can perpetuate within him complex emotions, and names Cai Guo-Qiang, Erwin Wurm, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Marina Abramovic as having created work that has enthralled him in the past. It is worth noting that at least one of these practitioners, Cai Guo-Qiang, is considered a part of the contemporary art movement, and that Amber certainly carries the apocalyptic weight of what could be a Hirst piece, if not the typically massive scale or production costs. In fact, one may argue that it is such a highly effective piece not only because of the disturbing, and perhaps prescient vision of a trash-saturated future it presents, but also because of the simplicity with which it confronts its themes as well as its audience: Amber is just under four-feet in height on any of its sides, and it would seem that it does not so much occupy the space it sits in, as much as live within it, sharing it intimately with its viewer.

Amber 3 by Peng Ding | STIRworld
Amber by Peng Ding Image: Peng Ding

Over the course of Amber’s creation, Ding consulted with two of his associates: Lingxia Wang, who is also currently located in Milan and is pursuing a major in Language and Cultures, and Jianqiang Li, a PhD student of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Like the artist, neither are formally creatives yet but as he mentions, their perspectives and observations were invaluable in Amber’s production process.

<em>Amber</em> talks about plastic pollution and shows the possible effect of plastic products on the human future | STIRworld
Amber talks about plastic pollution and shows the possible effect of plastic products on the human future Image: Peng Ding

Ding looks to the future and expresses a sense of excitement and commitment to keeping his work small-scale. He is as yet unsure of what exact path his creative journey will lead him on, “as a newbie in art, all directions attract me equally and I want to try everything interesting. However, considering my current income, I will choose art projects with lower cost and easy implementation”. Looking at Amber, it is easy to forget that Ding is a relatively new practitioner, and that this is just his fourth offering. He had begun to create art in July of 2020, and his earliest work dealt with the coronavirus quarantine and the anxiety and dissatisfaction it caused him. Since then, his work has continued to interrogate themes that speak to both, the individual audience as well as the larger human condition, and it will be fascinating to see where he goes with his musings. For now, however, financial stability must come before creative flight for Ding, and he ends the interview with this simple statement: “I have no clear plan for pursuing art in the near future, but I will continue to create new works.”

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