By Karen Smith 凯伦.史密斯
The Annual Report of OCD. Zhang Peili Solo Exhibition
Rén Space (No.10, Lane 133, Shangwen Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai)
November 5, 2019 – July 28, 2020
This exhibition puts the artist on display, literally. From the inside out. You may never again have an opportunity to see so much of one individual laid bare before your eyes all at one time. But whilst the project is a no-holds-barred depiction of the artist himself, it is far from a conventional self-portrait. Anyone hoping to achieve a selfie with Zhang Peili, who is after all one of China’s better known contemporary art figures, will be in for a shock.
What lies in store is hinted at in the phrase “from the inside out.” This is not literary license. It is literal truth. Language is littered with phrases in which impossible actions are invoked against various parts of the body, not to belie actual intent but states of mind. We pour our hearts out, or wear them on our sleeve. We open ourselves up to speak frankly with friends, which may lead us to cry our eyes out. Eyes that stand out on stalks when surprised, while anxiety tends to tie stomachs in knots. We tear our hair out in anguish; we vent our spleen; and are prone to go out of our mind.
Naturally we don’t mean any of it in a literal sense. Such sayings evolved because the body is both closest to us homo sapiens, and the one thing we have in common. In sickness and in health, the body is universal, so we reasonably assume its sensations to be shared by all peoples when speaking of emotional experiences. The caveat in the case of “The Annual Report of OCD” is that the taking/coming “out” actions, so blithely uttered as metaphor, is literally the modus operandi of Zhang Peili’s project.
Literal metaphor aside, universality is central to Zhang Peili’s art. From the first of his conceptual experiments, he has worked with topics, experiences, and knowledge that are closest to the universal “us” – a random list that includes sax players, swimmers, tai qi, latex gloves, blood samples, acting, adoration, claustrophobia, control, a children’s toy, and chicken soup, which all make perfect sense in the context of the form they inhabit in his art. In 1993, he was quoted (in the catalogue to the exhibition China’s New Art Post 1989) as saying, “We (artists) should not build barriers in the name of art.” Zhang Peili’s commitment to this belief clearly continues. Over the last several decades his artworks have been generally accessible to all. The possible exception being here, in the case of people who feel faint at the idea of seeing inside the body at close quarters. But fear not. Zhang Peili counters overt realism here with the soothing, ethereal quality of the unexpected materials that have been used to fabricate the works. So, in line with an ethos that appears to drive this artist, “The Annual Report of OCD” is but the latest in a career full of works that communicate directly, fluidly, if at times disturbingly, across borders, cultures and ethnicities, and which speak poignantly, as sharply, about one or another aspect of the condition of being human.
In contrast to the accessibility of Zhang Peili’s customary approach to visual language, but perfectly aligned with another of his long-established practices, the phrasing of “The Annual Report of OCD” for this display is somewhat obtuse. A no-frills statement of fact, yet one clearly intended to misdirect attention, and confound assumptions about what visitors can expect to see. For the artist, this is a conscious backdrop for the project’s staging; a titular overture that is mundane on the one hand, academic on the other, but which ultimately heightens the intensity of an encounter with thebody that is laid out for perusal, part by part, through the show.
Followers of Zhang Peili’s career won’t bat an eye. Aware of his track record of conceiving and equating art with “reports”, adopting a clinical approach to painting both in technique and subject-matter, and the consistent precision of hand in the execution of video films and installation works, fans will take “The Annual Report of OCD” at face value. “Another title like so many others attached to Zhang Peili’s art,” they say knowingly, “nominally dull in its ordinariness but just wait ‘til you see the exhibition.”
This paradox is affirmed by the literal form of objects on display, each a one-to-one scale replica of the artist’s own, and entire, body contents. In fact, here you will find everything of which Zhang Peili is comprised, but the skin. Creepy? Weird? Well, yes, a bit, but not for reasons of the individual pieces per se. There’s precise realism in scale and form but no attempt to make each body part conform absolutely to reality. On the contrary, each transposed piece of the artist here is nothing short of exquisite, be it a sensual mass of luminous white marble, a pristine block of pure crystal glass, or the softly rippling surface textures of a range of unusual stone, their innate pattern revealed through the masterful craft of their carving and polishing.
Instead, the exhibition is unsettling for the deeper message to which each piece contributes. A more intimate self-portrait is hard to imagine, so deep and dark because “The Annual Report of OCD” feels like a fearless opening up of an individual’s most private self as a genuine confession of innate human vulnerability. The resulting aura infuses the exhibition with an air of mystery and wonderment, but at the same time, a profound unease. Zhang Peili gives us the human body unpacked, deconstructed, and compartmentalised into familiar anatomical spheres – bones, organs, liquids, data. The requisite number of bodily components (plus commensurate volumes of blood, urine, and fat) are placed elegantly over all floors of the Ren Space building, but begins, however, with a strange, also somewhat obtuse element; a set of pyjamas hung on a wall, on a clothes hanger to give them form and facing outwards into the space. Simple gestures like this are typical of Zhang Peili’s style, hinting at a state of mind, the artist’s possibly, but also that which he wishes to communicate. But what might it mean here? The immediate sensation is absence. The person who should be in the pyjamas is nowhere to be seen. Might this be read as the outer skin of a patient, shed for the purpose of physical examination, off to be probed for whatever malfunction might be ailing them?
In setting up an ambiguous dichotomy between absence and disappearance, Zhang Peili finds means to impart a sensation of physical vulnerability. The humble pyjamas thus establish a disquieting overture; a point of inflection that is likely to be life-changing when the diagnosis is revealed. The spotlight under whose cool glow the clothing is illuminated equates entering the exhibition with stepping onto a stage – or, perhaps, being placed under a microscope. As a viewer, you could feel yourself to be “the patient,” unclothed and vulnerable, naked metaphorically as well as physically, for at this point you, the visitor, have no clear sense of where this ”play” will take you, or what the denouement will be. One naturally aspires to a successful outcome, but can’t shake off the impression that it is ultimately one over which you have no control.
Equally, as you set off on this adventure, you could see yourself in the role of mortician embarking on the investigation of a corpse, charged with identifying what went wrong. As if to affirm this, the pyjamas seem to being “looking” at a low flat plinth in the centre of the space, upon which an arrangement of bones – a full skeleton, in fact – is laid out in random rather than proper anatomical order as if on a mortuary slab.
We thus follow the artist on a journey into the universal body, which just happens to be his own and, by extension, ours too. Moving through the exhibition, you become aware that all has been set up to make you aware of yourself, your body: somebody, anybody.
The Ren Space occupies an old building. It has been renovated with a light touch to maximise room for art in which neither architecture nor design interferes with the presentation. But, being a house on three floors, in Zhang Peili’s presentation the steep and narrow staircase becomes an instrument of physical examination, testing stamina, heart rate and lung capacity.
In those moments you pause to draw breath, it’s hard not to be over-awed by the realisation of the amazing volume of odd-shaped things we each contain within. At the same time, you find yourself marvelling at the perfect proportions of each organ-as-artwork, even if you can’t readily conjure their name. It doesn’t seem important to the artist if you recognise them or not. He gives them cryptic numbers as titles, conflating the issue further. If you are in any doubt that these specimen truly represent the heart/liver/lungs of Zhang Peili, know that he underwent an intensive scanning process to map his interior and achieve a complete 3D rendering. Scanning technology is commonly used in medicine today. So, too, 3D printing. This is already in use in bio-technology to replicate the human tissue used to grow tailor-made organs for patients in need but, as Zhang Peili discovered, is an as-yet-imperfect technology for use in art. “Even using the best equipment available, 3D engraving can’t achieve the accuracy I want,” he explains.
Thus, having completed a full 3D body scan, he elected to have his individual organs carved the traditional way, by hand; not without assistance from an AI hand along the way. To achieve the requisite degree of perfection, he also chose to have this done in various locations locally between Qingtian and Hangzhou in his native Zhejiang province, New York, and Carrara, the famed Italian centre of the stone-carving art. This also enabled him to use a wide range of stones local to each region, including onyx, Dragon egg stone, and white “Michelangelo” marble, as well as the finest crystal and resin, appropriate to the “nature” of each organ. So, while advanced technology produced the prototypes for the organ-sculptures, the resulting artworks never stray far from the fundamentals of what an artist does in using whatever are the best tools at their disposal to achieve the exacting form they require.
Moving through the exhibition, the pyjama/skeleton juxtaposition is proceeded by Data on the Lungs, Gallbladder, Arterial Blood Vessels, Pulmonary Blood Vessels, and Pulmonary Nodules. Belying its grand name, this is a relatively minimal combination of data with a single bone suspended on a wire, which is turned by a small motor. Next comes a trio of bodily fluids – blood, water, and fat: blood volume is rendered as a pristine cube of pure sanguine glass-like resin; Body fat as a block of creamy Giallo Sienna marble from Italy; Water is clear resin with the brilliance of a diamond. Further on, a cluster of luminous white onyx is revealed to comprise the lungs, kidneys, and stomach. Undulating one above the other in a dance of shadow and light, the smaller and larger intestines, fashioned from silky white Michelangelo marble. Not least, what must be gonads are, appropriately, sculpted from the yellowy, semi-opaque Dragon egg stone.
Up a floor, we find a room full of bones and organs fabricated from a mix of materials. These are randomly scattered on the floor, and to remind you of the experience of patient-undergoing-examination, you are required to remove your shoes and shuffle carefully around the fragments while wearing disposable slippers, as if through a crime scene.
Also upstairs, the installation (Password) has light bulbs suspended over various expressions of digital data relating to the artist’s body. The lights are on a timer which switches them on/off in quick succession to simulate the effect of lighting. From the 19th century, lightning and, later, electricity was believed to possess a life-giving force – if harnessed and directed in the right way, at the right voltage – which inspired all manner of Frankenstein monster myths. Who was to say what that voltage might be? The answer has yet to be found, while electricity is indeed used today upon patients in cardiac arrest, and has a long, controversial function in becalming troubled minds, as so-called electroshock therapy. In the context of the exhibition, we may imagine this piece representing the flashpoint between life and death; the instant of shock the patient experiences upon learning that the body is not at all well. Passwordencapsulates a sensation that is at once bewildering and frightening as you realise how far humans have advanced in scientific knowledge, yet how little we still know about what makes a body work. How little we are able to predict of what mechanisms direct cancer here, arterial collapse there. Medical science still has no definitive answer.
In the context of Zhang Peili’s career, intangible malady runs like a common thread through his works. Especially, the iconic works. It’s always something unseen that caused affliction – a chicken submitting to a bath (in Document on Hygiene, 1991), the Uncertain Pleasure in the 1996 video installation, which shows fingers scratching various parts of the body, are two obvious examples. The root of this awareness-fascination can be traced to the experiences of youth. Zhang Peili spent his whole life around hospitals because his parents worked in one. He was absorbing sights, sounds and odours from laboratories and wards, long before he became conscious of them. This proximity created opportunities to get closer still. After high-school, he took a temporary job in a medical school, drawing wall charts used for teaching anatomy. “I often went to my father’s place of work to look at specimens,” he recalls. “The subconscious influence of these experiences is more or less certain.”
There is, also, an element to his process that could be perceived as obsessive… “I don’t think I have obsessive compulsive disorder,” he says, before adding “I always thought my father was OCD. I cannot escape the impact of my DNA.” Anyone in doubt that the artist’s genial façade might conceal OCD tendencies should ask Zhang Peili how he takes his coffee. He will tell you how real coffee should be made – he has an absolute procedure for achieving aromatic perfection which, if you are making him coffee, you may ignore at your peril. On a more serious note, there is ample evidence of attention to detail and precision of execution in his artworks, and of a fairly extreme form. Like the dogged determination used to complete pieces like the single-channel video 30×30, 1988; the obsessive patience brought to the photo-work Continuous Reproduction, 1993; or, the tighter-than-tight control of his brush used for his early photo-realist paintings. In this sense, the same degree of adherence to procedure for making coffee can be said to apply to the way he implements the concepts behind his art. Should that be seen as OCD, though, or simply a creative artist’s desire for perfection? When does one become the other?
“The Annual Report on OCD” is exemplary of a perfectionist’s desire. The objects are odd. They jar; feel awkward. As they should as exacting replicas of organs, none of which are particularly attractive in themselves in real life and yet here they are, nonetheless, perfectly crafted and lovingly finished. That dichotomy is disconcerting but the exhibition is nothing if not memorable. As a sum of the individual components it presents, with “The Annual Report on OCD” Zhang Peili forces viewers to think, to question the health we all too often take for granted vis-à-vis this body of work (pun unavoidable here). Contemplating the paradox between the wonder of the body and the calamity that ever lies in wait behind the scenes, in the name of art, Zhang Peili opens himself up for examination. He takes on “self” and reflects this back upon all the selves that visit, questioning the essence of what it is to exist, to ask what it means for their own state of being, and the role human intelligence plays in this.
And while the exhibition has little truck with beauty in any conventional visual or aesthetic sense, there is something extraordinarily moving in what can only be described as the beautiful poetics of all that Zhang Peili has created here. Such that by the time you return to the entrance, the pyjamas have morphed into a sign of hope, return, renewal. “You can get dressed now and go home,” you imagine the patient has been told. And, having looked “inside” this body and seen so much pristine perfection, you may assume that everything now returns to normal. Except that it doesn’t. The questions Zhang Peili asks are impossible to answer. We “look”, as we assume doctors do. Like them, we can’t always “see” the problem. And even when malfunctions are observed, it is not possible that all can be remedied. Such is life. Yet, recognition and acceptance of frailty, as highlighted by the impossible perfection of Zhang Peili’s self-renderings, should encourage us to embrace that body (our body) and celebrate life whilst we have it. A more accepting attitude towards malfunction and ultimate death that go hand-in-hand with life may, literally, be the only true sinecure.
Inspired by childhood experiences of being exposed to life in a hospital courtesy of his parents, many of Zhang Peili’s early conceptual works expressed his fascination with the latex glove, and especially to the “plague” that was hepatitis B in the 1960s and 1970s for Chinese families, all living in tightly-packed communes and work units, and eating in communal dining rooms. With hindsight, do we read this fear of contagion as an underlying thread in the work? It seems so prescient now in the time of the COVID-19. And, as affirmation, Zhang Peili has been, among all artists, most active in supporting and fund-raising for medical staff on the frontline of the epidemic.,