Pei Li: The Portal
“When someone accepts death, all the chaos of life gives way to peace.”
In 2017, at the time of the Qingming Festival, Pei Li took her son to visit the grave of her grandpa. The cemetery was filled with tombstones each with the customary portrait photo above the deceased’s name. Her son asked what these things were for.
‘I thought for maybe just five seconds and told him “They are portals. People pay for a portal with their name on it, and after they die, they go to the other world through this door. Here in this world, we use paper to make all kinds of things like money, houses, cars, and jewellery, which we burn as an offering for them. Through the doorway to the other world, my grandpa receives all the things we send him, and has a happy life there.”’
Pei Li’s grandpa passed away in 2016. ‘After living through denial, sorrow and anger, I found myself in a state of depression. I loved my grandpa very much, even though he was strict with me. It was he who launched me on my art career, sending me to study traditional Chinese painting every week with different teachers. I had to practice every day; it was a good habit to develop.’
In 2004, when Pei Li entered China Art Academy, she chose to study new media art. ‘I stopped making paintings and instead painted on walls, on paper, on human skin… Different surfaces using different materials, all erased in the end. I kept nothing, just enjoyed the process of painting. When I learned my grandpa had passed away, I went back to my hometown. I only stayed three days, returning to Beijing after the cremation as I needed to finish my Ph.D dissertation. Alone in my dark study room, I was consumed by incredible sadness. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t write, so I began to make paintings. The process made me think of my grandpa and gave me peace.’
Like the film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Pei Li says that her grandpa’s death prompted her to reflect on her existence as an artist, and on how to present the feelings she experienced. This resulted in the four works that are included in “Portal”.
The main piece in the exhibition is “Portal”, a wall of skulls, conceived after Pei Li’s own fashion and containing 104 small paintings depicting a total of 394 skulls. The material here is oil paint on aluminium. ‘One day, when I was working on an installation at a factory, I noticed some aluminum plate lying in the corner,’ she explains. ‘I decided to try using them. I have done many tests. The texture of each aluminum plate is different. Sometimes, what I decide to paint depends entirely on the texture.’ This can be seen in the second work, a painting of clouds on the wall opposite the skulls.
The third element is a sound installation that imagines ‘the sound of emptiness’. The final part is a video work, showing the process of making the wall, with the artist interviewing herself about her concept and the impulses behind the other three works.
About the Artist
Pei Li was born in 1985 in Changzhou, Jiangsu. She graduated from Central Academy of Fine Art to study in Experimental Art Department with a Ph. D in 2016. Currently she lives and works in Beijing and Guangzhou. Pei Li’s sole exhibitions include: “The Third Part: grey co.”, Banana Art Space, Nanjing, 2018; “Greater New York, Klein Sun Gallery, New York, 2016; “Ms P Project”, KoGo Art Space, Hangzhou,2014; “Project P”, 798 Look Art Space, Beijing, 2013; “Generation P”, Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, Beijing, 2012; “#9: Pei Li”, Taikang Space, Beijing, 2010.
Since 2007, Pei Li’s works have been seen on many group exhibitions, include: Death-head Moth in the 2nd “CAFAM Future” Exhibition, Beijing, 2015; Ms Lonely, Future Returns in “Contemporary Art from China”, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, US, 2014; “Ms Lonely, Remix”, Bury Art Museum, Manchester, UK, 2014; “All that is Solid Melts into Air”, Kabuso Art Museum, Norway, 2013; Isn’t Something Missing? in “Fat Art: Hive”, Today Museum, Beijing, 2011.