"So Zhang Peili is the Chinese Douglas Gordon?" I flippantly asked whimsical dealer Jack Tilton last Friday night. "Douglas Gordon has heard of Zhang," Tilton replied, "and he’s too edgy for Larry Warsh."
Zhang’s new show at Tilton’s uptown boîte restores some mental heft to the China craze, which Tilton started 15 years ago and now admits that he is priced out of. Zhang’s work is a deep pond of meditation on the crimes of the Chinese state, emphasizing a single repeated act as synecdoche for the submission of the Chinese people.
Two new video installations in the Tilton show reiterate Zhang’s obsessions. One, titled Happiness (2006), juxtaposes sexy headshots of Chinese film stars, all of whom resemble Brad Pitt, with the idiotic clapping and robotic smiles of the masses. View it for awhile and your teeth begin to ache.
The other work, Last Words (2003), seminally splices together tragic denouements of Chinese propaganda films of the 1950s and ‘60s, in which smiling peasants happily lay down their lives for the collective good. One bit of a young fellow taking a gun to his head, grinning all the time, is particularly chilling. Zhang seems to imply that the death wish that characterized the world’s oldest civilization for so long, at the cost of 750,000,000 lives, still lies close beneath the skin, and that he, a man of 50, will not forget or let you forget.
Contrast the clips in Last Words with their exact filmic contemporaries, the films of Andy Warhol. The close-ups of noble heads dreaming of the dark side are eerily similar. No transcendence, just a happy grave, by the gun or the drug.
While the figures in Zhang’s loops are familiar to the Chinese, they are anonymous to the Western viewer, but that will change, as Greater China becomes the template of the world. Zhang seems to ask if his people are ready for such dominance and at what price.
Zhang Peili, Jan. 11-Feb. 16, 2008, at Jack Tilton Gallery, 8 East 76th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).