The video works of Zhang Peili tend toward the slow, dull, and even tedious. And that’s by design. Take his groundbreaking three-hour 30 x 30 (1988)—considered the first artwork in the medium to be produced in China—which offers nothing more than a largely unchanging, cropped view of Zhang breaking a mirror and then gluing it back together. According to the catalogue for the Art Institute of Chicago’s recent exhibition “Zhang Peli: Record. Repeat”—which featured an edited thirty-two-minute version Zhang made after the original had been damaged—30 x 30’s original viewers protested after just a few minutes, and that was exactly the response the artist desired: he wanted to challenge notions of what art could and should be. The following year, he wrote an unpublished text that advocated the elimination of “connoisseurship, entertainment, theatricality, and reportage.”
Zhang, who was born in 1957 (nine years before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution), became part of ’85 New Wave, China’s largest avant-garde art movement. But just three years later, he grew disillusioned by government interference and a concern that, given historical precedents abroad, avant-garde art in China would eventually be co-opted by market forces. Formerly devoted to painting, he turned to the newfound realm of video—a medium for which no formal conventions had yet been established in China—and made his bid for aesthetic restraint as a means to counteract those governmental and commercial threats to pure art.
Zhang has worked on a large scale and created complex installations, but this show concentrated on his earlier, smaller works employing the clunky TV monitors of the time. We find him learning the properties of video and exploring the disorientation induced by repetition, as he does in Focal Distance (1996), which features eight monitors placed in a row. He began this work with footage of an unremarkable street scene in Hangzhou and then shot video of that video, repeating the process six more times. The various iterations, each shown on its own monitor, grow increasingly obscure until the image becomes an indecipherable blur.
Although Zhang mostly avoids making direct statements in his work, an undercurrent of sociopolitical commentary runs through many of his pieces, such as Document on Hygiene No. 3 (1991). This deliberately banal video of the artist washing a chicken, which is uncooperative at first but eventually gives into its bath, serves as a metaphor for the squashing of dissent and the cleansing of impure ideas in Communist Chinese society.
Zhang also examines and, in some cases, deconstructs Socialist Realist cinema. In a 2006 two-channel video ironically titled Happiness, he juxtaposes disjointed snippets of speeches by the lead character in the Cultural Revolution–era movie In the Shipyard (1975) with a recurring loop from the same film showing close-ups of four supporters ardently clapping. So we get sentences or phrases from the man speaking on the left side and then the applause segment again and again on the right. The repetitive pairings critique the sameness and predictability of such films but also seem to question whether such blind acceptance extends to other realms as well.
Coming into his own in the 1980s, when television was belatedly arriving in China and the government was learning to exploit it, Zhang found ways to both thwart the powerful medium of video and repurpose it in radical artistic ways.