Shaun Wang Interviews Zhang Peili

We thank Shaun Wang 王上 for allowing us to reproduce excerpts from his bilingual book Motive 动机, published by China International Press in August 2014.  Shaun is the son of two celebrated artists, Wang Gongxin王功新 and Lin Tianmiao 林天苗.  Motive is his second book. His first book, Twelve Days in Vastness, a record of his journey to Xinjiang, was written in English and self-published.  The eighteen-year-old author explains himself in the Introduction to Motive, reproduced below in English and Chinese. We have chosen to feature his interview with the artist Zhang Peili 张培力, often called the ‘father of video art in China’. Zhang heads the Department of New Media at the China Academy of Fine Arts 中国美术学院 in Hangzhou and is Director of the Shanghai-based non-profit art space and museum OCAT (Contemporary Art Terminal). Geremie R. Barmé’s reading of Zhang’s 2008 installation work, A Gust of Wind (Zhen feng 阵风), appears here. — The Editors


Motive: Interviewing 23 art individuals

Shaun Wang 王上

What’s provoking about this project, which I came to realize during the process of the interviews, is that I am one of those spoiled children born into a family of two famous artists, a second generation of an artistic aristocracy; a child who is able to cut corners while many others who are more devoted and more professional dream to have the chance of interviewing one of these art individuals. Having these special art-related opportunities is like those heirs of business tycoons inheriting material wealth. It’s something I was born with, but I have to prove myself worthy to become the person I should be; I have to show that I am capable of making good use of my parents’ resources with discretion. In other words, I was only able to conduct this project on the basis of all the connections of my parents.

Shaun Wang

Shaun Wang

Despite my glorious conviction to justify myself, I am honestly clueless about what I want to do in the future.As a teenager living in this age of information, where all kinds of Internet resources and social media overflow, it’s extremely hard for me to grasp the profession/major I would like to pursue. It’s also the reason why I came up with this project, which aims to understand the ins and outs of the artistic circle through interviewing different prominent individuals, and try to get a sense of what it is like to be an interviewer.

My parents, being artists, are very liberal, and they have no preference towards my career.However, this brings me onto a journey–a journey where my parents put all their hearts into helping me find the dearest passion to my heart. Some may say that I am fortunate to be blessed with an easy life and a loving family, but sometimes I’d rather be forced onto a path with a definite direction, instead of strolling in one place looking into the vast sea of possibilities.

During the 1970s and 80s, Chinese artists–many of whom are famous now–had very limited career opportunities. It was a time when the country was closed to the outside. However, limited as the resources were, these young people chose art, as it was the perfect way to explore their creative passion. This aroused my curiosity,and I wonder how these artists, with no previous role models to follow, gathered enough courage to venture into the realm of contemporary art. I am curious if they were politically and economically suppressed while doing art. What was their state of mind and what was the motivation that pushed them forward? And how did they develop their own perspectives? More importantly, how did they bring Chinese contemporary art out of underground to its current status as a competitor in global art market?

I became acquainted with many of these artists ever since I was a little boy, and their art accompanied me through my childhood. Naturally, viewing these works brings to mind my childhood, especially when I was brought to some of the earliest galleries in Beijing. It is a feeling mixed with nostalgia and joy; a feeling that evokes the meaning of home.

It was during this time when I grew up (over the last 18 years) that Chinese contemporary art community experienced its most rapid growth. It was also during my mother’s pregnancy of me that she created her first installation work.

Initially, my purpose for this book was not to understand the philosophy behind each artist’s work, but rather to focus on the attitude each artist needed to achieve success. However, after interviewing a few artists I began to realize the entanglement between the daily life of the artist and his or her artistic philosophy.

Trying to establish the interviews is often the hardest part in this project. Frequently when I attempted to set up the time with the artist, they would decline; some wanted to see a copy of the interview questions; some wanted to have a talk before they accepted my interview request; some inquired about my connections, and some arranged the meeting in a massage parlor trying to make the meeting as awkward as possible, which actually made me realize that art can be discussed in any situation.

I respect each interviewee’s decision; I understand the academic positions and implications behind their decisions. Particularly, rather than accepting a 30-minute interview, a few individuals would take out 2 hours, over the phone, to tell me how they believed that the interview was something they didn’t prefer. It reflected their stern belief in their artistic stance, which also added to my understanding of the seriousness within art.

Most of the interviewees still took me as a child, and it took some time to convince them that I was capable of discussing art, and also, complicated ideas. A few of them still did not feel the need or desire to express themselves expansively in words. They still treated the interviews as though they were inferior to those established by a professional. However, interestingly these artists became very truthful and down-to-earth when I interviewed them; they replied to my questions without any professional barriers; they advised me on matters that they wouldn’t discuss with other professional interviewers.

Most importantly, from a 17-year-old’s perspective, these interviews revealed how under the same social influences, different artists came to choose different approaches to their art. Some consistently remain the same while some others are very enthusiastic about changing themselves, constantly switching to new ways of presentation. The remaining artists, however, hold on to their principles with confidence, guarding what they believe in.

What I didn’t expect is that through the process of interviewing, my artistic boundaries were reestablished; they were constantly expanding, from an individualistic view into a more worldwide perspective.

Similarly, the subjects that were being conveyed through the interviews also became more varied. For instance, there’re such topics as the difference between western philosophy’s influence on western art and that on the Chinese art community;or self-identity and multi-cultural identification; feminism and other political subjects; and artists entering the market.

Through these interviews I was also able to realize that artists, entrepreneurs, philosophers and scientists started to blur in boundaries. They all seem to share something in common, and people in the future will finally have to possess multi-discipline skills in order to succeed.

In the end, I have to say that through all my childhood and adolescent years I’ve always been fortunate, for my parents never ceased to support me in any direction I’d like to go.

To finish up, I would like to thank everyone who accepted or declined my request for interviewing him or her. I’d like to give my thanks to my parents for their continuous encouragement throughout the entire project; to Leon, Yezi, Lin Dongwei, Lin Tianfang, Wang Chih-Chien, and Charles Lee for their helpful suggestions throughout the book. There are just too many people to thank and without them I wouldn’t be able to present this book.


Minor Introduction

 Zhang Peili

If I had the chance to live again I think I would be exactly the same, since you have no choice but to follow your heart.

An artist is not someone who possesses some privilege in a certain field. Art is not like patent; when something becomes a patent, it would turn into a tool for the society and could then be mechanically reproduced.


Interview with Zhang Peili

Interview Date: 17 August 2013

S: Because I am very confused about what I want to do, when you were my age (17 years old), have you already set out to become an artist?

Z: Yes, it seemed so. I didn’t have many interests. Becoming an artist was a good option for me. When I graduated from high school and the Cultural Revolution had just ended. An artist could not do any other things but drawing. Actually I began to draw as early as when I was studying in grade 3, I began to practice sketching. All my friends were related with the arts, we were all admiring the students from art schools, and fancied that one day we could become one of them. That’s also why I was not able to play with the kids in the neighborhood because they were not art-lovers.


Zhang Peili 张培力 in situ

Zhang Peili 张培力 in situ

S:Have you ever doubted your decision in becoming an artist?

Z:Though I want to become an artist, but at first I did not want to make it my lifetime career. After graduation from high school, I began to work and make a living. I also wanted to become a movie projectionist in a cinema, or a librarian, and then I could work and had fun (see movies and read many books) at the same time. What a wonderful thing! Later we had a chance to go to college, which was one of the important things for people at that time. In 1978 I worked as a surveyor at the construction site for around two years, I would draw when I was free from work, because I did not like this kind of work even though it did not have much pressure. When I was admitted to an art school, it seemed I was only able to do arts, not any other things. I have doubted my choice of becoming a painter, but eventually I still worked my career with art related things.


S:As the first man making video art in China, why did you choose the video language to express yourself? Have you ever seen the western equivalent video artwork before? Or did you just make as experiments?

Z:Maybe I can explain it in several aspects: First, after 1986, I began to doubt my choice of becoming a painter because oil painting didn’t seem to be able to express my thoughts in arts, and I have started to tried other methods; second videos and television programs, foreign movies became more and more popular, but we could not see original video artworks in person, and only saw the pictures of the works… Only small pictures indicating this kind of situation: an installation with a television playing something interesting… This is what was called “video arts”. I felt thrilled because besides this kind of art we have already learned that there were other forms of art, like “Earth Art” ,“Performance Art”, “Happening Art”, “Neoplasticism”, “Installation Art”, “Modern Art”…etc. So I thought video art was a new and good form that I could also use without any restrictions.

Artists are not patent holders as people are in other fields; drawing isn’t something that you professionalize in. If one becomes a patent he or she will become a machine for mass production. So this is an occasional opportunity that enabled me to express my thoughts with video.

At that time I thought video arts had these features:

People didn’t have too much understanding of the possibility within videos, except they would watched from TV channels or commercial channels; And for me, I wanted to do something different from the standard concepts of the videos, and this is the most obvious thing for me. Also the video has the feature of “time” giving it a moving quality, which paintings, photography and other art forms can’t include. The video may be related with the audiences’ body. For example, when we are watching videos, we must stay for a longer time until it has ended, this is when we are able to understand what the video wants to tell us. The language of the video should express in a period of time, then the “time” becomes an important part. During this period, what you see will have a relationship with the “time” and may influence your body; say, make you feel boring or exhausted. This is what I want to express. So I make the first video piece called “30 X 30”, the duration is around 3 hours, which looks like a practical joke. I just wanted to let audiences feel uncomfortable.


S:After you displayed the piece ’30 X 30′, what made you continue your practices in video art? Is it out of your own curiosity or because some people made positive comments and feedbacks to your work?

Z:I think the reason is, technically speaking, video became easier to control and easier to operate, but if I made a realistic painting, I must spend several months to finish it. Video is also more direct; I prefer this method. At the turning point of 1980s-1990s, I was given a chance to make videos for some people like Xin Zhibin, the famous CCTV news announcer. This was an exciting thing for me. I can use this kind of art form to interfere into the mainstream media. So later I found that video had such a power of interfering society. It’s also an interesting thing for me. Later in 1990s(around 1992,1993) I traveled to US, Europe including France and saw many shows, which expanded my vision and understanding. Then I found many things within video art agreeing with each other though they have never influenced each other directly. I did not make an academic research about the texts and concepts of video arts, but when I saw the videos outside China, it felt very familiar and daring to me, even though we were distant from each other. That’s also a big reason that made me to continue.


S:I like very much the video artworks you and my father make. I also want to become a video artist. But I also know that the market for video arts is very limited, and I want to have a decent life because my generation was born into a supplied environment. Can you give me some suggestions and advices? What made you stick to your career in video arts in front of so many practical difficulties?

Z:When you decide to become an artist at the very beginning, you must be well prepared; you may only be able to live a normal life, making only enough to live comfortably. A well-to-do life cannot be promised in this path; you may be lucky but you should know not everyone is lucky.

At the beginning, it’s also very hard for all who did video art to move forward. I flied to NYC to see your father and mother; they were also not in good conditions. Even Geng Jianyi, our teacher, and other of our friends in Hangzhou weren’t the same. At that time, what we were doing could not provide us with a decent life so we had to do something else to earn a living such as making commercial paintings for ads and anything from which we can make money. We also knew that foreign artists were doing the same thing before they can make a living by doing art, and some artists are still doing commercial side paths even when they have already achieved success; for example, an artist called Lois Conner, who makes black and white photography and whom you probably know, had been a professor at Yale, and before that she also made commercial photography. Geng Jianyi and I never quit our occupations of teaching at college because at least this job could provide us with a basic financial guarantee to support our families. But if you see us now, you will know that we all are doing very well. So this is the result after a long process of continuation of what you are doing and to some extent we are lucky.

Therefore, you cannot predict the results at the beginning; these are unknown facts. But as long as you dedicate yourself to something while following your heart, you may just be lucky. There are always thousands of attractions in front of you. Just guess: if I never quit painting, I may have a well-to-do life now. But at that time painting did not satisfy me, it’s going farer and farer from my expectations, I could not force myself to stick to it. It’s a miserable thing if you force yourself to do something.


S:You have made some works with the style of old films. As a young generation, I did not experience the same background at that time and did not see too much of that kind of films. What do you think are the attitudes for the young generation whom occasionally do not understand your works?

Z:It’s hard to say whether an audience understand your works or not. Even for the people of my generation, different person has different interpretations. What’s your personal interpretation? Everyone has his/her own educational background and different points of view. Any kind of interpretations is understandable, no matter whether he/she knows the background of my creation or has the same life backgrounds with me. But I always believe that there are some basic elements in any kind of visual languages, which are acceptable and echoing to all the audiences. For young people not understanding my works, I don’t believe that that is a problem.


S:You are an artist and also a teacher in a university simultaneously, and recently you became the director of OCAT Shanghai. Will these occupations influence your art practices? If so, is the influence a positive or negative one?

Z:Everything happens because of good influences and bad influences, but it’s difficult to say which kind of influences matters more. But now I am doing well; I think it’s a positive influence on me. Also if I can, I would treat all these occupations as individual and not relative things; and if necessary, I can also connect them together as one single thing. The concept of being an artist is very different from what we know from the past; at that time we must isolate ourselves in our studio to think about our own arts.

Moreover, an artist is also a social person; he/she is trying to make his/her voice in different ways that is relating, communicating, exchanging, subjective or objective, with the society. Teaching and becoming the director at the OCAT space are my way of interfering and exchanging communications with society; I think it is a meaningful choice.

I do not know whether I am doing these things in a correct or wrong way, maybe after several years we will be able to know. It’s a boring thing if a sixty-year-old person still likes doing the same things. I need a fresh interest; at least one that interests me. In China, many arts haven’t given a shot at being the director of a museum; why not give it a try?


S:The reason I wanted to ask you this question is that I admire that you have multiple identities. In the future, I also want to become an artist and a gallery founder at the same time, do you think that is possible?

Z:Theoretically, nothing is impossible nowadays as long as you try. But there are also practical problems you will definitely encounter if you have these two identities: Whose works do you plan to sell? Your own? Or that of other artists? If you sell others’, your taste may limit your selling; also you should know clearly if your gallery is a commercial or not. You should pay more attention to it’s operations and managements, especially you should take care of the relations between your gallery and the artists you are representing. You are still the middle party between the gallery and the artist. Anyway, it’s hard to say because I did not have such experiences.

As an artist, I am trying my best not to bring my personal preferences into the administration job in the space, and not to make all decisions by yourself, no more personal style.


S:I had interviewed many curators, most of them have many different positions/identities. Do you consider this as one popular trend in the future?

Z:Maybe yes. In the past, all occupations had their different and exclusive responsibilities, and people only took one job. But now in the post-industrial time and information age, people are capable of getting more information and possibilities at the same time. Also from the social sense, people’s identity has undergone many changes and become more diversified, sometimes many identities occur to a single person. But all this does not mean that one person must possess more than one identity. Some people are suitable, but not for all. So just follow your heart, and understand what you really want to do and what you are interested in.






















“对我来说,如果再让我活一遍,我也只能这样,因为你只能听从你内心的召唤。” —张培力

“艺术家不是在某个领域特有专利的一个人,绘画不是一个专利,一个东西变成专利的话, 就会变成社会的工具一样,机械地再生产了。” —张培力









张:分几个角度来说: 一方面,从86年后,我对绘画越来越怀疑,发现绘画不能够清晰表达自己对艺术的态度,后来不断尝试绘画以外的方法。

另一方面,电视录像越来越普及,当时有机会看到国外的电影,影像,当然video art的原作我并没有看到过,只是在杂志上看到过作品的图片,但只是一个小图片而已,一个装置加上一个电视机,里面播放内容,这个就是所谓的“video art”,那时很兴奋。因为当时除了这个以外,还有其他的不同的东西,如大地艺术、行为艺术、偶发艺术、几何物作品艺术、装置、现代艺术等形形色色的形式。

我觉得如果新艺术是一种适合的方式,都是可以拿来用的,不会受任何的限制。艺术家不是在某个领域特有专利的一个人,绘画不是一个专利,一个东西变成专利的话, 就会变成社会的工具一样,机械地再生产了。

后来也是一个偶然的机会,让我想到要用录像来表达。 当时觉得录像呈现的有几个方面:









我们在一开始的确十分艰难,那时你爸妈在纽约,我去看他们,他们也很艰难。我们在杭州的一些朋友, 如耿老师,都很艰难。那时艺术本身不能给你带来好的生活。有时为了生活就得用其他方法来挣钱,那时我也画过广告或商业的东西,是纯粹为了挣钱,我们也了解到,国外的艺术家在出名之前,也是什么事情都做,设计啊,商业拍摄啊,甚至有些人在比较有名后还在做。你认识的Lois Conner, 她是做黑白摄影的,她也做商业摄影,用来解决生活的问题,她有一个职业,曾在Yale教摄影;我和耿老师,也从来没有离开过我们正式的教育职业,因为我们知道,我们的收入是非常不稳地的,对我来说,有一个基本的收入,可以有一个基本的保证,不至于最后困难到揭不开锅。其实后来看起来大家都混得不错。你爸妈,我也还行,还有耿老师,我觉得这个就是很多年的积累的结果,而且我们的运气还不错。











张: 有可能。以前职业分工是比较明确的,人从事的工作是比较单一的。现在是后工业时代和信息化时代造成的这种变化,人类接受信息越来越多,提供的可能性越多。 我觉得社会的结构上,人的身份发生了很多变化,变得越来越多样化,有身份的重叠。但不是说人一定要有两三个身份,而只是说有这种可能,它可能适合某些人, 但不一定适合所有人。所以要听从自己内心的召唤,认识自己到底想要做什么,我适合做什么,我对什么感兴趣等。