By Michele Robecchi
Conversations with Photographers, Published by La Fabrica, ISBN: 84-96466-31-0, 2006, Spain
Zhang Huan Speaks with Michele Robecchi
Milan, 8th June 2005
Childhood and Youth
Michele Robecchi: Let’s start from the beginning. What do you remember about An Yang, where you were born?
Zhang Huan: After I was born, I moved to the country with my paternal grandmother and my three brothers and lived there for about eight years. It was in important experience as it allowed me to grow up with nature and develop a direct relationship with it, with no inhibitions. I only went back to An Yang later and it was a pretty radical move, as it’s a fairly big city, about five million people. I moved to Beijing a lot later.
MR: After moving to the capital, did you ever return to the rural area where you were raised?
ZH: Yes, although not very frequently in the last ten years. I have only returned once.
MR: Has the place where you were educated during those first years changed a lot?
ZH: Not too much. My village is very far from the coast. Transportation is slow and the inhabitants have an old economy mindset. They continue to live in fairly unpleasant conditions. Perhaps you’ve heard of China’s "AIDS villages". I think it all began in Henan. I don’t know whether you can imagine what it is to live in a place where people are obliged to sell their own blood to cover such basic necessities as the purchase of food or clothing. Well, that’s what happened there and what, in fact, is still happening.
MR: Do you mean they sell their blood to earn a living?
MR: That’s terrifying. Are they really known as "AIDS villages"?
ZH: Yes, that’s what they’re called: "AIDS villages". In many families only one or two members remain alive. Many children are orphans because that terrible disease, AIDS, has killed their parents.
MR: In your opinion, was dividing your childhood between the uncontaminated nature in the country and the city an advantage for your work?
ZH: In my opinion yes. If I think about it, it was a fairly straight journey. First the Chinese countryside, then An Yang, then Beijing and finally New York. My First years of life were important, because they let me live in nature freely, almost primitively. That sense of freedom and familiarity with nature has never left me. It’s inside me.
MR: What impact did the city cause after having lived with nature for so many years?
ZH: The first years spent in the city were pretty dramatic. I was very undisciplined, especially at school and a terrible student. I couldn’t concentrate; they were always throwing me out. I couldn’t stay shut up in a room, I wanted to be free. So I spent most of my time alone drawing. In a certain way that’s how it began.
MR: I seem to get the impression that when you were in this really free country environment you were interested in a more traditional form of art. After your move to a town context, your taste changed and moved towards more radical expressive forms.
ZH: I studied traditional art at university, but I didn’t like it much.
MR: At that time, there was a teaching system in force like in the Soviet Union where art had to be understood by the people, etc, wasn’t there?
ZH: Yes, it was like that for a long time. In China, art lessons were mainly to teach students how to copy something that already existed. It was very impersonal. Even later, when I moved to Beijing, I kept on feeling foreign to these expressive forms; I saw them as something really far from me. So I began to look around and collect things I found in the street: rubbish, pieces of furniture, broken water heaters, things like that. Things that were less valid from an aesthetic point of view, but much more real.
The turning point came in 1992 when I found the leg of a mannequin. I took it back to my studio and started experimenting, sticking my leg in it or tying it to myself. I feel that was an important moment as it let me create a direct link between my body and art. I realised I could use my body as a work instrument. Before that, I didn’t think it was possible. I can say that all my relationship with performance and all the work coming from there can be traced back to that episode.
MR: I imagine that that type of art circulated in a semi-clandestine way at the time in China. What kind of response did you get from these first works? Not just from your teachers - I can imagine that - but from your companions or from artists of the preceding generations.
ZH: For a long time, I painted in a fairly conventional way, and even though many people were interested in my work, I couldn’t get any comments, they didn’t say anything. So I realised that as an artist I had to do something different to get the kind of response I wanted. They probably thought I wasn’t a good painter, that I had no talent for traditional painting. I don’t know. Anyway, I started doing other things.
Once when I was in a bar, some plates and glasses hit me on the head and I bled a lot. I had no money. I called some friends, who took me to hospital where they told me that they couldn’t operate on me. At that moment, while I was feeling bad, my head was spinning and I was bleeding, I began to feel strange. For a moment I had the sensation that I couldn’t feel my body, as though it no longer belonged to me. That was an important moment too for understanding what I did afterwards.
MR: This partially links up to another episode that I heard about you: when you got trapped in one of your objects and shouted until someone heard you and came to let you out. I imagine that story also helped you get a different perspective of your body and your possibilities.
ZH: That is an episode that helps us understand life and living perfectly. It happened that I was at a friend’s preparing the work To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995). I wanted to raise a mountain by one meter. The original idea was to do it with an iron box about eighty centimeters high. I wanted to try climbing up the mountain and then get into this box and stay there for twenty-four hours, like a Buddhist monk. Sadly, the day before while I was practicing, I got stuck inside the box. I was at a friend’s house and they just left and wasn’t going to be back for two months. My arms were free, but I couldn’t open it and after a few minutes I panicked and started to shout. Luckily, one of the window was open, so a cleaner heard me and came to free me. As soon as I was free, I ran outside as I had to breathe and the contact with air made me fully realise what it means to be alive.
It was a really strong sensation, hard to describe. When I was trapped in the box, I was terrified. I kept on telling myself to stay calm, but I couldn’t. Suddenly, being free made me realise how important life is. That whatever difficulties you may experience, like having no money or food, mean nothing compared to the privilege of being alive. I saw death really close up.
MR: Does this desire to change aspects of nature that are apparently unchangeable, such as trying to raise a mountain by a meter, link up to the limits of your body or is it a question linked to the view of nature you had as a child when you were trying to explore and, in a certain way, force your relationship with it?
ZH: Both. Exploring the limits of my body and of nature for me was a need I really had to express. I could no long hold it and think about other things. I was becoming obsessed.
MR: When you were doing this work, did you already know the works of other artists like Marina Abramovic or Chris Burden?
ZH: No, I only got to know their work later on, around 1995. My Work went in this direction for other reasons. I wanted to measure myself against insurmountable limits even though I didn’t have the energy needed to do so. I wanted to raise a mountain or move a building. That’s how works like To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) were born. Even though they were impossible events, my inner strength didn’t exhaust itself because of these limits. It settled inside my heart and my body, pushing me in the opposite direction, making me come out of myself and explore the limits of my body. In China there’s this ancient story about Yukong who moved the mountain. It was about an old man who every time he wanted to go somewhere had to go round a mountain, so one day he decided to move it, piece by piece. It’s an idea I’ve still got inside me and that I haven’t given up on. Do what’s impossible, conquer the unconquerable. To get back to your question, I like both Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic a lot. Their research has definitely influenced me, but after that period. At that time, as I told you, I didn’t know them. I had other motivations.
MR: And after all these years, don’t you want to meet them, even if only for curiosity’s sake?
ZH: Of the names you mentioned, I have only met Marina Abramovic. I coincided with her for the first time in the Yokohama Triennial in 2001. Afterward, I invited her to my studio in New York. I think she’s a great artist.
MR: To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) ended up becoming a very popular image. Nevertheless, I understand that it caused you some problems because with time some of the artists who had participated in the work claimed they were the authors.
ZH: That’s right. I had asked some artist friends to help me finish To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain. They accepted and they all did their bit. Unfortunately, at that time I could only think about my work and how to bring it to fruition as I had planned. I was so immersed in the process of bringing my ideas to life that I never bothered to go back to the photographer and ask him for the negatives. I never imagined that this work would ever be put up for sale. We had laid nothing down in writing. I had no contract or anything similar with either the artists or the photographer. That’s why today anyone can claim the work as their own.
MR: That must have really annoyed you.
ZH: What difference does it make? I mean that’s all water under the bridge now. I’m not mad at anyone.
MR: Let’s talk about painting. Do you think there’ll ever come a time when you feel like painting again?
ZH: Yes. I could start painting any time. I haven’t painted for many years, but I’m sure it would be fun and I’m also sure that I’m still capable of painting a good picture.
MR: Is there some painter you particularly like at present?
ZH: There are so many that I couldn’t mention one in particular.
First Works Outside China
MR: When did you feel the need to leave China and measure yourself in a more international context?
ZH: The first time I left China was in the year 1996. First I went to Munich and then to France. The first work I did abroad was in Tokyo, about a year later.
MR: In Tokyo? Was that the time you wanted to organise a Kung Fu session between a Chinese delegation and a Japanese one?
ZH: No, not that time. The episode you’re talking about happened later. The first time I went to Japan was to create 3006 Cubic Meters: 65 Kg (1997). It was a performance I did at the Watari Museum. It consisted in tying ropes to different parts of the building to then try and knock it down by pulling with my body. Naturally, it was impossible. The more I pulled, the more I got the impression that it was the museum destroying me. It was another useful moment for understanding a body’s impotence and limits in front of something bigger. The work’s meaning was linked to the gesture of resisting not to the result, which was logically pretty obvious. The title of the work refers to the size of the museum and my weight.
MR: Did you ever think about experiencing situations like those in Hong Kong or Taiwan, in the years when their art scene probably enjoyed greater freedom and was more open than China’s?
ZH: I’ve been to Hong Kong once. They invited me to do a performace. Normally, when they invite me to go somewhere I try to go a bit in advance to assess the environment, get to know the local culture and many other things. It’s only afterward that I start to think about how to create a work. In Hong Kong, I wanted to do something on the sea surface, but the project was rejected so I didn’t do it. I wouldn’t have minded working in Hong Kong or in Taiwan, but, at the time, there weren’t many opportunities. Then in the end, when they finally invited me to Hong Kong, the project wasn’t accepted. Anyway, Hong Kong and Taiwan weren’t that different from the rest of China. There was greater economic and political independence, but not artistic.
MR: So your impression is not that in these places there could have been more fertile ground to develop your art compared to the rest of China, but the opposite?
ZH: Not exactly. My impression was that they were places that were freer and thus more suited to developing my art, but, at the same time, not particularly receptive. Ten years ago, when I was laying the base of what would then become my work, in China there was a great debate involving both artists and critics about the meaning of these new expressive styles. The discussion was about whether they were art or not, etc. In my opinion, Hong Kong and Taiwan had the chance to see these new styles somewhat in advance, but couldn’t manage to accept them. I have never had a real exhibition in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
MR: Let’s talk a bit about projects that were not accepted. I heard that when they invite you to hold a performance, you normally present two or three ideas and then decide together with the curator which is the most suitable. What happens to the ideas that you don’t carry out? Are they discarded completely, do you recycle them or do you change them for another exhibition?
ZH: I have plan A and Plan B. I normally make just one suggestion. If it isn’t accepted, I suggest another. I must say that my projects are always strictly linked to the environment they’re to be carried out in. If they’re discarded, it’s difficult for them to be redone somewhere else.
At times it has happened, but rarely. When they invite me to hold an exhibition, I always analyze the context I will be working in and its intrinsic features. My Works are always very "site specific". But I’ve never changed my projects, even on the rare occasions that I’ve reused the,. They are structured so as not to be adapted. When it has happened, it was only because I realised that by chance an idea I had eliminated, taken like it was, could also work somewhere else. But, as I told you, it has happened rarely, and almost always by chance.
An example was 12 Square Meters (1994), a performance I did in a public toilet in China. I sat in the cubicle of a public toilet covered in oil and honey letting all the flies buzz around and settle on me. Public toilets are the same all over the world, so that work is clearly repeatable in other countries that aren’t China.
MR: In the near future, you are going to present a performance in Rome’s Capitoline Museums, which is an unusual venue both for contemporary art and for works like yours. What do you plan to do exactly?
ZH: Well, in classical antiquity, Rome was the largest and most important city in the known world. We could even say it was the centre of the universe. I am going to look for a connection with classical Roman sculpture and create something that refers to that era.
MR: Rome is an interesting combination of two different religious iconographies: Pagan and Christian. Today both of them happily coexist to the tourists’delight, but they share a long and dramatic history filled with confrontation and repression. Have you considered these two aspects while conceiving and creating the work for the Capitoline Museums in this city open to the world?
ZH: To be sincere, I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, but I’m pleased you have told me about it. From a historical point of view, it is always fantastic that someone decides to give up fighting, come to an agreement with the enemy and end a conflict with a handshake.
No one wins anything in a war; everyone suffers. Unfortunately, the world is in the hands of a few madmen. We have had to suffer too many wars in the name of a religious concept or a god created in the image of the powers promoting them. Now we are constantly living with the plague of terrorism all over the world. It’s a curious thing; everyone wants to enjoy a life filled with luxuries, but no one worries about guaranteeing our security.
MR: Actually, what happened in Rome was more of a transfer of powers than a peace treaty. The pagan religious gradually disappeared, giving way to Christianity, which seemed to better fit people’s needs at that time. To tell the truth, I ask myself whether religion is really the problem. I mean that it may have only been a starting point, because I don’t believe that the conflicts existing today in Northern Ireland, Israel or even the confrontations between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have anything to do with religion, They seem more like an excuse to conceal the true problem, which is usually political in nature. What’s your opinion on this?
ZH: We’re talking about something very serious. The important thing is that we have to discover who we are. I often get the impression that people do not understand who they are nor do they know what leads them to act as they do. But in the end we are all equal. We all love life and fear death, however animosities and fanaticism ruin everything. I don’t know. Perhaps you’re right and religion is no more than an excuse, a terrible excuse however.
MR: What do you think about the fact that in Europe they invite you to do your performances in classical spaces that usually don’t house contemporary art shows and yet in Beijing they continue to debate whether your work is appropriate for spaces devoted to contemporary or modern art?
ZH: It’s all right with me. I’m not that interested in comparing what is classical or modern with what is contemporary. If one adopts an exalted perspective, time means nothing. Within a dew years my art will be considered old. Today, my work is at a stage in which the public has few opportunities to see it, but I don’t think this will last very long. I am fully confident about my work and sure that things will change.
MR: Currently, Beijing offers many residences for European and American artists and many Western galleries are opening spaces in the city’s eastern zone. What impact do you think this will have on the local artistic scene? Do you think that the city’s artists will benefit from it? Do you think these galleries will last or will they disappear with time?
ZH: I sincerely believe that it is something good that benefits artists, wherever they come from. I have always liked open cities, open cultures and open minds. New York is one of the most important cities in the world precisely for that. One of the reasons why New York is one of my favourite places is because everything seems possible there.
MR: Now you live in New York, a city that respects a person’s different culture, but tends to take possession of it, in a certain sense incorporating each type of national identity. Do you feel that your work has suffered for this?
ZH: Yes. Before leaving for New York, my friends in China said similar things to dissuade me. They told me not to go, that it’s a city in which you lose yourself, your identity, but for me it was an important passage because it helped me to see things clearly and focus on what I wanted to do.
One of the great differences I have found compared to China is the solitude. When I was in China I met daily with other artists and with friends. We spent a lot of time talking and discussing our work, how it could or should be and so on. In New York, I have to think about it all alone.
In my opinion, if you survive in New York, you can do so in any other city in the world. It’s a city that moves continuously. Undoubtedly, there are problems, but they’re difficult to pin down because they are changing continuously. And then it puts you under pressure all the time. I was under pressure in China too, but for different reasons. In New York they push you to becoming something or someone, but you know really well how far you can go. In China it isn’t like that. You have hopes, desires, you feel there are difficulties, but you don’t really know how to pin them down.
MR: You mean that the problems are more indefinite?
ZH: Yes, they are more indefinite.
MR: When you’re in New York, do you meet with other artists?
ZH: Yes, very often.
MR: I’d like to know whether you’ve been able to debate art with your artist friends in New York as you used to do in China, and whether these discussions have in some way been useful.
ZH: Art is one of my favourite topics of conversation. My friends and I speak all the time about artists, whether current ones or not, and about the most recent exhibitions, the latest book published or any interesting project we have heard about. Sometimes the conversation is not strictly about art but, in one form or another, art always comes. It may only be present tangentially, but it’s never missing. Speaking of art is one of the most enjoyable things I can do. But when I begin one of these conversations I don’t do so with any specific intention or following any preestablished agenda. I don’t approach the subject to obtain something that I can use later on or that can help me in my work. I am moved by the simple pleasure of conversing about topics that interest me and are on my mind.
MR: How do you see the relationship between your work and photography? Is it an independent expressive style conceived with its own formal features or just a means useful to you to document your performances?
ZH: It can work both ways. It can be an instrument dedicated exclusively to documenting or recording my performances or an independent expressive style.
MR: One of the historical problems linked to a performance is reliability of documentation and the relative impossibility of a spectator understanding its nature completely without having had the chance to see it at the moment it was implemented. How do you feel about this?
ZH: It’s relative problem for me. In my view, I am the only person who can completely understand my work. I don’t say that the public can’t catch its essence, but if we talk about total understanding of what I’m trying to do, seeing a reproduction of one of my performances or seeing it live makes little difference. I’m the only one who can really understand what my work means.
MR: Yes. But I imagine you ask yourself about how people perceive and interpret your work?
ZH: I think that when they tell me a work is "fantastic" or "beautiful", most times they do so out of respect. They’re not really sure they understand it. Whereas in China, my work has never been accepted and this is an opinion I have always had more consideration for. To openly declare you don’t understand it means getting closer to the truth. I’m sure of that. (Laughter.)
MR: So you think that negative criticism is more sincere than a positive one?
MR: I imagine that your performances have also been video taped, right?
ZH: Yes. The more involved ones, yes. I tried to document them on video.
MR: Have you developed a particular filming or post-production technique over the years?
ZH: Yes. I normally work with three video cameras: one in the centre, on the ground, which does a complete panorama of the whole space, catching anything that happens, and then another two to concentrate on details. The filming lasts about an hour, then I choose and produce a video that lasts an average of three to five minutes.
MT: So you mean reduced versions?
ZH: Yes. I also produce a full version just using what the centre video camera filmed, but normally that is only available on request. In my view, a time lasting between three and five minutes is more than enough to represent my work. Most of the videos documenting performances are boring. No one would be able to watch them for an hour or two. However, there is a chance that, in the near future, I will be doing a retrospective in Paris and, in that case, I would like to give all the cassettes with the complete film and show everything, from start to finish.
MR: Another frequent question linked to performances and to Body Art in particular, is how aging, or if you prefer a body’s maturing, becomes a central element in the work implicitly modifying the substance. Do you see or have you already noted an evolution in your work linked to your natural physical changes?
ZH: Yes, something surely changes. But I feel it is something happening all the time, not just when you get old. Even now. Recently, I have noticed that I’m getting a slight paunch. (Laughter.) There are other changes that reflect on the body and on your way of thinking.
MR: Earlier on we spoke about Marina Abramovic, an artist who symbolized this fairly well. Except for a few exceptions like Balkan Baroque (1997), she hasn’t done any performances for years. It could seem to be a banal observation, but I have always found it interesting that an artist who has explored the limits and possibilities of the body should today show worry about a natural process like aging, thereby mystifying a territory that she herself, at other times, contributed so much to making us accept for what it is.
ZH: True. But it is a natural passage. Every time I look at myself in the mirror I see a change and this obviously frightens me a bit too. What’s important is preserving the mind. I hope I can manage to reason lucidly till I’m ninety-nine. It’s obvious that it would be fantastic if my body could stay in perfect shape till then too, but body and mind change together, and with them life. When you are sixty or seventy you probably have children, grandchildren and even their simple presence contributes to changing the state of things. It doesn’t just depend on you. I might not want to do any more performances; I won’t want my grandchildren to see me in action or to see my body. You know, when you get older your hormones diminish but you get wiser. You always have to consider both these aspects.
MR: In a certain sense, this talk about grandchildren is valid at any moment. Perry Farrell, the vocalist in Jane’s Addiction, once said that if as an artist you worry about your mother could think, you’re finished.
ZH: You know, my parents, my children and my wife’s family don’t know what I do. Only my wife knows I’m an artist. (Laughter.)
ZH: Yes. They’ve never seen any work of mine.
MR: What do they think you do?
ZH: Well, they know I’m an artist, but they don’t know exactly what I do. Since I studied painting as a child, they tend to think that I am a painter. For them, it’s very difficult to understand my work and they’re not the only ones. I could say the same of most Chinese from the old school. And it’s not a question of education; this is true even of university professors. Most of the people who live in China today have not had the chance to receive an artistic education worthy of the name. That is one of the reasons why there are so few fine art museums or galleries in China. It has only been recently, in the last few years, that things have begun to improve in this respect.
MR: How do you think your friends from An Yang view your today? Do you think it’s possible that with the passage of time some people have begun to better understand what you aimed to do then?
ZH: Yes. The last time I was there, I discovered that, even though slowly, people had begun to see my work in a different way. It’s possible that they still don’t understand it, but the society in which they live is changing at great speed, at an incredible speed. It is clear that every day they receive more and more information about contemporary art, both Western and local, and all of this contributes a lot to changing their way of thinking.
MR: You were saying you’ve become a Buddhist?
ZH: Yes. I wasn’t born a Buddhist although Buddhism is fairly common where I grew up. I became one. Despite the Cultural Revolution, in many parts of China and especially in the country, religious rites are still celebrated fairly regularly in homes. They were only forbidden in public places. Anyway, I’ve only recently become a Buddhist. Now I listen to Tibetan music more and more often. I have a quieter view of things.
MR: Buddhism is a religion that is strongly linked to the body.
ZH: I see what you’re getting at, but I feel it’s only a coincidence. For example, in Buddhism you can spend days just contemplating a mountain, maybe even years, without concentrating on anything else. if you think about it, this concept has a lot of similarities, especially with my first works.
MR: When you weren’t a Buddhist.
ZH: Exactly. I have often thought about the reason and I have reached the conclusion that it is probably because with Buddhism you have to forget the real world to cross a certain threshold. And when I’m doing a performance, I often trigger off a similar mechanism, forgetting the real world, withdrawing completely. A performance like 12 Square Meters tends to absorb me totally. At that moment, while I was sitting in the public toilet surrounded by flies, I couldn’t think of anything else, just about what I was living.
MR: But your work is inspired by a real world. Or let’s say, inspired by a real world even though it tries, at the same time, to elude it. Buddhism has had several moments of popularity and has spread in the West. Do you feel the West has the right view of Buddhism? Or, as often happens in a case of conversion, is it more extreme? Or different?
ZH: I’d say superficial.
ZH: It’s lived in a superficial way, that shouldn’t surprise us. The Chinese see Western religions in exactly the same way. Luckily, the basic trait is the person’s character. Religion is another thing. West and East are two very different things; they have distinctly different shapes. The East has a round shape while the West is more similar to a square or triangle. This means that the West has a more scientific, visible vision in which important things are not immediately perceivable. Truth is hidden. In the future, I’d like to move a mountain from a round shape to a square one, or move earth from the square one to the round one. I’d like to be able to put the two shapes together.
MR: Are you familiar with Francis Alys’s work titled When Faith Moves Mountains (2002)?
ZH: Yes, I am.
MR: What’s your opinion?
ZH: I really like it. The first time I saw an image from that work, I immediately thought that the idea and the inspiration behind it were very similar to mine.
The Global Rise of Chinese Art
MR: What do you think about Chinese art’s sudden popularity in the Western world?
ZH: It’s happening because the Chinese market is opening. The Chinese government has adopted a less restrictive policy.
MR: Yes, that’s true from the economic point of view. Remaining in the art area, I imagine you’re often invited to take part in collective "Chinese Art" exhibitions.
MR: Do you think that in the future we’ll get to a point where you’ll have to disassociate yourself from these situations to keep the individuality of your work intact?
ZH: We’re already at that point. In fact, I don’t take part in all the exhibition they ask me to. I only take part in those I feel are more important or suited for my work. I always try to keep my style. After all these years living abroad, I’ve developed a really clear understanding of the changes that have taken place and are taking place in China.
MR: So you are aware of the existence of the trap that tends to transform your art and other Chinese artist’s work into an exotic phenomenon?
ZH: It’s not a trap for me. It’s true that there are many exhibitions that have "China" as their theme or subject, but I don’t feel my work suffers that much. If the piece really works, the context it’s exhibited in has no influence at all. It doesn’t change.
MR: But you do realise, don’t you, that there is a danger that many people can be attracted to your work initially just because it represents something different: a kind of exotic phenomenon, which, as such, tends to be accepted for the wrong reasons and exhausts itself in time.
ZH: Yes, the danger is definitely there, but even if I try to disassociate myself from this phenomenon, there will still always be a fundamental Chinese element in my work. My work has changed since I no longer live in China. What I did in those years is more linked to China. What I do now is perhaps more linked to New York, but I remain Chinese. I was born in China. Wherever I go I will always be Chinese.
MR: Who are your favourite Chinese artists now?
ZH: One of my favourite Chinese artists today is Tehching Hsieh. His One Year Performances excited me a lot. I don’t know. I also like many other artists such as Huang Yong Ping. His way of dealing with contemporary art transmits an intense characteristic feeling of wisdom that not everyone possesses.
MR: When you started taking photos, did you have reference points? Did any photographers influence you?
ZH: In reality, these are two reasons why I started to work with photography. The first is that I had to document my performances in some way, and the second is because some works were structured in such a way that they couldn’t be reproduced in a museum or a gallery except through photography.
MR: Are there any photographers that have interested you particularly?
ZH: No, I’d say no. I knew from the start how I wanted my photos to be. I didn’t get inspiration from anyone in particular. At least I’m not aware of it.
MR: How many editions do you do of each photo?
ZH: This is important point. At first, when I was still in China, I knew nothing about this thing of editions. It was only later when I went abroad that I began to understand these market rules. I used to do eight editions etc.
MR: Have you ever considered the possibility of documenting some of your performances in black and white?
ZH: Oh! I did that already with 12 Square Meters and To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain .
MR: And what is the process that helps you decide which works you are going to document in black and white and which in colour? Is it something you feel or do you decide after the fact?
ZH: It’s instinctive. I feel it. Sometimes I intuit that something would be better in colour and other times I decide on black and white. I don’t spend much time on this. I take my decision and that’s it.
MR: Tell me about My America (1999), the performance you did inviting about sixty American citizens of different origins to carry out a series of behaviour instructions written by you. I know that originally you had decided on another title and then you changed it.
ZH: Yes. The first performance I did in America was called Pilgrimage-Wind and Water in New York , in 1997 at P.S.1. Then, gallery owner Jeffery Deitch invited me to do another two years later. The original title I had planned was Hard to Acclimatize , but Jeffery thought it was too long and not immediate enough for the American public, so he got me to change it. He was right. The name My America is more suitable. After all, it’s a work that expresses my point of view about America. After that, there were other works like My Australia (2000) and My Japan (2001).
MR: My America has often been compared to I Love America and America Loves Me by Joseph Beuys, a performance he did in New York in 1974. Are you interested in Beuys’s work?
ZH: My work has nothing to do with Beuys’s work. Besides the word "America" in the title, the only thing they have in common is that both of us partially got our inspiration from Native American culture.
MR: But did you know about that work when you did My America ?
ZH: Yes, I did.
MR: In my opinion, an interesting thing about Beuys’s work is that after his death, his work in a certain sense disappeared with him. The photos, films and sculptures left cannot cover the complexity of his work. From a historical point of view, what is left is, above all, his figure, which has taken on an almost exclusively iconographic value. To the contrary of other artists who have worked a lot on the character cult, like Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol, Beuys was relatively unexposed to the commercialisation phenomenon. The spirituality of his work has remained intact and that is why I was wondering whether this was a reference point for you.
ZH: Yes it was, especially at the start, when I was still in Beijing about ten years ago. In China, German artists were liked more than American ones. Later, when I moved to the U.S., I began to know and understand the works of American artists better and now these distinctions don’t interest me that much.
MR: Is New York an arrival point or do you think you’ll go back to China one day?
ZH: I’m not interested in New York any longer.
MR: So what do you foresee for the future?
ZH: I was in Tibet for three weeks. I’d like to do some work in that area. I don’t exclude going back there, maybe even permanently, in three or five years. I’ve found out that my work has strong ties with Tibet.
MR: Does speaking about Tibet mean giving a political angle to your work, considering the relations between Tibet and China?
ZH: No, this has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with religion and other things. When I was in Tibet for the first time, I found out that I was interested in all aspects of Tibetan life: not just religion, but culture, roads, even Tibetan faces. I feel that every aspects of Tibetan culture is an inspiration and emotion for me. The first time I arrived in Tibet, I asked myself how come I’d never been there before. Tibet is what best represents my life experience.
MR: You were born Chinese and still consider yourself Chinese in spite of having lived outside its reality for some time. What is your opinion on the political situation in Tibet?
ZH: Benefit, benefit, benefit. The only thing that interests all the politicians on the planet is their own benefit. Even so, I feel a great respect for the majority of the choices made by the Tibetans. Freedom, traditional culture and religion are the most important values for any nation or people.
MR: So, on the one hand, there’s a personal search for spirituality and, on the other, a desire to transfer this search to nature, to the limits of nature?
ZH: Yes. Both. Most of all, I’m trying to get closer to the Buddhist idea of things. I saw many special things in Tibet. For example, I found the hands of an old statue of Buddha which are extraordinary. Following the Chinese Cultural Revolution, many ancient statues of Buddha were destroyed. Nowadays, you can only find some remains in the antique markets. These hands today are clearly not in perfect condition, but even if they’re ruined they’re really beautiful; they give me incredible feelings. What I want to do is enlarge them, make them about three meters long and two meters high, conserving their really strong ruined shape. It makes them look like bombs or something similar. Then I thought of leaving them concave, so that people can get into them. And maybe fill them with different things like rice, material or plants. I don’t know. I’m still focusing on details. Tibet is a continuous source of inspiration for me. It makes me want to work. At times I feel as though I were back at the beginning again.
MR: In Tibet you’ve also found a more direct relationship and vision of nature again, haven’t you? Closer to those of your childhood?
ZH: Partially yes, but it isn’t that simple. It’s not just that. It’s something deeper, higher. I’m sure that whoever goes to Tibet can’t fail to be moved by what he or she sees. It’s inevitable. There are so many things to do, so many possibilities. I’ve never felt at home so fast anywhere else. It’s normally takes one or two years before a person feels completely at ease with a place. There’s a lot to learn in Tibet. I learnt more about trees, flowers and nature in Tibet than in the Chinese countryside where I spent many years of my life.
From a religious point of view, things work differently, The Tibet religion is probably a bit more exaggerated compared to others over certain things like funerals. When a person dies they are taken to the mountains, where the Master of Ceremonies (Celestial Burial) cuts the body to pieces and---I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard this story---
MR: No, go on.
ZH: The dead body is cut into pieces until the buzzards arrive to eat the human meat. Common belief in Tibet is that the best thing that can happen is that the buzzards eat the whole body leaving just the bones. In that way, the spirit is freed of the body completely and will go up into the sky and the deceased person’s new life cycle will be really happy.
MR: I understand.
ZH: A funeral’s like that.
MR: Interesting, I didn’t know.
ZH: Really? I saw it happen, but I thought it was fairly well known as there was a Tibetan funeral in Seven Years in Tibet (1997), the film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
MR: I saw that film. Was there a scene like that?
MR: I don’t remember that. Probably because I didn’t find it particularly well done. I have the impression that it gave a pretty superficial view - as you say - of Tibet. Do you feel, because of this tie to Tibet, that your art is moving in new areas? That this religious change will be visible?
ZH: Inspiration comes from religion and, in the future, people could find my work strictly tied to religion. If not religious art as such, then art influenced by religion. In my opinion, it’s really something much higher from a spiritual point of view. It should have a more absolute value that I hope can avoid these labels.
MR: Where do you think your art will go following this route?
ZH: I don’t know. Jacquelynn Bass and Mary Jane Jacob wrote a book in 2004, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art where they dedicate several pages to me. They feel my work is definitely religious, but these things aren’t important for me; what counts is the form. They can make comparisons with science and religion. It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that there’s an artistic value/ These are just ingredients.
MR: Do you ever feel inadequate in front of a reality that is as spiritual and important as the Buddhist one? Doesn’t transferring it into an art context mean diminishing its meaning to a certain extent? Or at least reducing its intentions?
ZH: No, for me it’s better. It’s easier to solve things. And more fun. I’m much happier now. Even art, like Buddhism, is part of my spirit. I think about it all the time, even at the most normal moments, like when I go into town to do something, I can’t help thinking about my work. It’s easy for me to go back home with some new ideas. I was born for art.
MR: So you feel like you’re on a mission?
ZH: No, I’d say it was more a philosophy of life. I can’t do anything else. Even my wife, when she comes to see a show of mine in a gallery, asks me why one object instead of another. But when I’m working, I don’t think much about these details. Certain things are born spontaneously and can’t be explained. A famous Buddhist phrase say so: "Everything goes how it has to". You shouldn’t always be looking for a reason, because at times there isn’t one. But this isn’t fatalism, this goes beyond our ability to understand things. It must just be like that.