Peng Lei in front of a piece of artwork depicting a robot and high-rise buildings
(Image credit: TBC)

Peng Lei, artist, director and front man of one of China's biggest pop bands New Pants, takes time out of his busy schedule to chat with our guest editor Xu Jinglei.

Colourful cartoon image of a duck and a mouse taking a picture of themselves

(Image credit: TBC)

Click here to see Peng Lei's work

Xu Jinglei: How do you juggle being a musician, artist, filmmaker and toyshop owner?

Peng Lei: As front man of the band New Pants, people have got to know the real me not just the musician. I like painting and I have been studying and doing so since my childhood. To be a film director was a dream when I was in college. My working principle is that if one project that I’m working on shows no sign of progressing smoothly, then I immediately move onto other projects. Thus, I would never completely run out of things to do. The essences of all my roles are more or less interconnected, and each role is beneficial to the others.

XJ: Do the same things influence you for each role?

PL: You could say that. My interests are actually quite limited: for many years, I preferred the European and American 1970s and 1980s pop culture, such as New Wave and Disco, of which I was fond during my childhood. As a result, my present work resembles and reflects this kind of culture with only slight differences in format.

XJ: Where does your interest in toys come from?

PL: When I was a little boy, I didn’t have enough money to buy a lot of toys. So after I grew up, I bought all the toys that I couldn’t afford when I was little. Collecting toys is a habit that I have developed since childhood. I think everybody is like that, if they like something, they would keep buying. Moreover, toys are a very good form of entertainment: they are not complex like people, and one can always get pure joy from them.

XJ: Choose three words that sum up your creative output?

PL: Absolute realism, duplicity, Chinese post-wave.

XJ: Who do you want your work to appeal to?

PL: My work is enjoyed by both young and old.

XJ: What does your work take from China’s cultural heritage?

PL: I am quite interested in China's feudal superstition: when I was young I liked ‘Liao Zhai’ very much. Though most Chinese people today have almost forgotten these things, I really like referring to it in my work. For instance, my first movie ‘Peking Monster’ referenced Cixi from the Qing Dynasty with some modern and funny techniques.

XJ: How are young artists, designers, architects and creative students changing Chinese culture?

PL: I think that these people are studying and imitating the West. Because of them, China is becoming more and more like the West. I don’t think this is a good thing because no-one has developed a contemporary language for Chinese art. In the last two years, the situation for modern art has improved in the sense that a distinctive ‘Chinese feel’ is gradually creeping into all kinds of art work.

XJ: We’ve recently had unprecedented insight into Chinese culture thanks to the Olympics – do you feel this is the beginning of a more open cultural relationship between China and the rest of the world?

PL: Yes, certainly. Today’s Chinese people are not as backward as the foreigners may imagine and we do hope the whole world can look at today's China with brand new eyes. The Olympic Games was really a great party that left the whole world in shock. What’s more, in a sense, the cultural environment in China is even freer than that of the Western countries.

XJ: Have you ever felt a contradiction and perplexity between art and money?

PL: In the early years, I was quite puzzled as even though I thought my work was good, it didn’t obtain much recognition, let alone make money. But things became much better, and slowly my individuality and extraordinary style have become bankable. These days I am much more open-minded: on the one hand I make products to completely meet the commercial needs of the public with little individual style. On the other, I create according to my own desires, unconcerned by money or the market. These two kinds of creative work are gradually coming together, and I hope one day they could finally merge into one.

XJ: How do you regard the Chinese traditional culture, as well as the saying of ‘Of the nation, of the world’?

PL: Chinese traditional culture is very human. Though it looks somewhat negative at present, it is actually full of attitude. No country and no age in the world would have such product. I think that ‘of the nation, not of the world’ is a better saying. Each culture should maintain its own individuality and different cultures should be given time to develop mutual understanding. I think ‘global integration’ is the worst cultural ambition.

XJ: If possible, which aspect of China's cultural environment do you hope to be better at present?

PL: I hope that the focus of the media will improve. Overseas, in countries such as Britain, the media attaches huge importance to the promotion of their cultural industries, for instance the development of their rock and roll industry. China's culture is still in something of an ‘emerge of itself and perish of itself’ condition. The Chinese media still pays major attention to those issues that have been reported on for years: grain, resources, the population problem and the like - instead, it is Chinese culture that should be reported and disseminated vigorously and endlessly.

XJ: If you could take only three things to a desert island, what would they be?

PL: Cat, tape recorder and bed.