Art

The Subversive Works of China’s First Video Artist

Zhang Peili, who’s having his first American retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, rejects the government’s use of media for entertainment and propaganda.

Zhang Peili, still from “Document on Hygiene No. 3” (1991) (all images courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

CHICAGO — In 1991, one of China’s most famous news broadcasters, the now retired Xing Zhibin, appeared in a video where she recited a long list of dictionary entries under 水 (shuĭ), or water. The different definitions rolled off her tongue like everyday news items, presented in her usual clear, deadpan manner. The person who recruited her for this curious segment was Zhang Peili, credited as the first Chinese artist to work in video; the resulting piece, “Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary,” is one of his earliest creations, and one of his most iconic. Subverting the language and aesthetics of official state media, it presents an illusion of absolute reality that slyly offers multiple truths.

Zhang Peili, “Eating” (1997), from Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. at the Art Institute of Chicago

It’s one of the unmissable pieces in Zhang’s current solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) — notably, the artist’s first retrospective at an American museum. Curated by Orianna Cacchione, the terrific Record. Repeat. presents a dozen videos Zhang made between 1988 and 2012. They relay his rejection of the institutionalization of pop culture and art by China’s government and commercial powers, mainly through the television industry, which boomed in the ’80s. As “Water” demonstrates, Zhang often critiqued these systems with a subtle but powerful sense of absurdity, introduced through exhausting repetition and fine-tuned editing.

His very first piece, “30 x 30,” made in 1988 for the first institutional show of Chinese avant-garde art, challenged established ideas of art as entertainment. Showing his gloved hands breaking and gluing together a mirror again and again, the 30-minute-long video, presented at the start of the AIC exhibition, tests our patience — in fact, when it was first shown, the audience demanded it be fast-forwarded to the end. While the Communist party was increasingly appropriating and broadcasting popular culture to promote its ideology, Zhang deliberately avoided traditional, action-packed narratives. He seemed more interested in instilling boredom in his viewers to reveal the power structures behind mass media. In one dark room at the AIC, a 25-minute video of him bathing a chicken — screened on four monitors before an audience of bricks — nods to national hygiene campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s. At first, the bird struggles, then submits to its soapy circumstances and captor’s grasp.

This is one of the more pointed of Zhang’s works on view. Others are more banal deconstructions of the media as entertainment, including a line of TVs looping silent, surveillance-like footage of the artist simply eating. In another work, a video of traffic in Hangzhou plays on eight monitors, but only one is really recognizable — Zhang shot the original footage and then rerecorded it, repeating the process several times. The result of each stage plays on a separate screen; the final recording appears as an abstract dance of color, completely devoid of its original meaning. The serial display raises questions about how televised images mediate our understanding of reality.

Zhang Peili, “Focal Distance” (1996), from Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. at the Art Institute of Chicago
Zhang Peili, still from “30×30” (1988) (collection of the artist, Hangzhou)

Most captivating are Zhang’s large-scale works, three of which appropriate and break down footage from films of the ’60s and ’70s to underscore how the language of the Cultural Revolution was circulated to the masses. Zhang carefully edited these dramatic movies to strip them of their intended narratives, playing with time to highlight just how constructed their scripts, music, and actors’ gestures were to deliver revolutionary ideology.

“Actor’s Lines” remixes a short conversation between an officer and a young soldier so that we focus on their body language, with gestures sped up, slowed down, repeated, and spliced, to the point where their official interactions become almost homoerotic. Drawn out to six minutes, the work can get tiresome, but that only underscores Zhang’s criticism of these films as hackneyed. “Last Words,” too, is demanding, but it’s hard to not chuckle during its run. The five-minute video presents scenes of dying Communist heroes from different movies who all perish in the same way: they spout a stirring sentence before their heads drop in an exaggerated manner, timed, of course, to dramatic music. Each clip is repeated four times, with Zhang reducing the sound each round to increasingly highlight the artificiality of these romanticized deaths. In this group of works, repetition serves to ridicule the noble language of the revolution and strip it of any intended meaning.

Perhaps the most whimsical work in Record. Repeat. is “Endless Dancing,” (1999), which plays two sets of footage: professional ballroom dancers in karaoke videos for revolutionary songs of the ’70s and pop songs of the ’90s; and amateur dancers waltzing in a studio, a popular social activity in China. These are shown on eight monitors arranged in a circle, with their speeds altered to disorient the viewer. What constitutes reality is more difficult to identify here than in Zhang’s other works, as the piece conflates the artificial visuals of the DVDs and unscripted documentation. The effect is disarming — but as you stand in the middle of the installation and look from screen to screen, it’s hard to not be swayed by the melodies, and feel an urge to waltz yourself.

Zhang Peili, “Endless Dancing” (1999), from Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. at the Art Institute of Chicago
Zhang Peili, “Document on Hygiene No. 3” (1991), from Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. at the Art Institute of Chicago
Zhang Peili, “A Scene in Black and White Unfolded Four Times” (2007), from Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. at the Art Institute of Chicago

Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S Michigan Ave, Chicago) through July 9.

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