Framed Art

Zhang Peili: the original video artist of China

Chen Chao
Zhang Peili stands in the cavernous darkness of an old warehouse. Were it not for a thin sliver of light that has crept in through a crack in the door, tracing a faint outline of his stolid figure, we would not be able to see the man revered by some as ‘the father of video art in China’ at all. nor the metal shelves behind him, neatly stacked with transparent plastic cases containing DVDs of his nearly three-decade-long career.

Two years on from a major career retrospective at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, it is inside this old warehouse that Zhang’s work is being systematically archived for the first time in China, making his weighty body of work available to the public. The laborious undertaking is being made by small non-profit outfit ‘Video Bureau’ – its name a sardonic nod to the fact that there are no state-sanctioned institutions for the preservation of video work in China.

‘Video has revolutionised how we live – how we engage with the world and how we receive and process information,’ enthuses Zhang (pictured). The still image, he says, cannot ‘convey the passing of time’ in the way that video does. This, along with the way that camera-equipped smartphones have democratised video art, is what makes the medium significant. ‘[But] there are only a handful of scholars studying video art in China, and a complete lack of archives. There is more scholarship about Chinese video art abroad than there is in this country. It’s a pity.’ It is in part for this reason that Zhang has agreed to have his work archived on DVD at the Video Bureau, despite acknowledging that a small monitor is no replacement for his monumental site-specific installations.

Zhang began his career as a painter. ‘When I was a student, our choices were confined to oil painting and traditional Chinese painting. Video was not even considered a legitimate medium for art, even though contemporary artists in the West had been experimenting with it for 20 years.’ His first video work, made in 1988, owed as much to happy coincidence as it did to Zhang’s industrious inquisitiveness. At the time, video cameras were hard to come by, and were it not for a friend who worked at the customs bureau serendipitously confiscating one, Zhang would not have been able to create the work at all.

The resulting piece, ‘30 x 30’, is considered the first work of video art in China. ‘At the time, I didn’t even regard it as video art,’ Zhang muses. When we tell him that his career spans the entire history of video art in the country, he gets fidgety. ‘My concern is whether I can convey what I want to through video art, and if not, through what media other than video art I might be able to convey my ideas. Which is not to say that I’ve given up on video art – video art’s still meaningful to me, unlike painting.’

The core of Zhang’s continued enthusiasm is, he says, the belief that the meanings of his works do not belong exclusively to him at all. ‘The meaning of a video cannot be said to be subject to the artist’s will,’ he explains, noting that one of the characteristics that distinguishes video art from cinema is a viewer’s ability to walk away from a work at any moment. ‘The artist’s choices are like an empty bowl – the artist gives the viewer a bowl, and it is up to the viewer what “food” they want to fill it with. So at the very least, the viewer shares with the artist the right to create the meaning of a work.’

For Zhang, the archiving of his work at the Video Bureau is simply another part in this process. As we wrap up the interview, the door is pulled closed, and the room is plunged into darkness. We can no longer make out the figure of Zhang Peili. He is enveloped in a fertile darkness that gives life to his fleeting, flickering images.

Tuning in

Zhang Peili reveals the three works he would use as an introduction to his career

‘30 x 30’ (1988)
Single channel. Three hours of the repeated smashing and gluing back together of a mirror that measures 30 inches by 30 inches. ‘For a long time the piece toiled in obscurity. no one understood what I wanted to do. If I had known that that piece would fetch such a high price today, I wouldn’t have sold it so soon!’

‘Uncertain Pleasure’ (1996)
Four channels across 12 screens. The anguished scratching of various body parts in close-up. ‘It doesn’t need lengthy explanations; anyone can respond to the work itself, both physically and culturally. Relatively speaking, it’s a simple work.’

‘A Gust of Wind’ (2008)
Five channels. The destruction of a bourgeois living room, in which visitors can meander among the literal remains of the debris.‘It adopts cinematic techniques and presents a theatrical scene. It emerged from my desire to make a change in video art: I wanted to use a poetic, cinematic language to create my works.’

Interview conducted by Ziren Lin.

Zhang Peili is the featured artist at the Video Bureau until Thursday 26.