By Jonathan Goodman
Art in America, Sep. 1999

Zhang Huan

The conceptual and performance artist Zhang Huan was one of the highlights of "Inside Out," Last fall’s exhibition of new Chinese art at the Asia Society and P.S.1 in New York. In his mid 30s, Zhang, who was born in He Nan province in mainland China, studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1990s. A member of the Beijing East Village group, an association of artists devoted to social issues, he gained attention in 1994 for his powerful performance Twelve Square Meters, during which he sat nude for one hour in a public toilet, his body smeared with honey to attract flies.

Zhang came to New York last year to perform his piece Pilgrimage--Wind and Water in New York at P.S.1 A feat of stamina and mental focus, the work consisted of his repeatedly flinging himself bare-chested onto the gravel-covered ground of the museum courtyard, accompanied by the otherworldly sound of a recorded Tibetan chant. The artist thus made his way to a large Chinese bed, whose mattress was a 4-inch layer of ice. Removing his pants, Zhang lay naked on the ice for close to 10 minutes; seven dogs tied to the front of the bed added further pandemonium to a scene notable for its climate of anarchy.

The artist documents his performances with large C-prints and video. This exhibition of prints, recording performances from 1994 to 1998, presented the viewer with an anthology of Zhang’s theater of perseverance, which, through its injection of Asian imagery and values, enlivens a medium that has been part of Western art for decades. In one project, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), Zhang gathered a group of migrant laborers from the countryside to stand with him in a pond in Beijing. Their expressions, resigned and grim, speak volumes about the displacement of workers from rural to urban areas.

The photographs also reveal Zhang’s quirky sense of humor. In 11 photos from the series called Foam (1998), he offers, quite literally, an "oral history" of his life: the first image in the group shows his face partially covered with soap foam, his mouth bearing a snapshot, taken by his mother, of himself as a baby. In conversation, he calls the baby picture his "first performance." Other photos incorporate images of his wife or family, always placed in his mouth.

For To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), Zhang photographed several nude performers who lie, one on top of the other, in a blunted pyramid about four persons high. The performance took place in the Chinese countryside, and one can see a range of low peaks beyond the dry grass on which the figures rest. It is an odd but affecting image, which takes human presence and renders it anonymous--the participants faces cannot be seen--in nature. Zhang’s performances sharply remind us that issues of identity and individuation possess particular urgency for artists in China, the most populous nation on earth.