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By Roberta Smith
New York Times, Art in Review, Feb. 12, 1999

Zhang Huan


When it comes to 20th-century art movements, nothing has the mobility and transparency of Conceptual Art. Unencumbered by a definite visual style or much in the way of materials, it effortlessly crosses cultural and political boundaries, adjusting chameleonlike to local traditions, issues and sensibilities. So it was in Russia in the 1970’s and 80’s, and so it is today in China, where the continuity and richness of visual traditions are unmatched.


Conceptual Art’s malleability is readily apparent in the first solo show of Chinese photo-performance artist Zhang Huan, whose work stood out last fall in "Inside Out: New Art From China" at the Asia Society in Manhattan and P.S.1 contemporary Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens. (His photographs and a live performance were seen at P.S.1) Mr. Zhang enlivens established Conceptual conventions with a sense of Chinese history, character and art and his own understated stage presence.


The show begins with a new series of photographs titled "Foam," big color close-ups of Mr. Zhang’s face dripping soap bubbles. In each case his open mouth holds a tiny family snapshot: baby pictures, family groups, siblings, sweethearts. If 11 different versions of this images may be excessive, they strikingly bring to mind birth, a mythic life-giving god rising from the sea and some form of torture.


These associations unfold further: we are born with our future already in us; our personal histories can be swallowed whole to escape detection, consumed by a greater power like the state or regurgitated, given away, under pressure. Always one returns to the dump immediacy of the big face, the slippery soap bubbles, the little snapshot.


The best of Mr. Zhang’s images similarly fuse richness and obviousness, old and new. When he photographs himself covered with calligraphic writing and wearing the meat-flecked rib cage of a recently butchered pig like a piece of armor or hunter’s booty, there is a startling evocation of brutality and cultivation, of traditional portraiture and gritty performance art. The same goes for the photograph of a performance in which the artist sat, Buddha-like in a grimy communal bathroom covered with honey and subsequently with flies; or his P.S.1 performance, in which he lay naked, face down, on cakes of ice on a traditional Chinese bed to which a random selection of dogs were tied.


Mr. Zhang’s is an elegant form of endurance art: efficient, sometimes offhand, occasionally even witty. It is legible without being derivative and unfamiliar without seeming exotic. Heady, yet grounded, it simply makes itself available to the viewer on levels simultaneously personal, esthetic and cultural