By Yu Yeon Kim
Zhang Huan, Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2003
The spectrum of Zhang Huan’s performance art spans subjecting his flesh to extreme hardships to sly poetic alchemy . It can be read in many ways - as obtuse political commentary - as a deeply profound expression of the vulnerability of corporeal existence.
There is a history of performance art in China that provides a context for Zhang Huan’s work - though it is short, as it is dramatic. Although performance art in Mainland China did not really become evident until the mid-1980s, its practice inevitably became an instrument of social and political criticism as well as an expression of the human condition. Performance art in China coincided with a tentative opening of doors to the West but it also has pushed the limitations placed on political and artistic expression and thereby helped pave the way for social reform. The great diversity of artistic styles that appears to have exploded in China may certainly be attributed in part to the re-introduction of Western ideas and art, but they also reflect a usage that deals with the intrinsic nature of Chinese culture and its political struggle.
Because of political constraints, performance and installation art in Mainland China has been presented spontaneously in makeshift circumstances, basements, outdoors, or in private apartments. The 1985 Movement was an emergence of pluralistic dialogue and an explosion of new ideas and forms in art practice during 1985-86. This was a period of intense activity where artists participated in various conferences and performances such as Xu Yihui’s and Cai Xiaogang’s Archaeological excavations on a waste disposal site , 1986 and the provocative and satirical Xiamen Dada ’Happening’ in which thirteen artists, including Huang Yongping, burnt their work. The authorities eventually stopped this performance. Other notable performance groups and artists in 1986 were the Southern Artists Salon (Wang Du, Yin Yilin, Chen Shaoxiong, Lin Juhui and others) and the 21 st Century Group (Sheng Qi, Kang Mu, Zheng Yuke and Zhao Jianhai) who performed naked in freezing temperatures on the Great Wall - and the M Group a male collective founded by Song Haidong whose violent performances, that involved beatings and hangings of its members, portrayed the artist as both criminal and victim.
In 1989, two incidents brought the development of performance and installation art in China to a temporary halt. In February of that year the artist Xiao Lu, fired gunshots into a work, Dialogue , created by herself and Tang Song, at the China Avant-garde exhibition at the National Palace of Fine Arts, Beijing. The exhibition was an important retrospective of the years following the 1985 Movement and featured the works over one-hundred and eighty artists and included many other radical performance and installation works such as Zhang Nian’s Suicide performance. Because of Xiao Lu’s now historical action, government forces closed down the entire exhibition just three hours after the opening. Tang Song was immediately arrested and Xiao Lu later surrendered herself to the authorities. Following the Tiananman Square Massacre on June 4 th all forms of expression were repressed and performance art, when it occurred, was very much an on-the-move affair. Under these circumstances, which demanded that performances and exhibitions could be erected and dismantled at a moment’s notice, photography and video documentation also became important not just as evidence of the event but also as a work of art in itself.
Zhang Huan’s first public performance, “The Angel”, occurred in October 1993 when he had been invited to participate in a painting exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. He and his fellow artists had been informed just two days before the opening that anything resembling performance or installation art would be disallowed. Determined, nevertheless, to realize his concept for the show, Zhang began his performance outside the gallery just before the opening. Standing on a white sheet he poured over his head the contents of a jar he had filled with a bloody liquid contain fragments of toy babies. He then reassembled the pieces that had fallen on the sheet in to a new baby, which he then placed in the exhibition hall as his "painting". The gallery immediately cancelled the exhibition and levied a fine of 2,000 RMB on the artist with a demand that he write a self-criticism of his action as a condition of the exhibition reopening. Zhang Huan complied for the sake of his fellow artists, but the show did not reopen. Zhang Huan has not been able to perform in a public gallery or museum in China since this date. In the years that followed, before his recognition in the West, the artist, like many of his fellow artists, created performances in private spaces and apartments.
Zhang, who was born in 1965, left his post as an art teacher in Henan (middle China), to move to Beijing in 1991 to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. A few years later, following the fiasco of his "Angel" performance, he met Ma Liuming in a Beijing suburb, Dashan Village , which later became known as Beijing East Village, a controversial community of artists. Zhang claims to have changed the name of the village as a way of drawing a parallel with, as well as emulating, New York’s East Village - both being places where artists from other cities conglomerated. He collaborated with Ma Liuming in a few performances but after 1996 this collaboration ended. The 1995 performance The Anonymous Mountain Raised by a Meter was a collaboration with nine other East Village artists, including Ma Liuming, in which they performed on the side of a mountain by piling their naked bodies on top of each other.
In 1997 he created what is probably his most publicized performance, To Raise the Water Level in a Pond , in which he and his fellow performers stood naked in the Nanmofang pond in order to displace the volume of water with their bodies. He gained overnight fame in New York when a photograph of this performance was displayed on New York subway trains during the Inside Out exhibition curated by Gao Minglu in 1998 at the Asia Society and PS1 museums in New York. Metaphysical yet political public events and personal physical endurance characterize Zhang Huan’s works. The latter is particularly evident in his 1994 performance Twelve Square Meters which involved sitting on a public toilet ("the filthiest in the world", according to a witness) covered in fish oil, honey and innumerable flies for three hours - and 65kg (1994) in which he hung bound and gagged from the ceiling while blood dripped from incisions in his body made by surgical scissors. These performances were an examination of Zhang’s sense of immersion in the filthy environment of the East Village - which was surrounded by mounds of garbage from Beijing City . Naked flesh is pitted against the pollution of the pond and the germ infested flies of the toilet. This is the sense from the work - not just contact - but an interaction of vulnerable skin with aggressive contaminants. For Zhang, the process is not merely about visual presentation or shock effect; it is about achieving a more intense, more real understanding of physical existence, of habitation in the flesh. It is an attempt to get beyond perception and rationality and return to a raw sensation of living. Performances such as 65kg (1994), Original Sound and 25mm Threading Steel (both 1995) indicate an extreme, indeed, gruesome form of self torture and although this element is certainly a part of his work, what Zhang appears to be reaching for is both a sense of the presence of the body as well as its alchemical transformation in becoming part of the matrix of life. In 65kg the action of the weight of his body bound in chains appears to provide the pressure to propel 250cc of his blood through a catheter tube to a where it is stewed on a frying pan below. Original Sound homes in on the idea of equivalence of the human body with the basest creatures of the earth. Zhang lay naked on concrete beneath a highway bridge in the early hours of the morning with only twelve other artists as witnesses. He had emptied a jar of earthworms into his mouth and lay still as they crawled over his face and into his nose and ears. In 25mm Threading Steel, he persuaded steelworkers to allow him to lie naked beneath their working table. He lay there for an hour while the blades hovered perilously close and the welders sparks flew into his flesh. Perhaps the most fearful aspect of existence is the fact itself - that we live and die. Zhang takes his innermost fears and externalizes them in his performances. They are a catharsis through which he can recognize the fear itself - not deny it through analysis - but render it continuous as a work of art, as a means of touching on a commonality in the human condition.
My America combines the elements of mass demonstration and self sacrifice and is a product of his current residency in the USA. The participants are 56 naked Caucasian men and women who join a performance that has both tribal and mass religion overtones and mixes Buddhist chanting. He is the only Asian in the performance in which he appears to be both a director and an object of vilification. After participating in what might be a Buddhist prayer ritual the performers run in circles around the artist and then throw loaves of bread at him from a large scaffold while he sits on a chair below with his feet submerged in water. The performance has a nightmarish ambiguity with mystical, political, and religious overtones that afford no easy interpretation but which nevertheless manages to straddle Eastern and Western cultures. Zhang Huan has stated "My understanding is that no one can escape this cruelty, neither myself nor the audience. Once the audience steps into the site of the performance, they become involved in the reality before their eyes. They have nowhere to escape, just as they have no way to escape reality".