Dec 13 2017

Caught in the Dark: Zhang Peili’s “No Network”

by Nooshfar Afnan

Interior stairs of The Bunker leading to six small underground rooms, which house ZHANG PEILI’s experiential installation Unsuitable Place to Stay (2017). Courtesy The Bunker, Beijing.

One of Beijing’s newest art spaces, The Bunker, is in a former air raid shelter, placing visitors in an environment devoid of natural light but rife with an overwhelming, musty odor. Built in 1941, the underground fortification was used by the Japanese commander of northern China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and is part of a set of historic Western-style buildings from the early 20th century that previously housed the warlord Duan Qirui’s government.

Given the physical nature of The Bunker, its organizers encourage artists to produce works that differ from their established oeuvres, utilizing the space’s qualities for a new direction in their practice. With that in mind, Zhang Peili made good use of a few simple tools to create a psychologically and physically charged work in his presentation “No Network.” His sound installation Unsuitable Place to Stay (2017) generates uneasiness, allowing the imagination of participants to run wild, simulating the feeling of being stuck in a bunker during a time of conflict.

One of the motion sensitive lamps that was part of ZHANG PEILI’s Unsuitable Place to Stay (2017) at The Bunker, Beijing. Courtesy The Bunker.

This is how it works: visitors form groups of ten before entering The Bunker. A sign gives warning to those who may fear tight spaces or the dark. Once the entire cluster of visitors is inside, an electromagnetic lock bolts the door, which remains secured for five minutes (barring emergencies). The idea of locking up his audience is not new to Zhang—in 1988, for the presentation of his video 30 × 30, the artist intended to force his viewers to watch highly repetitive, three-hour-long footage by secretly locking his audience in the room—effectively taking them as captives—though this plan was eventually abandoned.

Before the portal shut for good to seal us in, several members of the group were far enough ahead to trigger a motion sensor hooked up to one of the lamps. These retro-looking light fixtures only stay on for a few seconds at a time, so everyone had to get used to moving in pitch black. A recorded voice informed us that we still had four minutes and 45 seconds left in the bunker. Through low and narrow doorways, we trod through six small, interconnected rooms. Without knowing where he or she was stepping, the first person to enter a new chamber triggered the illumination. The same voice from before intermittently announced how much time we have left underground, with the proclamations becoming increasingly rapid as we move forward. Some may have found comfort in nearing the end, but the voice retained an unnerving quality, and the associations with the countdown to a bomb’s detonation or an impending air strike were unshakable.

As we approached the exit, several people panicked, not realizing that we would still have to spend almost another minute in the dark, narrow stairwell. Humans are wired to seek out light—it gives us the means to use our sight, so that we can ensure our own safety, and it also often is a source of warmth. The title of the show, “No Network,” was apt because we were cut off from all communication with the outside world. And yet, it was precisely the conditions in The Bunker that facilitated new conversations and cooperation among those who ventured into the dark.

Programmable logic controller used in ZHANG PEILI’s Unsuitable Place to Stay (2017) at The Bunker, Beijing. Courtesy The Bunker.

Entrance to The Bunker underground art space. Courtesy The Bunker, Beijing.

Zhang Peili’s “No Network” is on view at The Bunker, Beijing, until March 15, 2018.

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