Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video is curated around a work gifted to the Australian Centre on China in the World at Australian National University. In 2014, Zhang’s friend and fellow artist Lois Conner donated one of the artist’s final paintings, Flying Machine (1994). The exhibition of this newly restored work provided an opportunity to explore Zhang’s transition from painting to video, and to reflect on the development of new media art in China toward the end of the 20th century. The exhibition also presents eight of Zhang Peili’s pioneering video works dating from 1988 to 2012, starting with 30 x 30 (1988), generally considered to be the first video work in the history of contemporary Chinese art.
30 x 30 (1988) was later followed by Zhang’s experiments with performative, durational, and text-based installations. In the piece, Zhang films his own hands in surgical gloves, breaking a thirty-by-thirty-centimeter mirror, painstakingly gluing the shards together, and then breaking and gluing it again and again against the terrazzo-tiled floor of an empty office. The video was filmed over three hours (the longest VHS tape available at the time); Zhang’s intention was to lock viewers into the exhibition space for the entirety of the piece. This absurdist representation of a banal and incomprehensible action reflected the artist’s determination to avoid political imagery and easy narratives. He intended it to be excruciating to watch: After a series of fruitless meetings planning a retrospective of the avant-garde ’85 New Wave Movement that had surged across China in the mid-1980s, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as these meetings.
In Hygiene No. 3 (1990), another work inflected by a Dada-esque sense of anarchic humor, Zhang responds sardonically to a hygiene campaign imposed by the Shanghai government in which officials inspected people’s homes. In the video, Zhang washes a live chicken for two and a half hours, again wearing surgical gloves, which lends the video a disturbingly forensic ambience and recalls his early photorealist paintings of latex gloves.
Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary (1991) presents national TV newsreader Xing Zhibin—famous for her broadcasts during the 1989 Tiananmen “incident,” as it is described in China—reading aloud every word and phrase that contains the character shuǐ (water) from a dictionary. Tedious, absurd, yet also poetic, this flood of meaningless words, freed of any context, parodies official news broadcasts and suggests the mutability of language in the hands of the state propaganda apparatus. Emerging from a society in which the preconditions for the production of video art, namely the possession of television sets and home video cameras, could not be taken for granted until the end of the 1980s, Zhang Peili satirizes the dominance of the state in the construction and communication of meaning. The domestic scale of the television screen on which the video plays symbolizes the sweeping changes that transformed Chinese society in the 1980s and 1990s, as collectivism was replaced by mass consumerism and aspirational individualism.
Q + A + Q (2012) records the real-life police interrogation of two thieves. A pair of disheveled boys have been caught attempting an armed robbery, wielding fruit knives; they are interviewed by police officers who question them in a bored manner, over and over again, to the point of absurdity. Though the questioning takes place in real time at the police station, the conversation assumes a heightened significance, as the actors in this drama are obviously aware of the camera. The temptation to create logical narratives and to imagine the larger context of the interrogation, denied by the structure of the work, is almost irresistible. Like Zhang’s earlier works, the rambling conversation is an exercise in the aesthetics of boredom—a deconstruction of the authority of language and power. Yet the video, presented on two screens set at diagonal angles, is compelling. Meanings emerge. The artist himself, in a conversation at this exhibition, said, “My work is in dialogue with the society I live in.”
Sometimes—perhaps not often enough—viewing video art is a profoundly immersive experience of the kind that only a time-based medium can provide. Bill Viola describes this magic: “…it’s not an intellectual experience, it’s a physical experience. It’s coming at your body.” At other times, while peering at a small screen in a darkened gallery, the only possible response is an overwhelming ennui. Zhang Peili provides audiences with both these seemingly mutually exclusive states. In the 1980s and 1990s, he employed an aesthetic of deadpan banality, repeating nonsensical rituals that created intentional slippages of language and meaning. Although these and his recent video installations might frustrate a 21st-century audience grown overly reliant on spectacle, this glimpse of Zhang’s work over more than twenty-five years is satisfyingly thought-provoking and often surprisingly poetic.
Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video will be on view at the Australian Centre on China in the World, at Australian National University, Canberra, through November 15, 2016.