Public Art Project
Fifty Stars, 2003, Performance, The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, USA

Artist Inspired by His Life in U.S.
By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Not all of the nearly 11,000 people who attended the opening of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art on May 31 saw the performance piece "Fifty Stars" by Zhang Huan. But many of them have heard about it by now.

Huan’s affecting premiere about America today sparked controversy when, for a few moments during the approximately 20-minute performance, the artist stood on the American flag.

Taking this one image out of context "is ridiculous," says senior curator Thom Collins, referring to a photograph that was published as part of the Enquirer’s coverage of the center’s opening. "What people don’t realize is that during the performance the flag was cradled, gently laid down and carried ceremonially through the museum."

Since the photograph ran last Sunday, talk show hosts, columnists and readers have voiced outrage over what they assumed to be desecration of the flag. But their reactions were to the photograph rather than Zhang’s performance.

With the public opening of the Rosenthal Center, a six-minute video of "Fifty Stars" will play in the fourth floor gallery dedicated to Zhang’s work.

"Art takes liberties and artistic license," commented philanthropist Lois Rosenthal. "I don’t think there’s anything un-American about art."

Flag only part of piece

The performance begins with Zhang covered by the American flag crawling into the center of the lobby while the national anthem plays. A police dog emerges from under the flag, then Zhang dressed as a policeman holding two dolls.

"The policeman and dog symbolize today’s America, especially New York, where you see them everywhere," the artist explained. "They give you a very nervous feeling. The U.S. is also the policeman of the world. But after September 11, Americans realize they are no longer safe here."

The dolls represent his two children. "I just had a baby girl," he said. "My children were born here. They are American citizens."

In sync with the center’s mission to "serve as an agent for positive social change," Zhang’s performance portrays a changed America.

The guard dog "searches" Zhang’s person as he lies on the flag- an action similar to the experience of some Asian-Americans at U.S. airports. While the flag is carried in triumph through the new museum, Zhang as the policeman closely examines the art for any terrorist threat. He later leaves the building to release 100 white doves.

"Fifty Stars" is intended to encourage discussion about the relationship between art and politics," Collins said. "Using the U.S. flag to represent the democratic principles of the nation, a generic police uniform and guard dog to suggest efforts to secure the American people, dolls to stand in for his children and doves as a symbol of hope for a peaceful future, the artist raises awareness of the tension between ensuring national security, and---protecting the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution."

One of China’s top performance artists, Zhang is a cultural realist who combines symbolism with his life’s experience to create dramatic experiences for his audiences.

He grew up in He Nan at the end of the Cultural Revolution, when oppression was rampant and civil liberties virtually nonexistent. After earning a master of fine arts in oil painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he and several classmates began to the avant-garde artist’s collective East Village.

Again, Zhang was the target of persecution, this time for the cutting-edge performances he began to create. he moved to the Untied States because of the nation’s right to free expression.

’I love this country’

"I love this country," he said. "The American flag in ’Fifty Stars’ symbolizes the United States and my inspiration was my life here."

Initially Zhang was to perform a piece, "My Cincinnati," a reaction to what he absorbed from the city on a recent visit. But in the aftermath of 9-11, his work took on a more global context and "Fifty Stars" replaced "My Cincinnati."

"The performance is in line with our core values, which are innovation, diversity and full inquiry," said Charles Demarais, director of the center. "We are supporters of free expression. That’s why so many people supported the building and why so many were here on Saturday night."