By Mathieu Borysevicz
Art in America, Oct. 2000

Zhang Huan at Deitch Projects

Since making his American debut at P.S.1 in late 1998, the performance artist Zhang Huan has increasingly attracted the U.S. art world’s attention. In his native China, Zhang’s notoriety stems from his central role in Beijing’s East Village artist group of the early 1990s. Creating works that responded to their immediate social and physical environment, these artists forged a prominent place for performance in the contemporary arts of China. Zhang’s early work, which often turned his own naked body into a kind of existential metaphor, was characterized by raw expression and stark social commentary. In 12 Square Meters (1994), he sat motionless in a squalid, sweltering public toilet for an hour, his body coated in honey and fish oil that attracted swarming flies.

Since those days, Zhang’s work has become more ritualistic and elaborate, often employing an eclectic mix of cultural references. The exhibition "My America" at Deitch was at once an ironic celebration of Zhang’s migration to the U.S. and an inquiry into the spiritual desolation of contemporary Western life.

The exhibition consisted of a video and a selection of large color photographs documenting a performance (original entitled "Hard to Acclimatize") presented at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in November 1999. In the video we see Zhang, playing a shaman, accompanied by more than 50 unclothed American participants. To the sound of Buddhist chanting, they carry out several loosely choreographed movements, beginning with scourging gestures borrowed from Tibetan pilgrims. The crowd files behind the also naked artist into a room lined with three-tiered scaffolding. The movements successively change to Muslim prostrations, yoga meditation postures and Tai Chi stances, leading finally to an eruption of wild, animal-like cavorting. After running a few dizzying laps in a small circle, the group members assume standing positions on the three levels of the scaffolding. Zhang, now seated on a small stool placed within a plastic baby pool, prepares himself for the piece’s crescendo--the castigation. The participants begin to vigorously pelt Zhang with large pieces of day-old bread. Though slightly absurd, the "bread storm" is fierce and, to judge by the artist’s grimaces, almost painful. The ceremony culminates with a woman from the group breaking an egg over the artist’s head.

The three-tiered arrangement of the scaffolding, was inspired by a 12th-century Indian Buddhist relief, but it could refer as well to early Christian architecture and mythology. The naked figures engaged in bizarre actions also in some ways evoke scenes from the painting of Hieronymus Bosch. The bread, a staple of life, is Zhang’s main point of inquiry. Is it only to partake of this simple nourishment that we live, or is there a higher reason? By instilling Eastern rituals of elevated spirituality with a sense of American contingency, "My America" questions the materialistic culture in which we live.