Zhang Peili earned his reputation as the father of video art in China for his response to an invitation to create a new work for the historic Huangshan Conference on modern art in 1988. He borrowed video equipment – which was, at the time, hard to come by – from friends at the customs bureau and used it to film his latex-gloved hands breaking a mirror and then meticulously gluing the shards back into place. The unedited video, titled 30 x 30, is three hours long, and is generally accepted as the first work of video art created in China.
Zhang’s retrospective, ‘Certain Pleasures’, should therefore have been a straightforward affair, confirming his place as the patriarch of Chinese video art. Indeed, his resumé seems to suggest it: in 2003, the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou founded the first department of New Media Art under Zhang’s direction, and his influence over subsequent generations is uncontested. But ‘Certain Pleasures’ opened nearly a year after the initiation of the School of Intermedia Art at the China Academy of Art, which saw his Department of New Media toppled and re-absorbed as one studio among many within the new school. Zhang was re-installed alongside various younger artists and curators, all of whom also lay claim to sizable stakes in the history of new media art in China. What is contested then, is the very legacy of new media art, and ‘Certain Pleasures’ also coincided with significant commercial and academic re-evaluations of Zhang’s work. What this retrospective made clear is that his oeuvre has never been neatly contained within the confines of video: the pieces shown encompassed performance, photography, installation and electronic art. The artist’s interest in the social dimensions of alternative art forms, as well as his emphasis on the disconnect between image and reality, have remained constant over the years.
The museum’s main hall was given over to enormous installations including A Gust of Wind (2008), in which five screens projected the staged destruction of a bourgeois living room, while visitors could meander among the actual remnants of the destruction. This piece belongs to a working method which Zhang began experimenting with in 2008 that he called ‘the scene’, juxtaposing a filmed reality with its physical trappings. A Gust of Wind is sprawling, and accusations that the artist’s later work is bloated (quite literally, in A Necessary Cube, 2011, in which a silver bag expands to fill a cavernous gallery) are not without justification.
The survey traced Zhang’s career loosely in reverse, with more recent mega-installations leading to mid-career video works such as Screen I (1997), which takes a more aesthetic approach to parsing the role of synthesis in the production of reality. Watermark (2004), for example, features a photograph of water droplets mounted in a light-box next to an hour-long video of the water droplets evaporating. As the exhibition ventured further into Zhang’s past, screens multiplied, such as in Assignment No. 1 (1992) and Focal Distance (1996), where the use of multi-channel video installations served to both intensify and defuse their content in an amplification of medium over message.
But it is Zhang’s early career that is both essential to understanding the artist and the biggest liability of this retrospective. His early works were shown with little contextual material and the exhibition’s narrative suffered for it. For example, from 1986 to 1987 Zhang was a member of the Pond Society, a six-man group that staged performative interventions around Hangzhou, yet the 1988 piece Brown Cover Document No. 1 was the only one here that spoke directly to his tangle with performance art. Furthermore, the crucial early work Document on Hygiene No. 3 (1991), an absurdist nod to a 1991 nationwide hygiene campaign, was treated as a video work rather than as the mixed-media installation Zhang originally conceived. And with the exception of X? (1986), an oil painting of his calling card – the latex glove, Zhang’s early paintings and his involvement with the school of rational painting were similarly jettisoned.
Although these omissions streamlined the show within the scope of new media, they ultimately did a disservice to Zhang’s practice, which has never been limited to the question of medium itself. As a symbol, the glove is useful in understanding this: in the beginning of his career, he obsessed over it, painting empty gloves dissected by numbered lines again and again. To Zhang, the glove symbolizes institutional pressure, an unnatural surgical barrier of control and containment. And at their best, his works achieve the exact opposite effect, widening narrow discourses, as in his groundbreaking first explorations in video, and works like Water: Standard Edition of Cihai (1991), in which Xing Zhibin, anchorwoman for the national evening news, reads from a dictionary in perfect news broadcaster Chinese. The work liberates the diction and rhythms of official-ese, restoring language to the realm of art – just as ‘Certain Pleasures’ was a meaningful gesture toward a similar restoration of Zhang’s legacy.