Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2018
Orianna Cacchione, Li Pi, Robyn Farrell, and Katherine Grube Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. Exh. cat. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2017. 96 pp.; 60 color ills. Hardcover $25.00 (9780300226225)
The Art Institute of Chicago, March 30–July 9, 2017
Installation view of Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat., Art Institute of Chicago, March 30–July 9, 2017 (photograph © 2017; provided by the Art Institute of Chicago)

Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. represents a significant scholarly work on Zhang Peili, the multimedia artist often acknowledged as China’s first video artist. The exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) featured twelve video works made between 1988 and 2007, including five large, multichannel installations. It opened with 30 × 30 (1988), considered the first video artwork made in China. The single-channel, thirty-two-minute-long video shows in tight close-up Zhang’s white-gloved hands and sneaker-clad feet as he shatters a mirror and then painstakingly reassembles it piece by piece, before breaking it again. The exhibition’s most recent work was also the most responsive to viewers. A Scene in Black and White Unfolded Four Times (2007) consists of seven digital photographs of Hangzhou’s Venice Water Town, each of which repeats four times on a total of twenty-eight five-inch LCD screens hung in a row, frieze-like. Sensor activated, the screens fizz and snap off as soon as someone stands before them, interrupting the viewing experience at the very moment and place that it is typically most available. Installed just outside of the galleries in a corridor that leads to the Modern Wing’s upstairs café, the piece constantly buzzed on and off thanks to passersby who largely remained unaware of how their presence animated the artwork. Not only temporal bookends, 30 × 30 and A Scene in Black and White Unfolded Four Times served to introduce the exhibition’s central argument that repetition and restraint characterize both the making and viewing of Zhang’s video art. What these two terms do not explicitly convey but what became clear in moving through the exhibition is the essential role that humor plays in Zhang’s work. He employs humor as a tool, as a means of captivating viewers and enticing them to spend more time with each piece. Whether one comes face to face with a chicken being patiently, even lovingly, washed in a metal basin (the cheekily titled Document on Hygiene, No. 3 of 1991), or one watches as dramatic scenes of on-screen death transform into camp when they are repeated four times and sandwiched between many other nearly identical scenes from Chinese revolutionary cinema (Last Words of 2003), it is hard to turn away.

Executed with remarkable economy in just under one hundred pages, the accompanying catalogue conveys the visual breadth, historical significance, and playfulness of Zhang’s artistic career over the last three decades. It also includes a complete Mandarin translation. An essay by exhibition curator Orianna Cacchione narrates Zhang’s turn to video as a medium and form beginning in 1988, while the Hong Kong–based curator Pi Li situates Zhang’s video works within the arc of his career and within Chinese art history writ large. A detailed chronology by Katherine Grube and descriptions by Robyn Farrell of the exhibited works provide important additional details about the works and their maker. Because to date much of the scholarship on Zhang has largely been available in Mandarin, Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. does the important work of introducing Zhang’s art to an Anglophone and largely US-based audience for what is likely the first time. Thanks to Cacchione’s research in previously unpublished material, interviews with the artist, and careful discussion of each of the exhibited works, specialists in contemporary Chinese art history may have much to discover as well.

The catalogue succeeds in documenting and communicating Zhang’s work not only through its thoughtful essays and chronology but also in the many images that fill its pages. Bringing video and installation works to life on a printed page is no easy task. Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. does more than simply convey the sequencing and materiality of video and the spatial arrangements of time-based media installations: its pages buzz with the frenetic energy, striated colors, grainy textures, and rounded edges that have made video such a compelling medium for artists working across the globe since Sony introduced the Portapak in 1965.

In “Mechanisms of Restraint: Zhang Peili’s Subversions of Art and Video,” Cacchione writes that what defines Zhang’s work, and his video art in particular, is the artist’s lifelong opposition to “art’s institutionalization, its commercialization, and its appropriation by political or cultural ideology” (22). Zhang turned to video in 1988 when he made 30 × 30. His shift from painting to video appealed to Zhang, as Cacchione explains, because the latter medium had no historical precedent in Chinese art and therefore allowed him to engage anew the problems he saw (11). Taking Zhang’s 1989 list of four “mechanisms of restraint” as her guide, Cacchione argues that Zhang’s work is best understood through these mechanisms, which governed both the production and reception of an artwork, and through the formal quality of repetition. For Cacchione, Zhang’s turn to a language of restraint grew out of his increasing awareness that by the late 1980s “institutional, governmental, and commercial powers in China were increasingly adept at classifying and controlling art” (11). Together, repetition and restraint “allowed Zhang to negate the entertainment value of art; defamiliarize our habits of seeing the world around us; and critique the ideologies within contemporary art, television, and cinema” (13). In other words, they served as formal strategies that responded to Zhang’s concerns about art, politics, and popular culture.

Whereas Cacchione’s essay focuses on the video works, Pi Li’s “Perpetual Antagonism: Tracing Zhang Peili’s Practice,” sketches the arc of Zhang’s career, from his days studying oil painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou in 1980 to the expansive multimedia installations he has made since the early 2000s. Pi structures his essay around what he identifies as critical moments in Zhang’s career as he moved from realist painting to Conceptual art to video and installation. Throughout, Pi argues, Zhang forged a path alongside but unique from his peers within China’s avant-garde and contemporary art communities. The consequence of Zhang’s singularity is twofold: he has been as overlooked as he has been influential.

Cacchione’s emphasis on the subversive nature of Zhang’s work, especially his opposition to art’s institutionalization and commercialization, raises significant questions about what it means to canonize and institutionalize his work now, in 2017, and to do so at one of the US’s largest and most prestigious museums. In his foreword to the catalogue, museum director James Rondeau enumerates some of the AIC’s interests in centering Zhang’s work. Rondeau writes that the exhibition contributes to advancing the place of global contemporary art within the museum’s walls, and he highlights the exhibition’s many firsts: “Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. represents not only the first major survey of the artist’s video work at an American museum, but also the Art Institute’s first solo exhibition devoted to the work of a contemporary Chinese artist as well as its first dual English-Mandarin catalogue” (7, my emphasis). Increasing the number of artists in US museums who live and work outside the historic centers of white, male, and heteronormative Western power is urgent. But a truly global history of contemporary art requires more than an artist-by-artist additive approach to the exclusionary canon of Euro-American art, in which the institutional centers of power—like the AIC—retain their status as gatekeepers. It requires, in other words, a new structure altogether along with the concomitant letting go of the language of canons, firsts, and masters. These are questions that extend well beyond Zhang’s video works and their exhibition in Chicago. But I think they are very much in the spirit of Zhang’s longstanding approach to how art acts in and on the world. As Cacchione emphasizes, Zhang has long been interested in deconstructing the places where power, art, and everyday life intersect. In both its exhibition and catalogue forms, Zhang Peili: Record. Repeat. is a welcome invitation to sit and sit again with this body of aesthetically and conceptually rich artworks and the questions that they raise about art, ideology, power, and access—from China to Chicago.

Emma Chubb
Charlotte Feng Ford ’83 Curator of Contemporary Art, Smith College Museum of Art