A short excursion to Shanghai from my usual territory of Beijing allowed for a quick visit to the Minsheng Art Museum, while dodging the storms presaging the arrival of typhoon Muifa. The Minsheng is a non-profit institution occupying a large warehouse-type set of spaces at the back of an off-street cultural area. It was established in 2008 by the China Minsheng Banking Corporation, and is currently hosting a large retrospective of the work of veteran new-media artist, Zhang Peili.
What this exhibition does, inevitably in somewhat hagiographic terms, is support the notion of Zhang as one of the very first new-media artists in China. From his beginnings in the mid ‘80s through to the present day, he has become an influential figure, now heading up the New Media Arts Center housed in a rather futuristic new building at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou. He is something of a father-figure for the new media arts scene here in China, a scene that goes to great pains to assert itself as an autonomous style and format amongst the often osmotic boundaries between the art forms of contemporary art in China.
Originally trained in oil painting, Zhang has developed a practice across video, filmed performance, installation, and actions, with a typically heavy conceptual backing. Early new media works by the artist can be seen to pick up on process practices from abroad, displaying durational and task-based techniques, in most cases with few geographical or cultural specifics.
In the final gallery of this exhibition, but the one that holds the earliest works, the pile of handwritten A4 sheets of paper, “Ask First, Shoot Later”: About “X” (1987), and the video work 30x30 (1988) are presented as “firsts” in their respective categories: the latter a record of the artist laboriously breaking and reconstructing a mirror, labelled as (“possibly”) the first art video made in China; the former, a laboriously written account of the work’s process from conception to reception, “recognised as the first purely textual conceptual piece in China.”
This aspect of the works’ current reception highlights the delayed development of art in China, and how this effects value judgements of works both in the local context and their subsequent place in world art history. The conceptual techniques that Zhang picks up on were already well-worn at the stage at which he was working, with antecedents in Europe and the US going back some twenty years. As radical as “Ask First…” may have appeared at that time in the China context, it seems less so now as it sits within the internationalised context of this museum and in the current state of the art world in China. Which is not to say these works are not valuable as the local context's own antecedents or as historical documents, but for me the works seem simply derivative and do not shed substantial enough light on existing manifestations to warrant a second look.
But such is the risk and potential fate of work that deliberately or coincidentally relies on specific conditions of time and place for its effect – conditions which in this case reflect China’s own particular historical exigencies. These works then uncomfortably remain for me as testaments to a particular time, and re-assessing them under our radically differing circumstances seems simultaneously necessary and unfair. I do not think there is an answer to this; it is just the way things are.
What I believe prevents Zhang’s work from simply being of local interest are the later works that build on these early pieces and extend the boundaries of the processes into wider territories. My personal judgements on the relative values of the artist’s works from his different periods seems to be reflected in the reverse chronology of the presentation, which one could say favours the more recent, spectacular works at the start of the show, and moves back in time as you progress through the galleries.
Some of the earliest works in the final room are presented in museumified displays of reverentially presented artefacts.This may, of course, be a result of the formats of the various works – early pieces necessarily being smaller and perhaps left on a more conceptual level due to real-world restrictions. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, a “museumified display” of the crowding immensity of the inflating and deflating, silver air-bag of A Necessary Cube (2011) (although, of course, such a designation is never fixed). For me this use of space makes the recent video installations more interesting, such as the new presentation of A Gust of Wind (2009) in the next room, with its set of large projections of a living-room stage set being destroyed in a simulated typhoon (appropriate given the one threatening outside the museum) amongst the installation of the wreckage on the floor of the gallery.These pieces begin to play with the form of the gallery spaces themselves as part of the experience, in effect using video to move from playing with the spaces and temporalities within video, out into the world.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of the Minsheng Art Museum and the artist.)