Zhang Peili
Ink Trace, 2014
etching and acrylic on Rives BFK
paper: 30 x 22 in
edition of 12
Co-published with artist and Rén Space, Shanghai, China

Magnolia Editions is pleased to announce twelve new print editions by renowned Chinese multimedia artist Zhang Peili, courtesy of a partnership with Jung Lee and Shanghai’s Ren Art Space Gallery.

As a result of his influential 1988 30 x 30 – widely considered the first work of video art by a Chinese artist – Zhang is often tagged as the ‘godfather of Chinese video art,’ but in addition to his landmark video pieces he has produced nearly four decades worth of celebrated and conceptually provocative work in painting, performance, photography and installation. His work evinces an iconoclastic and darkly humorous view of contemporary life, often with an eye toward examining the individual’s relation to authority, instruction, and control.

In the well-known video work Water: Standard Version from Cihai Dictionary (1991), the artist hired high-profile CCTV newscaster Xing Zhibin – seen nightly by millions of Chinese viewers for many years – to read aloud, in the pleasant, bureaucratic cadence of a professional broadcaster, the official dictionary definition of water, repeating this transmission for 23 increasingly absurd minutes.

Zhang’s Lips of a Female Announcer prints revisit Water, placing an absurdly tiny reproduction of the recently retired Xing Zhibin’s familiar face in the center of a vibrant field of color, side-by-side with abstracted enlargements of a television screen depicting the newscaster’s lips; Ink Trace also depicts Zhibin. In his Crime Scene and Arrest Warrant prints, the artist takes inspiration from news photographs of crime scenes and suspects wanted by the police.

Zhang removes just enough information from his imagery that we must ‘fill in the blanks’ by actively considering our own tacit participation in socially generated phenomena such as celebrity or crime. These works subtly investigate the central role played by portraiture in the construction of our heroes and villains, providing an intriguing counterpoint to the work of a contemporary portraitist such as Chuck Close, whose work also hinges on the “disconnect between image and reality” identified by Angie Baecker as one of Zhang’s constant motifs.

The artist’s sense of satire is matched, it seems, only by his desire to blur the line between art and life; when Oakland Police Department officers stopped by Magnolia for a print project, the otherwise understated Zhang was visibly enthused to pose with them in a surreal memento of his 2014 visit to Oakland.

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Zhang’s taste for daring formal experimentation was a natural match for the atmosphere of technical innovation at Magnolia Editions. During editioning, Nick Stone spoke with the artist (through the courtesy of his assistant and translator, Ren Art Space’s Sun Jin) about his experience at the studio and the imagery in his new prints:

NS: I know the woman’s face in your new prints “The Lips of a Female Announcer” and “Ink Trace” is a well-known Chinese television broadcaster who appeared in your 1991 video “Water: Standard Version from Cihai Dictionary.” I’m curious why you chose to revisit this image in a static format like prints.

ZP: I did the video in the early 1990s, when this woman had already been on TV for more than twenty years. Now she’s no longer on TV — she has since retired. I have a completely different concept in wanting to use her image now. Previously, I felt she was like a machine, so I asked her to read the dictionary. It was a little bit political and also very iconic. In this case, I wanted to challenge the boundaries between a star and all of the people in China who know her: to investigate the difference between her image and that of a common person’s portrait.

One theme that runs through this work is the idea of being anonymous. Can you speak to the significance of the concept of anonymity for you?

I agree that this concept of being anonymous is something I want to explore in this work. I am trying to hide all specific features and to mix up cultural characters with my modification. Precisely, I want the audience to have no idea as to the background, culture, or politics behind the work. So all these figures are what people will come across naturally in their daily life.

Who are the figures in these prints on mirror?

They’re all wanted by the Chinese police — suspected of different crimes: murder, economic crimes. I took the images from the official website of the Chinese police.

I understand the crime scene photo was also sourced from the internet. Are you familiar with the circumstances of this particular crime?

Not all of the images I’m using are from China; this is actually a murder scene from a country in South America. You can’t see the figures clearly but it’s still a familiar image. Most people, people from all different countries, are probably familiar with this kind of crime scene. Without any idea where it exactly happened, without any politics or social background, people can still read the image.

What has been most exciting or engaging for you about working at Magnolia?

It’s exciting to work at Magnolia because I feel Don is such a genius. When I brought in these images, he provided so many different media for me to experiment with. I also feel recharged: I used to paint, and had some famous oil paintings like the glove series, but I stopped painting for more than twenty years. I also used to do silkscreen prints. In my practice I like to always change my methods and try new media. So I feel very comfortable here at Magnolia; I don’t want to repeat my work and Magnolia is a good match for my working method.

I’m very happy to work with Don; we work well together. The collaboration itself has caused an emerging feeling of inspiration. Sometimes living itself can be considered art, and art is also a part of life. So I feel the process of producing artworks should always be pleasant.

Have you made digital prints before?

I’ve only used inkjet printers to print my photographic works, which I also used Photoshop to edit.

The concept of the outlaw, being a criminal in the eyes of the state, seems to be a major issue in many contemporary Chinese artists’ work, especially with artists like Ai Weiwei being openly persecuted.

I’ve always been very interested in the idea of criminality. I question the law: how it issues from the government and what kind of relationship exists between the people, the instructions everyone is supposed to follow, and criminals. It is a common social problem faced everywhere: no one can avoid it. Somehow, at the same time I also feel very insecure inside. I’ve always wondered: perhaps one day will I be considered a criminal? It could happen to anyone in their daily life, no matter whether they intended it or not. So it inspires some deep consideration.

I think in this society, no one is completely ‘secure’ from being labeled as a criminal. The day we chose the images for the mirror prints we were looking through the wanted photos on the Chinese police website and joking that we hoped we wouldn’t come across any familiar faces. Luckily, we didn’t see anyone we knew.

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Zhang Peili’s new editions are available for sale exclusively through Ren Art Space; please contact the gallery for more information.

– Nick Stone