By Mathieu Borysevicz
Art Asia Pacific, Issue 30, 2001, Australia
My Australia, 2000, Performance, National Gallery of Australia
Zhang Huan, Before and After
It’s Wednesday, noon, in Elmhurst, Queens. Storefront canopies awash in Chinese characters and an afternoon downpour provide shelter for a scurry of newly arrived East Asian immigrants. Inside, a room-sized bed quietly envelops a naked six-month old baby boy. Stacks of bound newspapers and art catalogues battle for space on the shelves. Stir-fried dishes and bowls of rice steam on the table. Some things never change. Through the rain streaked window Zhang Huan points out a brand new Mercedes SUV parked in the side yard. Some things do change.
A lot has changed for Zhang Huan over the past few years. Born in 1965 in Henan, China, Zhang Huan made his New York City debut in 1998 during the Asia Society’s "Inside Out, New Chinese Art" exhibition at PS.1. He has not returned to China since. Instead, Zhang, has emigrated to the United States, fathered a son, and has steadily achieved international art stardom. With several solo gallery shows and a part in a plethora of group shows throughout the United States and Europe, Zhang could not have imagined a more different turn of events.
Zhang’s notoriety stems from his central role in the experimentation of Beijing’s East Village artist group in the early 1990’s. Using his own naked body as a site of existential examination, Zhang’s early performances staged the conflict between raw humanistic expression and stark social commentary. One of the most intense examples of these earlier pieces is 12 Square Meters,1994, in which the artist sat naked in a public toilet, covered in fish oil and honey, while flies slowly covered him. Despite repeated bouts with the authorities and constant economic pressure, Zhang helped forge a prominent place for performance in the contemporary arts of China and bring this work to the world’s attention.
Zhang’s work has always been informed by his immediate physical and social environment. Consequently, changes in his work since moving to the United States are evident. The pieces have become more ceremonial, intricate, and often embellished with an eclectic mix of cultural references.
Recently returned from completing "My Australia", 2000, a performance at the National Gallery in Australia (NGA) in Canberra, Zhang Huan discusses some of the changes in his life and work.
Mathieu Borysevicz: It seems to me that there is a significant break in your work since coming to the United States. Formally it becomes more choreographed and theatrical. Your use of symbols also increases. Looking back, the traces of this began with your last piece in China, "To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond", 1997. How do you see these developments?
Zhang Huan: The fish pond piece has that sense of choreography-the way that the participants circle the pond and submerge in unison, then form a line dividing the pond into two, and as I submerge so their line loosens...You can say that there’s a continuation .The pieces that I’ve done alone were a type of experiment. The group pieces are basically a fictional idea, a story. These two paths in my work do not run exclusive of one another. The work now is being divided into different parts, like "My Australia" had eight parts. These eight sections, had it been in China six years ago, might’ve been broken into eight different pieces. Emulating the sculpture would be one; me hanging off the tree would be another. Now I take these eight ideas and string them together. The piece becomes a sum total of the individual parts.
You mentioned that the National Gallery of Australia, intrigued by the promotional poster for "My America", 1999, and in an effort to hype up the "Inside Out" exhibition, asked you to do a "My Australia" . Did you have a plan?
I had no idea. After I received the invitation I began conceptualizing it. As soon as I had seen the garden (of the NGA),the trees, and the sculptures all together, I immediately had ideas. Perhaps I was already working out these kinds of compositions in my mind. For example, the two people on the trees facing each other like a sculpture, this is an earlier idea. But I had no opportunity to realize it so I used it here. The Rodin and Maillol sculptures displayed in the garden are beautiful in themselves. They are a certain display of culture, manifestations of classicism. They presented a particular relationship to what I was doing. It was interesting to work with and around them.
I thought a lot about the overall composition of the piece. In my earlier pieces the composition was to just sit there and not move, it was a very one-track concept. Now the pieces are divided into five or eight completely different parts. I want to do something extremely literary, theatrical, cinematic.. I’m against this stuff that’s too conceptual, too much about the individual artist.
It seems that there is a lot that you are trying to communicate to your audience in these new works. How are these works directed towards the audience?
I pay attention that the piece is connected to the local culture, to the immediate environment. For example, in Australia I used their flag , the people speaking of their family trees. I’ve integrated the culture of a particular place. This, combined with my early conceptions about the piece, and my own life experience, produce the new work. How the audience perceives the work... Well, I really have no idea. I would just like to tell them that this is my art, this is what I want to say .
In China your performances were attended by only a few people. All of your performances abroad involve the active participation of many strangers and are attended by hundreds of others ? How do you prepare for this?
We rehearse before doing the pieces. I’m already completely certain about their execution. In the earlier works I had no idea what was going to occur. Sitting in the public toilet with all these flies landing on you, flying into your nose and ears, slowly you realize the process. These works were centered on the body.
In the newer works I’ve moved my body back and moved my concept and story forward.
In China, the performances were pretty intimate. Here the museums sell tickets, the audience comes specifically to see you perform. You’re a cultural event, a public art event. It’s very exciting for me.
Being invited to Australia, to Denmark, to create pieces is like a business trip of sorts. Your business being culture. Do you see yourself as a "cultural negotiator"--to borrow a term often used to describe Huang Yong Ping’s work, --as building a bridge between two cultures?
When I was in China, I didn’t really think of this because the land, the culture, was mine. It was simple. But over here I have to consider the local culture and its history. All the different components are actually the different cultures and places I’ve come into contact with, the different countries’ characteristics reflecting my view of the world. The main train of thought in my work is actually a view of humanity today. It’s a negation of human development from the beginning of time to today.
How has the change in location influenced your sense of identity?
My identity is very obvious - A Henaner in New York. A Henaner in New York encounters problems that he is accustomed to and those that he’s not. There’s both good and bad. To the eye I’m still the same---My internal culture, that which is in my bones, can never be changed. But there are those things that can be changed, can be learned, things that can be used for one’s own benefit..
What is your relationship to China, the art community there now?
I’ve already left. It’s no longer influential. The contrast between these two places is very striking though. For example, the view of nudity. The reaction in China is completely different from that abroad. In China it’s always perceived as having a punkish spirit about it, as being opposed to classical culture. Traditionally, it always represents sex or perversion. Here, the naked body has a completely different meaning. Here it is a natural, celestial sort of beauty.
Not to everyone. America is still quite Puritanical in its attitude towards nudity.
Yes, but in China they forbid it. They’ll give you trouble. At least here, in a controlled environment , they permit you to do it. This has a completely different significance to me. The human body I use now compared to the human body I used in China, is completely different
How do you think the art community in China responds to your new work?
I think that they will of course have their own point of view. My friends and critics back home probably think that it’s too removed from them. That it’s so Western, so American. That this Chinese person is catering to Western tastes. That it’s not as good as the pieces he was doing before. This is normal because they’ve never lived in this environment. Like me, I used to look at those Chinese artists working abroad and react the same way.
I think that living outside of China you have a more international way of representing things. In China they represent the situation there...everybody has their own way of working. Like Xu Bing and Cai Guo Qiang, this generation of artists did an outstanding job. They took this classical Chinese culture out to battle in the international art arena. My principle is that I don’t borrow an ancient dialect to speak. I use a body to speak. The body is my most basic language.
In Beijing the sociopolitical seemed to inform your work more. How have your influences and inspiration changed ? What about the influence of other artists?
During my first year here I would often go to see exhibitions. Western art doesn’t really influence me now. Things such as the New York Times interest me. I look at the newspaper nearly every day. I look at every page. I don’t really understand the text, I just look at the pictures. I cut out those things that interest me. All the pictures that I cut out have a common thread. Why did I pick this one? Because maybe it touched me, caught me by surprise, or made me concerned. Doing this you can discover a lot about yourself .
Between the works that you’ve done in China and the ones since leaving, which give you a greater sense of satisfaction?
It’s different. The pieces in China are my life in China. The pieces I’ve done here reflect my life and ideas abroad. They are both very real reflections. However, I received the most benefit from the fish pond piece (To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond). This piece changed my situation, my life. Everybody likes this piece. At the time a lot of friends said it wasn’t as good as the mountain piece (To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain).
It’s funny...maybe in China, from that perspective, the mountain piece really is better, but if you place it in another environment you think that the fish pond piece is better. It’s just not the same.
There are pressures and pay-offs to living and working in both China and the United States. What are some of these differences?
The pressure in China is the kind that you can’t see clearly. The kind of hope that you have for life, for the future, is also unclear. There’s always this pressure over your head but you’ll never know just how far away it is, how thick it is. You come here and you can see it immediately. That you are only able to make it to this step. The dreams you can have here aren’t as good as those that you have in China. In China you really have no idea. You can think of yourself as so amazing, as the best. Here you know only how much alcohol you can drink. You are very conscious.
In China art has so many possibilities. Here it seems that art has reached a dead end. Everything already exists...If I turn back and look at China’s art, it isn’t bad. But it’s still not that interesting. If you look at those Chinese artists on the international scene, their work is also not so interesting. Including my own work. I’m not satisfied with my own work. I’m always striving to produce something new.
Do you have any plans to return to the Motherland?
I still have some plans to go back to China and do some work. To do it openly is still impossible. I think I’ll go to the countryside and do it secretly. But to be invited by the officials, at the Beijing National Art Gallery (laughs), have a big event, impossible. It’s still impossible.