A conversation with Zhang Peili

Zhang Peili is one of China’s leading artists, specialising in new media installation. He was also head of New Media at China Art Academy for 9 years until his department was suddenly merged with another. ‘Now I’m just an ordinary professor,’ he told The Art Newspaper.

Since the early 90s, his work has been intrinsically political and makes strong social commentary on China. His work has long been considered extremely important within Chinese art circles. He often refuses to talk about his work or his family background, or other issues. His early work Standard Pronunciation, a video of a Chinese TV news reader reading the weather report, the same news reader who read the news during the Tiananmen square massacre saying everything was normal in Beijing on June 4th 1989 , is thought of as a key political work. the news announcer was reading the news saying everything was normal in Beijing. He has never reviewed why he made this work, probably for obvious reasons.

Zhang Peili is currently still based in Hangzhou, where he has a studio and where he has lived for most of his life.

Transcript 28.02.2012 Hangzhou

CPG: So you painted gloves?

ZP: I started painting gloves in 1986. And painted them for about a year.

CPG: What is the meaning of the glove paintings?

ZP: What do the gloves mean? They have no meaning. I don’t think painting needs to have a meaning. Our education then and now is that painting should have a meaning. But in my view, painting doesn’t have to have a meaning. To have no meaning is an other kind of meaning.

CPG: In a western way of talking, to take off you gloves, the meaning is to really start working. So after painting your gloves was that your last painting and then you started doing new media work?

ZP: No. I was painting for a period after that. I was painting until 1994. What you said to take your gloves off and then start working, I have never thought of that. I never thought of it in such a complicated way.

CPG: I would just like to ask you a bit about your family background. As I understand your two grandfathers were landlords in two small towns…

ZP: Yes in Zhejiang Province. In two towns close together. One called Wenling, and the other called Huangyan.

CPG: They were doing business there?

ZP: They did do some business that’s right, but they were mostly big landlords. I’m not sure why you want to know about my family background, I’m not sure how it relates to my work. I never met my two grandfathers. They died before I was born. Afterwards I heard many stories about them. But anyway, it doesn’t matter… Everyone’s situation has it’s own characteristics, everyone has their own background. Every family, every person has their own special story. It is nothing, it’s been difficult, this kind of thing that happened in China, I’m not the only one.

CPG: I know, but you are an important representative of Chinese contemporary art…

ZP: I don’t want to represent anything.

CP: I heard there was an interesting story related to a boat disaster?

ZP: My grandfather had a boat, was transporting goods. From a larger city called Haimen, now it is called Zhaogiang. They transported goods from Zhaogiang to Shanghai.

CPG: I heard there was a trouble with the boat?

ZP: Oh yes, if I remember it was in 1947. Near Shanghai, in a place called Songkou, there was a ferry from Shanghai to Ningbo. That boat official capacity was 3000 people. At that time it was very messy. So on that day, the boat had somewhere between 4000 and 5000 people on it. A lot of people got on without tickets. When they reached the sea, the boat hit something that exploded. Exactly how that boat sank, it isn’t very clear. So the amount of people who died, is more than the British Titanic. About 4000 people died. It maybe is the world’s greatest maritime disaster, the most people died in the sea. My grandfather’s ship just happened to be passing this, so he saved many people. 400 or 500 hundred, I am not very clear. His boat wasn’t very big, after he rescued these people his boat also began to sink. So he threw his cargo into the sea. At the time it was a big issue, but now very few people know about it. This was after the Japanese war and during the civil war. The nationalist and communist were fighting in the north but they hadn’t arrived in Shanghai yet. It was very messy, Shanghai’s economy was very bad. There was inflation, money wasn’t money anymore.

CPG: Why don’t they talk about this now?

ZP: Who doesn’t talk about it?

CPG: Why do people nowadays not know about it?

ZP: Because very few people survived. So this was also something that happened during the nationalist period. There was nothing to do with the communist party. After 1949 (communist victory), in 1951 my grandfather was executed. So this thing, they really don’t talk about it.

Other people, including people they rescued, they wouldn’t talk about it. So he was executed so nobody would talk about this. Just recently, people have begun to talk about it. Some of the people he rescued are still alive. So some TV stations and some people have written books and then TV have broadcast documentaries about this issue, but they don’t mention my grandfather, they just talk about this incident. The boat that sank was called Jiangyalun. My grandfather’s boat was called Jingliyantao. A lot of information is coming out now about the Jiangyalun.

CPG: What was your grandfather’s name?

ZP: My grandfather’s name was Jiang Hanting.

CPG: When did you know about this?

ZP: I found out when I was in High School. My father told me secretly. After the Culture Revolution, we were able to talk about this kind of thing openly in the family, that they didn’t think this was a bad thing.

CPG: During the Culture Revolution did families with a landlord class background have a lot of problem?

ZP: Certainly. Families with a bad class background had to pay a lot of attention to what they said. Doing anything, talking, you had to be very careful.

CPG: During this time at school, how did you start painting?
ZP: It’s hard to talk clearly about that. Some people are like that when they are born, just like it. Some like to sing, some like to do woodwork, some like to write. You can’t say clearly.

At that time, they had art class. Everyone attended the same class. Some people liked it, some didn’t. I liked it. They said I painted very well, so I was very happy. I was better than the other students .That was in primary school, the primary school is now gone. Do you know, China had a famous person called Yue Fei. He lived during the Song Dynasty. That time the Song Dynasty was fighting with the Mongols. He was a famous general and he had people attack him and he was killed. My school house was formerly Yue Fei’s stables and armoury. It was called Bingmazhong. It was knocked down during the Culture Revolution. It was in Hangzhou, it’s very sad, I remember that building was very beautiful. Inside the stables, the wood was very beautiful. We used to play in there.

CPG: Why did they knock it down?

ZP: You know during the Culture Revolution they attacked anything with history. For instance a lot of temples got knocked down. They thought Yue Fei had no importance. It was in the centre of the city (of Hangzhou) in an area called Zhonganqiao. The building next door was also knocked down.

CPG: They knocked down a lot.

ZP: They knocked down everything. Even the old buildings are fake. There are very very few old buildings left.

CPG: Hangzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in China.

ZP: Among Chinese cities, Hangzhou is one of the better ones. Because it has a natural environment. They can’t knock that down. Without it, Hangzhou would be ugly.

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