The Creative Process Of St. Louis Artist Marina Peng
Artist Marina Peng makes art in a haunted church. Or, rather, she makes art in the upper level of what used to be a church, in a studio she shares with woodwork designer Collin Garrity. Natural light diffuses through the old space in South St. Louis, its latticework peeping out from missing patches of the ceiling and walls. Across the street, a venerable brick residence is boarded up with plywood, the late-summer trees shifting with a wind that seems to come from nowhere.
So, too, do Peng’s minimalist installations exude a calm, ghostly quality. In “A Soft Void,” the semblance of rippling water is projected onto a collection of smooth, white stones below. In “Stable Consciousness,” an image of moving clouds appears upon a pleated window shade against a skeletal frame of 2x4s. “I’ve been thinking about inactivity and how it relates to complacency, doing nothing and being comfortable with it,” says Peng, recounting a fallow period in May that ultimately proved quite fecund.
Peng’s countenance could be described as friendly but measured—she seems older than her years, in the same way that the integrity and consistency of her work would seem the output of an MFA, not BFA, program recently completed. But Peng finished her undergrad at Washington University’s Sam Fox School mere months ago, following it this summer with a residency at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. “I was really just doing a lot of experimenting there, and started working with the digital,” she explains. With “Perpetual Noise,” a birch plywood box houses an iPhone playing the static common to radio and television. In “Downcast,” twin plastic-dome security cameras hang from the wall. They aren’t real, but when strategically placed, that couldn’t matter less. “The point is to make people walking into the gallery hyper-aware of their actions,” says Peng. “I’m not filming their reactions. But I am there observing.”
On October 20, these cameras will be one of the works displayed at Peng’s first post-grad solo exhibition at Kansas City’s 50/50 gallery. Called “Take Care,” the show’s centerpiece will be a multimedia installation depicting St. Louis artist Vaughn Davis as an anxious gallery attendant watching over a pile of black rocks equivalent to his body weight. “As an undergrad, I was more invested in work pertaining to my own identity,” Peng reflects of her Chinese-American, Louisiana-born and St. Louis-raised background. “But for this show I wanted to take it out of myself. My work has always focused on making people more aware of their implicit bias.” On the white wall, a life-size image of Davis’ face and neck seems to creep from a shadow, silently gazing at the camera as though protecting the rocks below.
“I’ve definitely been influenced by artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in terms of representing people with objects,” says Peng. “I’ve also been inspired by artists like Mona Hatoum, who’s Palestinian and often incorporates a kind of unwelcoming materiality, like pins and human hair.”
Transforming the overlooked into something magical seems part of an ethos that transcends her actual artwork. “When we got to this abandoned church, it was really full of crap,” she laughs. “It was such a strange place. We rehabbed it over the last nine months.” As the sun sets outside, Peng’s faux cameras stare from across the wall—a presence of a piece with the spirit of the building. What is surveillance, after all, if not a modern-day form of haunting, the uncanny sense that one is being watched by some force unseen, who may not always have the best intentions?
All photography courtesy of Marina Peng.