-- Written by Monica Dematté
Peng Xiangjie 彭祥杰 is maybe the thinnest person I ever met in my life. Touching his shoulder one has the feeling to put the hand directly on a piece of iron – not even the skin seems to exist. This is not the result of a deliberate diet, though: he is always chewing something and does not restrict in any way his access to food. When asked whether he had always been like that, he told me a story of when he was young, and one day got a ride on a truck heading back to Xi’an from the countryside. The truck driver deliberately took advantage of a pause to let him behind, and he had to spend the night walking and shivering along the road on a mountain, panicking all alone. When he finally got home, he fell sick and lost weight, and never really recovered after that experience.
Earlier on, when he was still a small boy, he run away from his parents’ house, who had moved to Sha’anxi from Dongbei, and went back by himself to his grandfather house, managing very adventurously to find it. To do so, he learned to lead the life of a homeless child, surviving with the little food he could steal or earn collecting all sorts of things, and he then got experienced in using the many little tricks one needs in these critical situations. When he got to Dongbei he was sent back home, and apparently never repeated the experience again.
I generally do not believe in casualness, and here especially it can be no chance that the three subjects Li Mei has chosen out of Peng Xiangjie’s repertoire, all deal with nomadic people and experiences. The ‘Circus’ series is maybe the most explicit in this respect, but even the ‘Cotton harvest’ in Xinjiang and the ‘Children selling flowers’ all have to do with humans who have left the security of their house and are far from their domestic habits.
I feel that the subject concerning the ‘Circus’ is the strongest, and the most unusual: there are several Chinese photographers who have occasionally taken photos of the many shows around the countryside, but few have followed one troupe so extensively as Peng has. As he says, he has learned from his ‘teacher’ Hou Dengke to dedicate himself thoroughly to one subject, showing every aspect of it. Not only, for example, has he followed one specific troupe during their tour, he has even gone back to the village they and many other groups origin from, in order to get an insight of their background.
Once started his ‘mission’, Peng is very determinate and stubborn in taking it to the latest extent. I in first person, and I am sure all the viewers, are thankful for giving us such a deep insight of these social happenings, which, being ‘on the move’, ‘floating’, would otherwise hardly be known This said, what attracts me in Peng Xiangjie’s photos is not the hard work underneath them, nor the sociological approach or the novelty of the subjects, neither their exoticism. I like them because they move me, because there is a poetic quality in them, which, I have to say, enables the ‘pupil’ to surpass his ‘teacher’ in many occasions. This ‘poetic’ quality, which here is purely visual, cannot be translated into the verbal language: I will therefore not describe the images as they can talk by themselves.
Moreover, the author has managed to get the most important characteristic out of these three subjects. The photos of the nomadic troupe – the circus – possess a rhythm which goes well with the hectic activity of this group of young and exuberant people. The athletic quality of their body, the rapidity of their movements, even the exaggeration of their facial traits – nearly masks under the heavy make-up – are captivated with lightness and a ‘dancing’ hand.
A rhythm which is made, as a metaphor of life, of melancholy and sorrow followed by sudden laughter, of the daily training’s hardship intertwined with light-hearted moments of oblivion, for instance when consuming the meal on the back of the truck, or when waking up in the open air after a night slept underneath the stars…
More information: cargocollective.com/PengXiangjie