As the first Chinese artist to create video art, Zhang Peili will be forever associated with the medium. He tells Berwin Song why he refuses to be pigeon-holed. Portrait Yang Xiaozhe
A key name in Chinese art, Zhang Peili can cut an intimidating figure. The stocky, shaven-headed artist wears a stern expression when we meet at the Minsheng Art Museum ahead of his retrospective there this month. It doesn’t help that we’ve been warned before the interview to keep our session short and that he doesn’t enjoy sitting for photos.
Yet Hangzhou-born Zhang soon puts us at ease, laughing and joking with our photographer as he drags museum assistants into his photos to pose with him. Although there are glimpses of a professorial demeanour (Zhang now holds a senior position at the China National Academy of Art in his hometown), for the most part he is in an amiable mood, occasionally breaking off mid-sentence to warmly greet former students who drop in to say hello and pay homage to their old teacher.
As well they might. Zhang has played a pivotal role in putting Chinese art on the world map, having showed in major museums around the world and participated in numerous international biennales. Before these achievements, it was Zhang’s 1988 piece ‘30x30’ that made his name. In the video, he sits on the ground in front of the camera with only his lower body and gloved hands visible as he proceeds to smash a mirror to bits, then slowly glue it back together piece by piece – over and over, for three hours. It was the first ever piece of video art by a Chinese artist.
'Actually at the time, I didn’t think it was a video work. I just wanted to record a performance,’ Zhang says of the now seminal piece. ‘From around 1986, there was a period when I was experimenting with different things, using different materials or different methods such as performance, where I would act out the works myself. It wasn’t just a sudden change in my work, I was always experimenting and I’m still experimenting today.’
Nevertheless, the piece quickly earned Zhang the title of ‘father of Chinese video art’, a name the artist remains ambivalent about. ‘Of course, I know this saying,’ he says with a laugh, ‘but this title is just like a slogan -- it’s a very simple way for people to label me. Sometimes when people want to quickly understand what I do, they might use this slogan, if they don’t know my work. It doesn’t matter to me. People can say whatever they want about me but I’m not especially rigid, I don’t only do one thing or another. Speaking as an artist, I don’t think it’s particularly important what you do – it doesn’t matter whether you paint or make videos, as long as you’re doing things artistically.’
Indeed, the 54-year-old has created an eclectic array of works over his career. The Minsheng retrospective, entitled Certain Pleasures, features 25 pieces, many of which are being shown in China for the first time.
The show’s more recent works show his penchant for experimenting with different mediums, as shown by large-scale installations such as ‘Live Report’ (2009), which features the husk of a burnt out van, and interactive pieces like 'Landscape with Round Building’ (2008), installed in the museum’s entrance, which makes use of embedded motion sensors to respond to viewers’ actions.
There are even a few rare paintings – evidence of Zhang’s 1984 oil painting degree from (the then titled) Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art – including one from 1986 depicting a pair of gloves, that foreshadows ‘30x30’. Despite quickly outgrowing his major in this discipline, he went on to teach in the new media department at his alma mater.
Zhang has now taught for over 20 years at what is widely acknowledged as China’s most prestigious art university, known today as the China National Academy of Art. In the process he has mentored numerous students who are now well into their own art careers. ‘There are a lot of them now who are doing excellent work,’ he says. ‘If my students create better works than me, that will make me very happy.’
Throughout our interview, a number of his former students mill around the museum, helping to install pieces. Recent graduate Jiang Zuyun, wearing a dust mask, pokes his head in a few times to report on the installation process, and later, locally-based Zhang Ding, fresh from the closing of his solo exhibition at ShanghART H-Space, drops in to pay his respects.
Eager to catch up with his old students, the elder Zhang asks to be excused from the interview and gets up from the table. As we shake hands, he offers a final thought.
'The issue of time is very interesting to me. When I made the first video, many people didn’t see it as an artwork. But now, many people have seen it over the years, and their reactions have changed. Time has changed it.
‘This is pretty interesting to me – today, some might think that one thing is very good, but later on might lose interest in it. And something that isn’t important now may become very notable later.’
We ask whether he ever imagined his video pieces would become as notable as they have. ‘It’s hard to say,’ he says. ‘They always turn out a little differently from how I first imagine them.’
Certain Pleasures is at the Minsheng Art Museum until Sun 14. See our event listing here.
We featured Zhang Peili in our round up of the best Chinese new media artists last year. Read more on the other four artists to make the list here