Zhang Peili's Pleasures

Until 14 August Minsheng Art Museum will play host to a retrospective exhibition entitled 'Certain Pleasures', which charts the distinguished career of Zhang Peili – known to many as the ‘Father of Chinese Video Art’ – from 1988 to the present day.

Not only is Hangzhou-born Zhang Peili one of Chinese contemporary art's earliest and most enduring success stories, he is also a pioneer of new media art and is the head of that broad artistic discipline at his alma mater, the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, one of the country's most prestigious art institutions. To say that Zhang is influential in the Chinese art world is a little like saying recently-retired basketball star Yao Ming is tall – it may be true, but it doesn't adequately convey the reality of the situation.

At the lead-up to the exhibition, Zhang was dressed head-to-toe in black and looks every inch the elder artistic statesman. Modestly dismissing his role as video art pioneer (“I just started to make video earlier than other people and so I have made it for longer than other people.”), Zhang says his work has always been about asking questions and pushing boundaries.

“I’m not a person that sticks to rules,” he explains. “I’m not satisfied with my knowledge in the process of my work and also my life experiences. I always have questions for people’s common knowledge, and I always hold a doubtful attitude.”

From his professional beginnings as an oil painter and throughout the first decade of his new media work, Zhang's messages were overtly political. Some of his greatest hits from this period will be shown at the retrospective, including 'Document on Hygiene'. Believed to be the first art video screened in public in China, it was shown in a Shanghai garage as part of a 1991 exhibition. Its theme is ritualised behaviour, and the piece shows a hen being repeatedly washed until the exhausted bird becomes a compliant subject. Zhang made it at a time when the government was promoting public sanitation as a patriotic duty.

Post-2000, Zhang's emphasis shifted to appropriated footage for a period. 'Actor's Lines', from 2002, takes a scene from Wang Pei's 1964 propaganda classic Soldiers Under Neon Lights and repeats it again and again, simultaneously multiplying the actor’s dialogue so it sounds like an echo of itself. The effect is an undermining of the authenticity of the scene’s patriotic message. Though not always approached from such an overtly political angle, authenticity is a theme that has cropped up throughout Zhang's work, in part because it's such a universal concern.

“Common wisdom, experience, systems and so on [are my most common themes],” he says. “I try to avoid the differences in cultures, race and history and focus on the basic problem humans encounter no matter whether you are American, European, Chinese or Indian.”

Recent years have seen Zhang's work move away from the political to more introspective and “emotional” pieces, which he believes are some of the best and most interesting works of his career, precisely because of their lack of clarity.

“My personal opinion is that I don’t want to use my work to educate anyone, and I don’t want to use artwork as a tool for political or philosophical reasons to express my political or philosophical opinion,” Zhang explains. “I’m more focused on the emotional influence the work can bring to people. The visual, spatial and audio impact can all be obvious components, but emotional things are harder to pin down.”

Uncertain Pleasures: Zhang Peili Retrospective Exhibition. Until 14 August. Minsheng Art Museum, Building F, 570 Huaihai Xi Lu, near Hongqiao Lu. Tel: 6282 8729. Web: www.minshengart.org