By Elena Geuna
Zhang Huan, Rebirth, Published by ProjectB Contemporary Art, 2009 , Italy

Rebirth: Between Spirituality and Tradition

Elena Geuna: You have visited the major world capitals with your performances, My New York, My Sydney, My Boston, My Switzerland ¡­ and in 2005 you were also in Rome with My Rome. How did you find working in Italy ?

Zhang Huan: Italy has many ancient works from the Great Masters, providing me with so much artistic inspiration, so many opportunities to learn from them. But precisely because ancient civilization was too powerful and prosperous, it made the people of today lose their creativity. For me, classical civilization is a big bubble.

EG: Your work is inseparably linked to Chinese culture and Buddhism; how would you describe your artistic research?

ZH: My inspiration comes from daily life, from the most average things, small things that wouldn’t grab anyone’s attention. Things like eating, sleeping, working and taking a shit every day. Through these insipid activities that go completely unnoticed by people, we can discover and appreciate intrinsic qualities of human nature. In doing my work I try my best to experience life, the reality of the body and I hate the performative, artificial aspects of work.
Chinese culture and Buddhism have been an important part of my life over the past few years. My heart has always had some connections to Buddhism. When I was young, in the countryside of Henan , living with my grandmother and uncle, whenever it came time for the New Year, we would go to the cemetery and invite my deceased grandfather and ancestors back to the house to spend the New Years holiday with us. Before eating, we always had to place some of the food and offerings in front of the images of our ancestors as a sacrifice. We had to wait for them to finish eating before we started. When I was young, I would go to the temples with my family and light incense and pray to Buddha. Even though at the time I didn’t really understand it, it was already part of my life. Today Buddhist doctrine can make me calm, peaceful. It can help me to better understand impermanence and the karma of cause and effect.
During my eight years in New York , I began to once again come to know Chinese culture.
After returning to China , I had a deeper appreciation of tradition and faith. This appreciation comes from my daily life. So I discovered incense ash, doors, cow skin...new inspirations are continuously flashing to mind. Tradition is the body of a people, faith is the soul of a people. Body and soul together create a complete existence. China is currently putting all its strength into developing and moving forward, but it can’t leave behind its body and soul. Returning to my own mother tongue and culture, I felt that my feet were more stable, that I was deeply rooted.

EG: I would like to talk about your "ash paintings", on show for the first time in Italy. I would like to know how you came to use ash in your works.

ZH: I often go to the temple. In the past, when I went to the temple to light incense and pray, I would always pray for myself, later I began to pray for my family and my employees from the studio. Three years ago I became a lay Buddhist. As for the good men and women going to the temples, some pray to have children, for stability at home, for a quick return to health; some pray for good luck and wealth in the coming year or to get through a tough time, to say goodbye to poverty, to have success in their career.
The temple is completely different world, one of hope. The hospital, on the other hand, is one where people agonize over pain and death. When I see the ashes of these prayers, it really moves me. This gave rise to my idea to create art out of incense ash.
Two years ago was the first time I brought the ash from the Shanghai Jing’an Temple back to my studio. It is hard to use language to describe how I felt at the time. The other workers and I knelt before the ash.
Every year we bring several thousand cubic units of ash from dozens of temples in the Jiangsu-Zhejiang region back to the studio. The ash from the temples all comes in oil canisters, oftentimes the ash continues burning in the barrels for one or two months. When it is taken to the ash storage room, we brave great smoke and flames. After the basic ash group of he studio handles this, then they pick through it, separating it into type and color. Then the creative ash group use the ash to make paintings, ash sculptures, and ash installation.

EG: Ash has an ancient tradition, fundamental in Chinese spirituality, but also in the daily habits of millions of people. I would like to know what it represents for you.

ZH: For me ash is not ash, nor is it a material, it is a kind of collective soul, collective memory, and collective blessing.

EG: Ash exerts a particular attraction, a mysterious power which also comes across in your works. Do you think that this appeal represents the link between the physical and the spiritual?

ZH: Ash is a kind a carrier of hope, made solid by souls.

EG: I have always been fascinated by the extreme versatility of this material and how you succeed in varying the tones of this powder as if it was paint. Could you explain to me how you create your "ash paintings"?

ZH: 1. I invite the ash back from the temple and separate it based on color and texture.
       2. I sprinkle the sorted incense ash onto the surface of the painting to get the image I want.
       3. Use glue to fix the surface of the painting. For different paintings, I choose the relative appropriate techniques to fix the ash.

EG: Looking at your "ash paintings", it seems that ash gives the painting a dimension of remembrance. How would you explain this filter from the past that is present in your works?

ZH: This appears in the historical figures of the ash paintings. Most come from old photos published from the 1940’s to the 1970’s in Chinese official magazines like the China People’s Pictorial, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Pictorial, and Nationality Pictorial. I choose images that move me from among these old photographs.
This historical period was too special, and it was a time I experienced. For me, this is also a process of coming to know it all over again.
The London Financial Times published an article with the viewpoint of "turning around to look back at China." You can also say it like this: today the entire county of China is running forward, you can say that we are looking back at China.
There is an ash painting titled "Young General" it is a depiction of a young Zhang Xueliang. I even went to Hawaii to see his gravesite...
He died on Hawaii at the age of 94. In recent years we have seen "China Revolution", a 6 hour documentary showing the images and photographs of Zhang Xueliang with Jiang Jieshi in Xi’an before the catastrophe hit, as well as photographs from his old age.
As soon as I saw these processes, my feelings and mind grew very complicated. This photo was really is so interesting! It turns out thathe was a young warlord all along, a little punk. He completely lacked that air of dignity. Then, later he, he was that old and decrepit. The changes throughout the life of one individual, when exhibited, can really make us sigh with emotion.

EG: Also fundamental to this series of works are the subjects depicted. The characters in your "ash paintings" seem to convey a powerful sense of humanity, regardless of their origins. Could you please explain the "affection" for your chosen subjects?

ZH: I choose photographs that move me, some of them come from military life during the Revolution, some are from daily life and others are historical figures. I try to communicate with the souls behind these photographs, just as I am in working together with the countless souls contained in the ash.

EG: Ash is a fragile material, sensitive to external conditions and easily perishable, a material linked to the themes of recollection and of memory, which are also present in other works of yours. I would like to know why you are so attached to these themes.

ZH: Life is a process of transmigration, I want to express and record this process.

EG: The sources of your "ash paintings" are varied, from Soviet propaganda images to period photographs, from military scenes to old family albums. How do you choose the subjects of your works?

ZH: It is totally based on my own interests. I choose subjects that can jolt my spirit.

EG: What is the source of inspiration for the subjects of your "ash paintings" in this exhibition: skulls, flags and portraits?

ZH: Skulls represent the transmigration of life, the realization of enlightenment and rebirth. The flags represent the discrepancy between government and culture. Portraits represent the personalities and souls of individuals.

EG: What are your plans for the future?

ZH: Continue the creation of art. I am stage director and set designer for "Semele," an opera by the German composer George Frideric Handel, scheduled to go on stage at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels this September. My September exhibition at White Cube in London and December exhibition at PaceWildenstein in New York.