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Australian National University in Canberra receives $800,000 painting by Chinese artist Zhang Peili

At first glance, it is an arresting image of a single helicopter soaring in an empty blue sky.

But this painting, by one of China's most significant contemporary artists and worth about $800,000, is both a potent symbol of Australia-China relations, and a powerful statement about the deconstruction of media.

The Australian National University in Canberra recently gained Flying Machine by Zhang Peili, after it was donated by American photographer Lois Conner.

She gave it to the university after an exhibition of her own works at the Australian Centre on China in the World, and had acquired it from the artist in the 1990s, as a trade with some of her own works.

But in the intervening years, Zhang forgot about the transaction, and believed the painting, one of his last before he shifted his practice to video and media installations, to have been destroyed.

Speaking via an interpreter, Zhang told Fairfax Media that the work had been produced during a time of transition, both in terms of his practice and his living situation.

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He stopped painting and moved into video work shortly after finishing Flying Machine, and moved to America for 10 months around the same time.

The discovery of the work, which has never been displayed and is one of his only known paintings in Australia, led to a new exhibition based on the artist's pioneering video works.

The show, at China in the World, includes video installations from the late 1990s and a custom-made LED work commissioned in 2010.

He said the work came from a period in the 1990s when he was interested in taking images out of their original contexts.   

"He really can't remember now whether this was an American helicopter, or a Chinese helicopter or a Russian helicopter, and in fact that's not important to him," said co-curator and interpreter Olivier Krischer.

"At the time, what he was interested in was this process of taking something symbolic and emptying that symbolism, and when you do that, it doesn't have just one meaning anymore, it opens up all sorts of other potential meanings."

He was also interested in producing something that was beyond typical modes of expression in Chinese painting.

Co-curator Kim Machan said Zhang was considered the father of Chinese video art, and that one of the works in the exhibition, entitled 30x30, was the first video artwork ever produced in China.

"He had an enormous influence on generations to come. He was really in the generation of the first explorations of what we understand as contemporary art," she said.

"He was in a whole group of artists called the Pond Society that were around the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou ... In the late 80s, there was this emergence of interest and activity in contemporary art in China, which was breaking with all of the past traditions. He is a very significant artist, and if you had to name the top 10 most influential artists in China of that generation, he would be one of them."

Zhang Peili: From Painting to Video is showing at China in the World at ANU until November 15. Visit ciw.anu.edu.au for more information.