By Daniele Perra
The Season, Published by Gallery Pack, Italy, 2006
Zhang Huan, A Sense of the Possible
If I had to make a list of the most significant performances realized from the beginning of the 1990s through today, I wouldn’t hesitate to include Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters.
On a hot summer day in 1994, the artist traveled to a public toilet in Dashan Village, located east of Beijing. That place was renamed by Huan along other colleagues "Beijing East Village" insofar as it emulated New York’s East Village in contrast with the suburbs west of Beijing, an area which had become well known for commercial painters. He realized immediately that the toilet had not been cleaned for a long time due to the heavy rainfall that had enveloped the city for several days. Entering that public toilet was almost impossible, and so he went to another one. Once again, the place proved deserted and as soon as he went in he found himself surrounded by a myriad of flies. He felt like he was being devoured. And so he decided to do a performance in those latrines. He stripped naked, covered himself with fish oil and honey, and sat in that filthy, smelly environment for an hour. In no time at all his body was entirely covered in a swarm of flies. The photographs taken during that performance are extraordinary. Paradoxically, what should provoke a sense of disgust, rather attracts. The compositional force of photography seems to prevail over the significance of the representation.
Zhang Huan has been defined a masochist, as a favourer of pornography. In China, where nudity is principally associated with sex, reactions to his work have been contrasting and more often than not his work has been considered scandalous. Besides, only recently in that country has a certain typology of performance been tolerated at all. We are not talking of the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which in the West there were, among others, an artist who had himself shot in the arm by a friend armed with a pistol (Chris Burden), another who injured herself in every imaginable manner (Gina Pane), an artist who practiced self-mutilation (Rudolf Schwarzkogler), an artist who gave herself over to the public as a sort of sacrificial offering (Marina Abramovic), an artist who masturbated hidden under a wooden platform (Vito Acconci), an artist who urinated into a friend’s mouth (Otto Muehl), and one who walked along city streets leading a man on a leash (Valie Export with Peter Weibel). With Zhang Huan we are in China in the middle of the 1990s and it is not by chance that for several years his performances exhibited a private character. The first official action, entitled Angel , dates back to 1993 and was conducted during of a painting exhibition held at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. The artist began the performance outside the exhibition space. He was covered with red liquid and manipulated several parts of a doll which, once recomposed, was brought inside the gallery and set up as if it was his "painting." This gesture provoked the immediate closure of the show and Huan as forced to write a letter of self-criticism.
At the heart of almost all of Zhang Huan’s interventions lies a willingness to investigate the body’s existence through the pressures of diverse environments, always utilizing his own biography and culture as a point of departure. In the past, Huan has noted: "My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles have ended up in physical conflicts--- I felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence. This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society, and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language." The artist (for whom nudity is almost always fundamental) subjects his body to physical conditions that ordinary people have never experienced. And it is only under these circumstances that one is capable of "experiencing the relationship between the body and the spirit." According to Huan, it is during daily activities-going to work, sleeping, eating-that we come the closest to a concept of humanity. The presence of the fruition of his operations, but in many cases is an integral part of his work. Huan wants to share "a sense of the possible" with the spectator.
The artist left China years ago and now lives in New York. Permeable to all that surrounds him, with the passage of time his work has incorporated an inevitable convergence between East and West in which Christian and Buddhist rituals blend together, and citations of Western art history mix with traditional Chinese culture. His performances have become more choreographic, theatrical, ritualistic, ceremonial, spectacular, even at times acrobatic. Beginning with My America (Hard to Acclimatize) , 1999, and continuing with My Australia , 2000 through to My Rome , 2005, Zhang Huan’s performances have included a growing number of participants and ritual gestures. There are increased references to religion and social problems. His direction has become more articulated and complex to the point where the memory of that man seated in a narrow latrine and covered with flies remains anchored to nothing more than a photograph.