The fast train to Hangzhou: Zhang Peili, Longjing tea and video art
An interview with the pioneer of Chinese video art in HangzhouIn a recent two-week trip to China to interview artists for the Judith Neilson/White Rabbit Collection Archive, White Rabbit Gallery Coordinator Hannah Toohey and I, accompanied by our translator, Kate Yu, had one extraordinary day in Hangzhou. The purpose of this very fast trip on the fast train from Shanghai was to interview the man who is generally described as the pioneer of video art in China, Zhang Peili.
Hangzhou is one of my favourite cities – I’ve been several times in mid-winter to meet artists, and once before, gloriously, in spring. On each occasion I strategically made time to stroll around West Lake, famous for its beauty as an idealised fusion between nature and human design ingenuity.
Zhang Peili, Luise Guest and Hannah Toohey in Hangzhou - surrounded by so many snacks!
On this visit I was almost sure there would be no time to even glimpse its gardens, bridges, islands or pagodas. Yet, as luck would have it, the road to Zhang Peili’s studio was blocked by roadworks, so we arranged to meet at the lakeside campus of the China Academy of Art where he developed their famed New Media Department from 2003. Zhang has taught and mentored so many of the rising stars of the younger generation, including Lu Yang, Miao Ying and Peng Yun -- all of whom are featured in the current White Rabbit Gallery exhibition, HOT BLOOD.
Zhang insisted that we must first see an exhibition of student work, created as a homage to Zhang’s friend and fellow pioneering avant-garde artist, the recently deceased Geng Jianyi. Descending a little nervously into the dank subterranean depths of the university basement, into what seemed to be a bomb shelter, we negotiated with a security guard who was most reluctant to let us pass. Once inside through a pitch dark corridor we discovered a treasure trove of installations, multi-media works, video and wondrously eccentric mechanical sculptures, all dedicated to ‘Our dear Professor Geng Jianyi’ by current students and recent graduates.
A slightly nervous descent
Not your typical gallery space
A moving tribute to a beloved teacher and artist
A kinetic sculpture of whirring, turning and flickering things
All I could think was: lucky, lucky students, to have been taught by these extraordinary artists! When we emerged, we found a teahouse in the gardens beside the lake, a sublimely beautiful setting for recording an interview, which began with the question about the work acknowledged to be the very first piece of video art made in China, in 1988, for the Huangshan Conference. Why video? I asked, wondering how it had even occurred to an artist trained as a painter, in the late 1980s when painting dominated the Chinese artworld.
A walk through beautiful gardens to the teahouse
Zhang Peili said:
I think at that time in the late 1980s, the motivation for many artists, including me, to create art was to challenge something. We were willing to challenge many things – all aspects of mainstream art and culture … This challenge is the main reason why I chose video art as my tool at the Huangshan Conference because it could just challenge so many things and had never been tried. At that time no-one had found that video was a way to make art – I mean TV, the television set had entered the modern family and people had got used to this emergent media, but no-one realised that it could also be possible to use television, video, to make art. I wanted to see whether people, especially the New Wave artists, and new curators, would accept this kind of new art.
Zhang Peili explains the philosophical basis of his experiments with video art
This very first excursion into the dimension of time, 30 x 30, was the start of Zhang Peili’s ongoing experimentation with performative, durational, and text-based installations. He filmed his own hands in surgical gloves breaking a 30-by-30-centimetre mirror (approximately the size of a TV screen), painstakingly gluing the shards together, and repeating this simple action again and again, against the terrazzo-tiled floor of an empty office. Filmed over three hours (using the longest VHS tape available at the time), this incomprehensible action reflected Zhang’s determination to avoid political imagery and narrative. He intended it to be an excruciating experience for his audience: after a series of fruitless meetings to plan a retrospective exhibition of the ’85 New Wave artists, Zhang wanted to make a video that would be as boring and pointless as he found most of these meetings.
Over many cups of fragrant Longjing tea, accompanied by snacks of nuts and beautiful local fruit, with the lake gleaming under changing afternoon light outside the window, we spoke of his different works in the White Rabbit Collection, which ask audiences to question everything they see and to discern their own reality. We discussed video, philosophies of art and education, and Zhang's feelings of sorrow about the passage of time.
Finally, we talked about the importance of teachers, a subject dear to my heart and always acknowledged as crucially important in China, where teachers are revered and respected. Zhang expressed his disdain for the educational system in his youth (which persists in many places), which he believed caused harm to the younger generation and can kill creativity:
If the teaching method is creative and free, then that is interesting and important, and that’s what I’ve been trying to d in the New Media Department, finding problems in existing educational models and inventing new ways. If you are aiming to inspire and help artists, new and young artists, I think the most basic idea is you need to have the faith that they will become great artists later as long as you teach them in the right ways. By right ways I mean first space, second freedom – space to let themselves grow up, freedom means to let them discover their own way to make art, not force them to follow some trend, but offer them chances to try new ideas and introduce them to good artists outside the campus and let them step into being practising artists as soon as possible. That’s the creative way I like to do it and it’s exactly what I have been doing in my time as Head of the New Media Department at China Academy.
As we took our leave (reluctantly glancing back at that beautiful lake) and headed for the high-speed train back to Shanghai, I reflected on the importance of teaching for the arts, and how in China so many of the greatest artists continue their work as teachers throughout their careers. Certainly, Zhang Peili’s influence on the generations of video and new media artists who succeed him is immeasurably important.
Discover more about the artist and his work HERE.
For researchers, transcripts (in English and Chinese) and audio of artist interviews are available through the archive HERE
 The 85 New Wave movement was an avant-garde art movement that flourished across China between 1985 and 1989
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