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From WeChat to Surveillance Videos: Artist Zhang Peili Creates a Contemporary Gaze

An exhibition at Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing, reflects on the rising voyeurism within changing media structures

Entering Zhang Peili’s solo exhibition, ‘Now That’, entails waiting in a zone cordoned off by prison-like metal bars for one of several mechanical gates to swing open. Pointedly delimiting the audience’s movement, Access Control System (all works 2018) is the first of four artworks in this pithy exhibition. Past the gated barrier, we enter a space scattered with a dozen variously sized mattresses (Audible Mattress), which we are invited to sit or lie on in order to activate the sound of a voice that randomly lists names from three groups: members of the National People’s Congress, wanted criminals and lost children. Explaining Chinese artists’ work in terms of political disobedience often rests on dangerously undeveloped conceptual frameworks; here, jumping to the conclusion that Zhang has smuggled in some subtle excoriation – not only metaphorically putting members of the government behind bars but also associating them with criminals – ignores the artist’s disavowal of singular meaning. Why are lost children also listed? How do mattresses connect the three groups? And is it not the viewers who find themselves behind bars? These are some of the questions that complicate a simple reading, sidestepping the dichotomy of Chinese artist versus government. The show’s title, ‘Now That’ – an opaque conjunction apparently missing a beginning or an end – also seems to push the viewer towards this open-ended understanding, while simultaneously signalling a gaze on the present moment.

Zhang Peili, Audible Mattress, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

The two pieces on the second floor are marked by extended durations: a drawn-out monotony that characterizes much of Zhang’s previous work. Open Video – From My WeChat Moments is a compilation of all the ten-second videos posted by Zhang’s contacts on WeChat over a three-month period. The clips are shown on a small screen before an armchair installed with a pressure sensor, so that the following video is only played when one person rises from the chair and the next sits on it. The work is a demonstration of Zhang’s interest in and adoption of the newest and most prevalent telecommunication media. Within this sea of digital content, where does ownership lie? How does the artist gain the right to show videos that were ostensibly sent to a select group of people? These are some of the key questions Zhang’s work engages with. As the images only appear when someone is sitting on the chair – which is to say, when someone is looking at them – visitors are left with a sense of their own complicity in an ethically ambiguous voyeurism. Besides our friends, we are prompted to consider, who is viewing our posts on social media and to what ends?

Zhang Peili, The Front View of an Apartment Building, 2013, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

The Front View of an Apartment Building, a 24-minute shot of a block of flats, engages with similar questions. The high-quality video allows us to see people going about various menial tasks in their homes. Zhang did not seek permission to film the work and, as such, he again implicates the viewer in a web of unauthorized looking. The spectre of rising surveillance – in China and on a global scale – makes these pertinent topics, yet Zhang chooses to imitate and thus amplify these mechanisms rather than offer a panacea. Walking out through the prison-like gates, we are left with the feeling that these systems are not rarefied but constants of contemporary life.

Zhang Peili, 'Now That' was on view at Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing, from 27 October until 13 January 2019.

Main image: Zhang Peili, Access Control System, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

Tom Mouna is a writer based in Beijing.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019
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