Zhang Peili

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
March 31, 2017–July 9, 2017

View of “Zhang Peili,” 2017.

Zhang Peili’s first US museum solo exhibition, “Record. Repeat.,” is an intense, grim encounter with China’s propaganda-media machine. Although Zhang has worked in painting, mail art, and kinetic installation over four decades, this focused survey of twelve major works from 1988 to 2012 makes a strong case for Zhang as not only China’s first video artist, as he is honorably known, but also as one of China’s most poignant critics of broadcast and surveillance technology. Similar to an investigator or a painter, he tends to set a single scene per video channel: hands repeatedly breaking and repairing a mirror; a news anchor reading the dictionary; the drawing of blood; a street in Hangzhou. Through serial imagery on six, eight, twelve, and twenty-eight screens, the durational works—some as long as three hours—quietly dehumanize their subjects. For instance, Zhang’s well-known Documents of Hygiene No. 3, 1991, depicts the artist repeatedly bathing a chicken in soapy water nearly to the point of cruelty, a sustained metaphor for China’s public hygiene campaign distributed that same year. Zhang’s critiques of the propaganda apparatus developed in quick response to the media itself, as Pi Li’s excellent and necessary catalogue essay details. Pi further remarks that, as a video artist, Zhang intentionally distanced himself from the 1990s art-market boom and therefore stayed truly avant-garde in his medium and his message. Zhang’s pioneering moving-image works, but also his mid-’90s manifesto against nationalism and his founding of the new media art department at the China Art Academy, reveals the artist as an agent of social change, not just a critic of socialist realism.

— Jason Foumberg