New York

Zhang Peili

Jack Tilton Gallery

For a Chinese-born artist who still lives in his hometown of Hangzhou, Zhang Peili has been represented in a remarkable number of international exhibitions. In just over two years, his work has been seen in several high-profile Asian-themed group shows—including “Cities on the Move” and “Inside Out: New Chinese Art”—as well as at the Basel art fair and the most recent Sydney and Venice biennials. He also bears the distinction of being the first Chinese artist to have an installation piece collected by MoMA (where he had a project show last summer). Yet while other “avant-garde” Chinese artists have developed signature styles and recognizable themes—the Luo brothers’ comic, image-laden collages critiquing encroaching commercialism, say, or Chen Zhen’s huge sculptural and aural assaults drawing on “traditional” iconography—there’s something elusive and seemingly discontinuous about Zhang’s output from show to show. No obvious filament runs through his project—which has ranged in media from video and installation to painting, sculpture, and performance—save that of repetition itself. Through obsessively repeating gestures, Zhang raises questions about the temporalities of various media and, more broadly, about the problematic of duration, whether physical or formal.

For this, Zhang’s first solo gallery exhibition in the US, the artist presented two room-size video installations, Symptom of Surface, 1996, and Air, 1998. The first consisted of six monitors placed in a semicircle on the floor. Each monitor played loops of a hand, presumably the artist’s, frantically scratching another body part—chest, leg, underarm, cheek, shoulder, foot. The skin looked to be in various states of irritation, though the action seemed less about satisfying a physical need than about a gesture of mild self-mutilation. Early Acconci comes to mind, but Zhang’s well-lit videos, with their various hues, are somehow less blunt and more classically aesthetic. Here the title offered no clue to the actions’ genesis or meaning: “Symptom” led not to etiology (or even allegory) but back to “surface.” Still, the piece produced a visceral, contagious effect on the viewer—all that scratching made me itch—along with perhaps a touch of schadenfreude.

The other installation, Air, featured three larger screens placed side by side. Here, a hand hitting a ball replaced itching as the repeated motif. Shot outdoors with a handheld camera in a dreary courtyard, the footage shows, on one screen, a red rubber ball hit hard and quickly; in another it is kept gently aloft. On the third screen, two feet shuffle in a clumsy, dizzying dance—we are left to deduce that these are the hitter’s feet as he struggles to keep the ball airborne with his hands. Maybe it was the melancholia lite induced by the rhythmically repetitive Satie piano composition of the accompanying sound track, but there was something eerily appealing about the installation. Is the ball a world? Will it fall?

At forty-three, Zhang is surely schooled in Marxist doctrine, but it seems too simple to say that the two installations—one concerning the private and corporeal, the other the public and externally directed—represent the individual and the collective (the body and the body of state), respectively, or that the artist is proposing some sort of dialectical fusion of the two; the interaction between the two pieces (each provoking a different feeling) seemed too ambiguous to identify. Rather, what Zhang’s repeated, looped movements showed was a formal and philosophical fascination with the notion of temporal arrest and return, and with the implications such rerouted, essentially purposeless actions have for thinking about subjectivity, history, and the static dynamism of the artistic process. These questions seem all the more pertinent amid the presumed (and widely heralded) “progress” of cities and bodies “on the move.” One wonders where Zhang is headed with this (slow) train of thought, but for now the ride is quietly, interestingly affecting.

Nico Israel