Free association game: when I say “smoking”, what do you think of?
Smokers perhaps think of pleasure or dependency, whereas non-smokers may think of illness and isolation. In today’s climate, where in some societies a cigarette in hand is the equivalent of a scarlet letter, these negative associations become more and more automatic.
“Smoke and Cloud” is a photo and video exhibit by Chinese smoker Cheng Xinpeng that explores these aspects of smoking. While the exhibit’s introduction pays lip service to the long folkloric and shamanistic tradition of smoking, the pieces themselves are a take on the act that is aesthetic but heavily charged with the negative associations of lighting up in today’s society: pollution, isolation, addiction.
The exhibit has two parts. The first shows Xinpeng blowing smoke towards various objects in very large, black-and-white photographs. The objects he chooses are unambiguous and innocuous: a small toy fox, a toy airplane, a flip flop sandal and two ears of corn. He lends them an aura of mysticism by engulfing them in thick cigarette smoke--creating an opaque interference that half obscures both him and the objects, all the while wearing a particularly oblique expression himself. It’s visually appealing while being vaguely suggestive of smoke as a convoluting agent.
That suggestion is heavy-handedly confirmed in the two 20-minute video pieces that make up the exhibit's second part. The first features the artist sitting on a hard chair in the middle of an empty room, joylessly smoking cigarette after cigarette. The second piece was filmed at the opening, and there are people milling about with wine in the background while the artist blows smoke into a transparent vinyl lotus flower, turning it from crystalline to opaque by the 15th demented cigarette. The lotus flower is a symbol of purity in China, and Xinpeng sits for 20 minutes, intently and methodically corrupting the cherished symbol.
At this point I began to wonder aloud if I could light up myself; I was denied. And as I watched the fascinating second video I realized that the piece wouldn’t be at all the same if the other people socializing in the background were smoking. Xinpeng is the only one, isolated and abstractly offensive, though only to a slightly greater degree than all smokers are at some point. This feeling will particularly resonate if you’re a smoker who’s lived in Europe or the U.S., if you’ve ever gone outside alone to smoke a cigarette at a party or been asked by a tearful child who’s just completed the DARE program why you smoke. By taking his ostracism to such an extreme, Xinpeng provokes us into looking at him the way that many non-smokers look at us smokers: as willful polluters, as isolated and inveterate corruptors of atmosphere.
Sala de Arte SAM
Metro la Moneda
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10:00-13:30 / 14:30-19:00
Exhibition until 22nd October