The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mapping Time: Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming in Canberra

Entry to Zhang Peili: Painting to Video, at Australia Centre on China in the World, Canberra
I've just returned from a weekend in Canberra, which always feels to me as if I have somehow just missed the Zombie Apocalypse - wide, silent, startlingly empty streets devoid of people and cars. It's eerie. At least, it felt like that until I got out of the lift in my hotel on the wrong floor last night and found myself in a dense crowd of broad men in dinner suits and thin, fake-tanned young women in very tight evening frocks. They looked at me as if I was an intruder from another planet. I was so disconcerted, and so inappropriately attired, wearing jeans and a padded jacket bought in a Beijing street market, that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that I was not in fact in the lobby, and push my way through the perfumed crowd back to the elevators.

Later, in my room, I had cause to reflect on what a sheltered life I have obviously led thus far - never before has the mini bar in my hotel room included, next to the over-priced Kit-Kat bar and expensive water, both a bow tie in a box (for emergencies of the cocktail party kind) and 2 condoms in a tin (for a different kind of emergency.) Suffering from an excess of self-conscious postmodernism, the hotel design featured every possible visual trope relating to politics and politicians, from portraits of Obama to Margaret Thatcher and everyone in between, and giant mirrored murals of paparazzi in the elevators. My room card featured the famous image of Gough Whitlam on the steps of Parliament House after the dismissal of his government. Mysteriously, overlaying the image were the words of quite another Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, after Australia won the America's Cup. Deliberate pastiche or millennial ignorance on the part of the marketing team? I was relieved not to be issued a room card featuring Tony Abbott, which might possibly have come with a Paul Keating quote about Australia being the ''arse-end of the world".
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
I was in the nation's capital (sorry, Canberra, but it's hard not to laugh a bit when you say that - beautiful clear air and a bit of Brutalist architecture notwithstanding) for a conference at the Australian National University, 'Moving Image Cultures in Asian Art', and the opening of an exhibition of works by Zhang Peili at the Australia Centre on China in the World. The big attraction was that both Zhang Peili (often called, perhaps to his annoyance, the father of Chinese video art) and Yuan Goang-Ming, the very significant video artist from Taiwan, were both speaking, and the conference featured interesting papers from scholars and artists including eminent Australians Claire Roberts and John Clarke, Omuku Toshiharu from the University of Tsukuba, and Kathrine Grube from New York University. .

In the end, apart from the anticipated themes of fluidity, hybridity and transnational discourse, the unexpected narratives that emerged were of friendship (between artists both within and across national borders, between artists and curators/critics, between scholars, between teachers and their students) and of education - dear to my heart but so often disregarded. Both Zhang Peili and Yuan Goang-Ming stressed their role as teachers. More of that in a moment.
Zhang Peili 張 培力, 30X30 (Set of 3 Screenshots), 1988, Single channel video installation
Image source: Asia Art Archive
Zhang Peili spoke about his work since the mid 1980s, his humorous and thoughtful delivery beautifully translated by Linda Jaivin. He emerged as a whimsical figure with a finely honed sense of the absurd. '30x30', usually described as the first Chinese video work, was three hours long, he revealed, because 180 minutes was at that time the longest VHS tape you could purchase. Zhang repeatedly dropped a mirror onto the terrazzo floor of an empty office, glued the shards together, then dropped it again, often interrupted by passing office workers wanting to know what on earth he was doing.

He knew it would be excruciatingly boring to watch, and this was intentional - after a long series of fruitless meetings throughout 1987 planning a retrospective of the '85 New Wave Movement, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as the meetings. The retrospective never happened. One may ask - and indeed, some at the conference did - why he chose a mirror, and whether there is a deeper, perhaps Freudian or Lacanian significance there, but I suspect this would be to miss the point. After years of Socialist Realism, followed by the Sichuan school (rather sentimental) and Scar Art, Zhang Peili wanted an art that denied narrative.

Zhang Peili 張 培力, WATER — Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai (Screenshot), 1993, Video installation with single channel on TV screen. Image Source: Asia Art Archive
A work from 1993 features a famous news reader from CCTV, the official state television channel, reading all the words relating to water from the dictionary, in the manner and style of the official news broadcast - for 9 minutes and 35 seconds. It's both funny and (deliberately) tedious, and quite hypnotic. Deadpan, refusing narrative and deliberately avoiding any political commentary, works such as this become nevertheless a sardonic commentary on the absurdity of the artist's world. When it was shown at Huangshan, curator Gao Minglu insisted that it be run on fast forward.

The exhibition, in the very beautiful surroundings of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), features seven carefully chosen works. Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video is a collaboration between CIW and MAAP (Media Art Asia Pacific, in Brisbane.) The project is built around the generous gift to CIW, in 2014, of one of Zhang’s final paintings from the 1990s - perhaps even the last painting - before he shifted his focus to video and media installation art. Newly restored, never before exhibited, Flying Machine (1994) is a gift from Zhang’s friend and fellow artist, Lois Conner. The presentation of the painting provided an opportunity to explore this significant transition from painting to video, to reflect on the development of media art in China. 

I will write further about other works in the exhibition in a future post - including an extraordinary work, new to me, in which Zhang recorded interviews between police officers and two petty thieves. Real and unscripted, these interrogations are both alarming and absurd as the dishevelled, hapless pair admit trying to rob their victims armed with fruit knives.
Zhang Peili, Q & A & Q & A, 2012
6 Channel with 6 images, video installation, Edition: Colour, sound, 20' 37", photo: Luise Guest
Here is a link to an interesting interview with Zhang Peili, who now, in addition to being director of OCAT Shanghai, still teaches in the influential New Media Art Department that he established in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he himself studied oil painting in the early 1980s:

Yuan Goang-Ming  Fish On Dish, 1992 Video Projection Installation 
© Courtesy of the Artist & IT PARK 
In Taiwan, video emerged in the early '80s, kick-started after a show of French video art from the Pompidou Centre at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1984, and by artists returning to Taiwan from study in Japan: they introduced video art into the curriculum of tertiary art education. Yuan Goang-Ming made his first video work, 'About Millet's The Angelus' in 1985. Here it is:

I first encountered work by Yuan Goang-Ming in an exhibition at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong last year. It's not an exaggeration to say that it blew me away. Later, I realised that I had in fact seen another of his works before, in the Asia Pacific Triennial, and had been deeply moved by it. In a review of the Hong Kong show, 'Dwelling', I wrote this: In the gallery space, an elegant table is laid as if for a dinner party, with crystal glasses and an ornate dinner service. Every now and then a loud clanking noise disrupts the silence, and the table shakes as if the building has been hit by an earthquake. The real sense of disquiet comes when you enter the next room, where three short videos are screened on a loop. You sit on a domestic sofa, lit dimly by a standard lamp, and reality begins to unravel entirely. In the title work, Dwelling, (2014) the focus is a blandly modern living room, the only oddity the rather slow riffling pages of a magazine on the chair, a book on the coffee table. A breeze wafts the curtains. Suddenly, and without warning, the entire room explodes. Slowly, languidly, the wreckage of the room drifts back until the room once again regains its ordinary appearance. Filmed underwater, although it takes one a while to realise this, the movement of every object seems dreamlike. Yuan suggests that what we accept as stable and fixed is in fact entirely unpredictable. In a split second, the apparently impossible can disrupt everything we take for granted. Of course, we know this is true, but it is profoundly disturbing to see.

The article from which this is excerpted, Exploding Realities: Three Video Artists in China, can be found HERE on The Art Life website.

YUAN GOANG-MING Dwelling - Moment III 2014. Digital Photography / Colour Photograph. 120 x 180 cm Edition of 8. Image Courtesy of the Artist and Hanart TZ Gallery.
Like Zhang Peili, Yuan Goang-Ming was trained as a painter, studying Chinese painting and calligraphy, then western painting. And like Zhang Peili, he too is an educator and influential teacher. Zhang Peili has mentored many young artists who have emerged from the school of New Media in Hangzhou, not least the often outrageously transgressive Lu Yang, whose recent work, Delusional Mandala, reveals the increasing influence of science and technology. Read about Lu Yang, Zhang Peili's enfant terrible pupil HERE. (And see her work in 'Vile Bodies', opening September 9 at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney.)

The ANU conference made clear, among much else, the hugely important role of the teacher. In a room populated by scholars, artists and curators who are also teachers (and for whom, frequently, all these roles overlap) I reflected on why art education matters. Just as Zhang Peili reconstructed his 30 x 30 mirror over and over again, so too do teachers reconstruct, reflect and re-reflect in dialogue with their students, in a conversation that continues down the generations. They (we) make meaning - just as do artists, art historians and curators.

 I had plenty of time on the long drive back to Sydney, under huge sweeping skies, to consider the significance of time - even, in the words of John Clark, "epistemically broken time."