Lot 803
  • 803

Zhang Peili

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zhang Peili
  • Swimmers
  • oil on canvas
signed in Chinese and dated 1985 on the reverse, framed


China, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art, '85 New Space, December, 1985


Mei Shu, issue 2, People's Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, China, 20 February, 1986, p. 42
Lü Peng ed., Contemporary Artists Collection - Zhang Peili, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, Chengdu, China, 2007, p. 26
Lü Peng, A Pocket History of 20th-Century Chinese Art, Charta Books Ltd., New York, USA, 2007, p. 1035, pl. 11.32 (installation view at '85 New Space)
Gao Minglu ed., The '85 Movement Vol. 2 - An Anthology of Historical Sources, Guangxi Normal University Press, Guilin, China, 2008, p. 192
Artistic Working Manual of Zhang Peili, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, Guangzhou, China, 2008, p. 29
Lü Peng, A History of Art In Twentieth Century China, Edizioni Charta, Milan, Italy, 2010, p. 862 (installation view at '85 New Space)
Lü Peng, The Story of "Art in China" - from Late Qing to Present, Peking University Press, Beijing, China, 2010, pl. 11.32 (installation view at '85 New Space)
Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art, MIT Press, London, England, 2011, p. 238

Catalogue Note

Zhang Peili
A Voice of Rationality in Early Contemporary Chinese Art

In the influential 1985 New Wave Art Movement, young artists often organized themselves into regional groups and issued group manifestos accordingly as a way to gain speaking and exhibition rights. Most notably, a group of young graduates from the then-Zhejiang Academy of Art organized "'85 New Space" in their school's museum, attracting the immediate attention of the art world to both the works and the participating artists. In 1986, the group founded the Lake Society and became a crucial force in the Southern Chinese art scene. As an instigator of both the "'85 New Space" and the Lake Society, 1957-born Zhang Peili has always been an important driver and guide.

The overall tone of "'85 New Space" was cold and solitary. Zhang Peili participated with four works from the two series of Swimmers and Music. As his first publicly exhibited works, they represent Zhang's early style, and Swimmers (Lot 803) was one of them. Unlike Mid-Summer Swimmers, a snapshot of human figures about to enter water, Swimmers shows figures already submerged. In this work, we cannot clearly delineate between foreground and background. The figures have a strong sense of volume and clear contours, and yet completely lack articulation of facial details. Although they exist together in the somewhat unreal blue space, they do not communicate with each other at all. The clean, analytical brushwork further drains them of life. This dispassionate tone was not intentional. As Zhang Peili recounts, "After the works were finished, we saw very clearly the coherence among them, which was a general dispassion and coldness. The exhibition thus left viewers a uniformly 'cold' impression."1 Nonetheless, this unintentionally uniform "dispassion and coldness" illuminates the artistic visions shared among the "New Space" artists.

Zhang Peili entered the Zhejiang Academy of Art in 1980 along with Wang Guangyi and Geng Jianyi. During his time there, Zhang exposed himself to vast amounts of art books and became interested in Surrealists like Dali and De Chirico. The American Realist Edward Hopper was also among his favorite painters. Their presence in Swimmers is evident in the surreal, slightly illusory setting, which is made more so by the realistic rendition of  forms and the muddling of facial features. At this time Zhang Peili, like Hopper, concentrated his attention on his immediate circumstances and on everyday life in the city. In his painting, an ordinary swimming scene became estranged. Although Zhang captured the proximity and lack of communication among urban dwellers very accurately, his vision and means of expression were criticized at the time for being wilfully detached from the world and its pressing realities. In 1985, a year in which a host of new ideas and social phenomena emerged, most people tended to be concerned with social realities and such big issues as the interrelationship between humans and civilization. They searched for their own animated and timely expression, like the concept of "Northern Civilization" proposed by  the Northern Art Group led by Wang Guangyi and Shu Qun, who attempted through art to  realize a lofty and capacious rationalism and to achieve an eternal, perfect state of the Overman. And the key difference between the Lake Society and the Northern Art Group lied in the former's turn away from big issues towards everyday life and individual existence.

It is worth noting that Zhang Peili is today more often regarded as the "father of Chinese video art" than a painter. Between 1987 and 1988, after the Swimmers and Music series, he created his representative X? series. In 1988, when the majority of artists were still exploring new artistic languages, Zhang created the video work 30x30, inciting another controversy. Zhang spent the early 90's negotiating between the mediums of painting and video installation, and in 1994 finally gave up easel painting to concentrate on video art. This radical shift may be inexplicable to us, but was completely reasonable for Zhang. As he explained very clearly in an interview, "I have always believed that artistic language is always foremost in importance for an artist. Critical reception is another matter. As an artist, I am only interested in artistic language." "Art of the past was in service of politics and fulfilled propagandistic needs. In the 80's, the artist's worth as an individual was emphasized, but how to manifest individualism in an artistic language? This can only be achieved through a meticulous analysis of artistic language. Generic statements about art as social critique or haphazard conclusions about art as a kind of humour will not do."2 Most works in the '85 New Wave movement were still mired in narrativity and humanistic passion, whereas Zhang had already sensed the necessity of exploring artistic language. In a sense, the "content" of art became unimportant, and the effectiveness of an artistic strategy could also come under pressure because it could become inapplicable once artistic values changed. When describing views on art in 1985, Zhang has said that "without doubt, a solemn, orderly, and tension-filled art is beneficial in healing wandering souls. At the same time, it is also useful in destroying the sentimental and affected 'civilized' culture of the petit bourgeoisie... As for 'strategy', I seek variety. If we honestly see art as a purely intellectual activity and not a 'professional' activity, sickness and alienation in art can be avoided. Yet, an appropriate limitations on the intellectuality of art is beneficial. Aside from setting rules for ourselves, we must also be mindful of these 'limitations."3 Clearly, the creation of Swimmers accompanied Zhang Peili's first steps in recognizing artistic language, and the language in this work was very effective for him at the time. Together, Swimmers, X?, and 30x30 trace a path of Zhang Peili's explorations of artistic language in the 80's and reveal clearly his entire creative process of endless modifications. As a first experimentation with artistic language, Swimmers is an appropriate representative of his early work, which of course was also the crucial component in his creative process.

1 Fine Arts in China, issue38, 22 September, 1986
2 Interview with "Visual Production" Artistic Working Manual of Zhang Peili, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, 2008
3 Published in 1989, in Gao Minglu Contemporary Art Series: A History of '85 Art Movement, Gao Minglu ed., Vol. 2, First Edition, Guangxi Normal University Press Group, 2008