We will have the great opportunity to have studio visits with Zhang Peili on June 21 and 22nd. He will give an artist talk on June 20th.
Mid-1980s (The Pond Group)
A graduate of Zhejiang Art Academy (as it was known before 1993), Zhang had studied oil painting and gained his first notoriety as a member of the Pond Group, which included painter Geng Jianyi and a dozen others. In overnight guerrila actions in 1986, the group twice tried to engage the general public with art by putting up oversize human silhouettes (once in papier-mache on a wall, once in free-standing cardboard), the white figures striking tai-chi poses in outdoors areas used for that exercise every morning by the people of Hangzhou.
Zhang and his fellow artists then turned to more private endeavors. One of Zhang’s first solo pieces involved his tacking up sheets of paper bearing intricate instructions for an action in which several people obesrved through a peephole while two others engaged in a highly regulated dialogue (Art Project 2, 1987). He also painted many subdued oil-on-canvas studies of isolated objects–gloves, a saxophone–and, during a 1988 hepatitis outbreak, Zhang mailed rubber gloves to his acquaintances and displayed some, evidencing various states of damage, in grids under glass.Hands working in gloves figured prominently in Zhang’s initial video, 30 x 30 (1988), one of the earliest if not the very first art video made in China. Taking its inspiration from patience-trying works by Warhol, Nauman, and others, it depicts–from a single, fixed point of view–gloved hands breaking a mirror, laboriously gluing the fragments back together, and then breaking the pane again. The title refers in deadpan, high modernist fashion to the size of the glass (thirty centimeters square), and the performance goes on for an intentionally mind-numbing three hours. (Zhang made the piece to test the bona fides of his colleagues at a conference on experimental art.)
Document on “Hygiene” No. 3 (1991), thought to be the first art video shown in a public venue in the People’s Republic (it appeared in a 1991 exhibition in an underground garage in Shanghai), continues the concern with absurdly ritualized behavior, a constant theme in China from the imperial past to the Communist present. Shot at a time when the government was promoting public sanitation as a patriotic duty, the video work shows Zhang repeatedly washing a compliant hen.
Two years later, in a related vein, Zhang persuaded the well-known state TV news anchor Xing Zhibin, a woman of impeccable demeanor and diction, to read from a dictionary every word beginning with “water” (Water–Standard Version from the Ci Hai Dictionary, 1992). With disastrous floods much in the news, she delivers her methodical, nonsensical stream of words with the impassivity expected of a professional television broadcaster.
The fascination that some painters find in seriality Zhang seems to discover in repetition, occasionally reinforced by installations using numerous monitors. During the 1990s his focus was on common acts: toy penguins endlessly climbing stairs and sliding down a ramp (Children’s Playground, 1996), human body scratching (Uncertain Pleasure, 1996), a man consuming a meal as recorded in multiple tight close-ups (Eating, 1997), and couples executing their ballroom maneuvers (Endless Dancing, 1999).
But of late Zhang’s emphasis has been on appropriated footage, edited and combined to subvert its original meaning. Actor’s Lines (2002) lifts a scene from Wang Pei’s 1964 propaganda classic Soldiers Under Neon Lights. An exchange in which a patriotic soldier tries to win the confidence of a troubled young man is repeated and repeated, while the characters’ words are also multiply echoed until the patriotic scene becomes a Dadaist exercise.
In the dual-screened Last Words (2003), death scenes from various Chinese movies are endlessly reiterated until neither death nor life seems to have any finality. Charge (2004), a montage of clips from Chinese and American war films, shows officers ordering their embattled troops to attack. The juxtaposition stresses a formal similiarity in sign-systems and a humanist message affirming that we are all the same in certain situations. And in Happiness (2006), statements uttered by characters on one screen elicit wild applause from crowds on another screen, excerpted from a different movie. Nowhere in Zhang’s oeuvre, so attuned to the transmogrifications his country is undergoing, does authenticity seem certain, or even feasible.
Emergence & Reception
Zhang’s popularity in the West came early relative to other artists of his generation. By 1999, when few contemporary Chinese artists were known to Europe and the United States, Zhang’s work had been seen in several high-profile Asian-themed group shows–including “Cities on the Move” (1998, Museum of Modern Art, Helsinki) and “Inside Out: New Chinese Art”(1998, Asia Society, New York)–as well as at Art Basel and the Sydney and Venice biennials.