Wang Peng enacted the very first-known performance work in China, in 1984. His work is underpinned by a steadfast resolve to challenge the conventions and boundaries of art.
Gate is the record of an event in 2001. Invited to an exhibition, Gate: An Exhibition of Wang Peng’s Performance and Video Art, guests were ushered into a large space only to find it empty, except for a monitor. As we see in the final work that documents the action, once everybody is inside, Wang Peng secures the gallery doors with the strongest chain and padlock he can find, but leaves the key with the mystified shop keeper. The monitor inside the space shows images of those outside trying to get in, whilst a monitor outside shows the increasing fury of those inside who begin to realise that they have been locked in the gallery, as well as their mounting panic and violence, directed at the artist as much as at the door, in their attempts to escape. The performance only ended after the door had finally been violently broken down by the audience. Many of his contemporaries have never forgiven him for the work.
Peng originally conceived Passing Through as a performance piece about the state of ‘passing through’ while a transitory visitor on an artist residency in Vermont in 1996. Passing Through New York is the first version and engages with the high public profile contemporary art enjoyed in New York. Struck by the respectful acceptance of artistic practice and the right to freedom of expression, Peng set out to illustrate this by taking a line for a walk in a literal sense. Concealing a ball of string in his jacket, the video shows Peng as he walks seemingly oblivious to the confusion he leaves in his wake as the string unravels behind him. Passers-by regard Peng with curiosity, surprise, very occasionally with irritation, but no one makes any attempt to interfere with the string, or to question what he is doing.
The reworking of Passing Through New York, almost a decade later, in Beijing, is timely. On the surface, contemporary art has acquired a degree of legitimacy that could not have been imagined in 1997. To his surprise, Beijing residents reacted in many ways similar to the New Yorkers. Yet, looking beyond the superficial similarities in their responses, the lack of direct interference or confrontation – which surprised Wang Peng most of all – relates to an aspect of Chinese social behaviour that has nothing to do with an understanding of art. Had they been asked, not one of the Beijing passers-by would have conceived of Wang Peng’s piece of string as a work of art. Instead, their reaction was entirely in keeping with the boundaries of interpersonal relationships. By placing these two versions of Passing Through side by side, it is possible to understand the subtle nuances that are less about differences between people than the social conditioning to which they are subject.