Zhang Peili Record. Repeat.

Dynamics of power in body language

By Marc LeBlanc

Document on Hypiene No. 3, 1991, single-channel video,  colour, silent, 24 min 45 sec (loop). Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago, 31 March – 9 July 

China’s Cultural Revolution had an immeasurable impact on the world today, regardless of where one lives. It has shaped international politics and trade, and continues to transform our understanding of what forms a nation-state. As one of China’s seminal avant-garde video artists, Zhang Peili’s work speaks to this recent past and emphasises its relevance for today, and Record. Repeat. is the first exhibition of the artist’s early videoworks at a US institution.

The exhibition focuses on three of those: Actor’s Lines (2002), Last Words (2002) and Happiness (2006) are structural reedits of appropriated scenes from seminal films of the Chinese Cultural Revolution era. The oldest, Actor’s Lines, is composed of minor gestures and phrases cut from a scene between a military officer and a young soldier in the 1964 film Sentries Under Neon Lights. As each fragment of a conversation repeats, or as we watch simple gesticulations looped several times, the film’s original narrative shatters. Brought into focus instead are the dynamics of power inherent in even the most nuanced body language. Like Actor’s Lines, Last Words has a similar effect. In the work, Peili draws from several films of the same military genre. A clip of the death scene of each film’s hero is slowed, and once the figure has perished is immediately followed by the next similar scene. The work is short, less than six minutes in total, but the steady repetition makes apparent the phoniness and overwrought quality of each performance, laying bare the shared generic quality of these films.

Peili’s approach is crystallised in Happiness, a two-channel work that places alongside each other scenes from another canonical film, In the Shipyard (1975). On one screen are modified and elongated scenes of the film’s protagonist delivering fervent speeches, and on the other, simple clips of extras from the film clapping inexhaustibly and endlessly. The interplay between the screens brings their content to the level of absurdity, making a farce of the performativity inherent in propaganda and politics.

With such charged content, self-evidently pertinent to our current global climate, made by one of China’s leading video artists, one might hope that the museum would have provided a larger, more visible site for such an exhibition. Tucked away into a single black-box room, the potential impact of the works is limited. The audience that specifically comes to see this exhibition is marginalised, and the exhibition’s outreach is reduced. And ultimately, there’s the feeling that an opportunity to introduce an American audience to significant, seldom-seen work has been was lost. Perhaps the curatorial approach has its own conceptual conceit, as it mimics how much of the cultural transition undergone in China during the last 30 years has gone unseen, though not unfelt, by the many viewers who might have seen Peili’s Record. Repeat. 

From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia