By Kong Bu
Zhang Huan: Altered States, Published by Charta and Asia Society, 2007
Zhang Huan in Beijing
I have been away from Zhang Huan ’s Beijing creations for nearly a decade. Curiosity and a sense of necessity have forced me to look back and revisit that period of history.
In 1990, Zhang Huan was a graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing . Although his talent and diligence had not received the affirmation he so desired, in the years that followed he would achieve even greater critical acclaim. In that earlier era — entirely lacking information from outside — one was free, if poor, and an ability to see art for what it was, combined with the special artistic atmosphere of Beijing, nourished a vigorous curiosity and a lust for action.
In Beijing ’s eastern suburbs, Zhang Huan came to live with a number of other practitioners of “experimental art” and formed the Beijing East Village , as it was called. At the village entrance they erected a black-and-white road sign that marked their presence and resonated with the avant-garde atmosphere of New York ’s East Village . This group of artists was committed to avant-garde experimentation; at the very least they did not care about the then-influential Yuanmingyuan artist’s village in the western part of the city. From beginning to end, they maintained distance from their surroundings and peers, using this sense of distance, or rather this power, to ensure a place in history for their East Village . Today, this distance is echoed in the way that the energy of Zhang Huan ’s later works rapidly pushed forth a Chinese contemporary art that maintained its own distance from the rest of the world.
In 1992, Zhang Huan rented a shabby dwelling and studio of thirty square meters from the residents of the Beijing East Village . It was a desolate, isolated piece of land, piled high with garbage and reeking of the life-energy of the northern Chinese peasants who inhabited it. But the stage was set even before the Beijing East Village artists arrived — a place for greatness, natural and full of imagination. There, Zhang Huan realized major performance works including 65 Kilograms and 12 Square Meters . It was the only place where such works could have been born.
On the day when he realized the piece 65 Kilograms , Zhang Huan first cleaned his living space and then sewed together around one hundred white sleeping mats. He laid out nearly twenty of these mats with a few precise centimeters between each so that they filled the floor of room. When stepped upon, the cotton inside the mats produced a slightly abnormal feel underfoot. In the center of the room, the artist stacked several dozen mats to form a platform that resembled a bed; He placed an electric hot plate on the platform and topped it with a white steel pan of the type seen in hospitals. Against one wall he stacked the mats straight up to the ceiling. Naked, Zhang Huan suspended himself face down from chains secured to an iron plank three meters above the center of the room. A leather strip held his head in place. Two doctors silently drew 250 milliliters of blood from his body. To heighten the sensation for the viewers, the room was sprayed with disinfectant before the performance began. The scent filled the room. I saw Zhang Huan ’s blood flow from his body into a bag held by a doctor and then drip from the bag onto the pan on the hot plate. The scorching drops of blood bounced into the air, their scent gradually diffusing. The several dozen viewers present — colleagues, photographers and other documentarians both Chinese and foreign — all turned at the same time to look up at the still suspended Zhang Huan. Some present felt uncomfortable, including one person who fainted and fell to the floor, while others ran away. Most stood silently to witness together this hour-long work. 65 Kilograms is the title of this famous piece, a number derived from Zhang Huan ’s weight at that time. The work could not have been realized in a formal exhibition setting. Later the government investigated the happening and many objects and materials connected the piece were lost.
The work 12 Square Meters , also realized in the Beijing East Village , preceded 65 Kilograms . Not far from the room where Zhang Huan lived there was a public toilet, which in the classic Chinese style comprised a row of squatting trenches. There was also the narrow, rectangular, cement through urinal found only in men’s latrines. This is the most common kind of latrine used in China . In the summertime, the smell of ammonia drives its users to tears. Inside, these spaces are filled with buzzing flies and maggots climbing the walls. Typically a sign declaring that “Everyone Bears Responsibility for Public Hygiene” adorns one wall.
Zhang Huan coated his naked body with honey and fish oil and took his seat on a backless iron stool at the center of the room, allowing the flies to climb onto his body and feast on the honey and waste for sixty minutes, thus completing the work. The name 12 Square Meters has no hidden meanings; it simply documents the floor area of the latrine. Afterwards, Zhang Huan arose from his seat coated in flies, left the latrine, and walked toward an abandoned fishing pond several dozen meters away where he slowly immersed himself in the water until the surface of the pond returned to a calm state. At this point the struggling flies floated up to the surface.
In 1995, three floors below a construction site, Zhang Huan realized his work 25mm Threading Steel . Baring his body, Zhang Huan lay supine on a concrete floor. Because the light in the basement was dim, he had assistants install a single lamp in one corner of the room. The lamp illuminated a cutting machine that was placed fifty centimeters from the artist’s feet and which formed a straight line with his head and feet. Every ten seconds, a worker cut a piece of steel twenty-five millimeters long. Red and orange sparks flew everywhere, blinding the surrounding viewers with their brightness. The piercing sounds of the cutting came frequently, rhythmically intercepting the sound of workers singing elsewhere in the compound. It lasted precisely one hour.
In order to realize the piece To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain , Zhang Huan and I surveyed the suburbs west of Beijing before finally deciding on the peak of Miaofengshan Mountain in the Mentougou District as the site for the work. Other artists from the Beijing East Village were invited to participate, but it was Zhang Huan who explained the proposal and set the time for the work. We hired two surveyors and equipment from the land bureau and arranged for photographers and film cameras from a movie studio.
At 13:00 on May 11, 1995, only the occasional truck along the highway disturbed the calm atop the mountain. Surveyors Jin Kui and Xiong Wen stood on the road below where they set up their equipment. They measured the mountain’s height at 86.393 meters. I was in charge of recording each participant’s weight: Wang Shihua, 80kg ; Cang Xin, 70kg ; Gao Yang, 68kg ; Zu Zhou, 65kg ; Ma Zhongren, 65kg ; Zhang Huan , 65kg ; Ma Liuming, 55kg ; Zhang Binbin (female), 55kg ; Duan Yingmei (female), 55kg ; Zhu Ming, 46kg . Everyone climbed the mountain, and one by one the artists shed their clothes. The participants divided into four rows by ascending weight and then lay on top of each other in the form of a pyramid. Between 13:26 and 13:38 that afternoon, the surveyors’ measurement of the anonymous mountain was 87.393 meters, precisely one meter higher than Miaofengshan Mountain . A breeze suddenly blew across the mountaintop. Looking back on that work today, it seems that the meter that Zhang Huan added to create that anonymous mountain far transcends its initial significance, because with it he added a layer of deep cultural significance. At that time I believed this ideal of “adding height” would persist over time. The works of this period were extremely masochistic, showing the young Zhang Huan ’s abnormally excited posture and a wisdom and romanticism hinted at by his extreme bodily language.
After completing To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain , Zhang Huan and his collaborators moved to another nearby peak. There, the nine performers chose their own positions. The men dug holes in the earth and placed their penises inside, lying silently. Likewise, the women aligned their vaginas with protrusions on the ground. This work entitled, Nine Holes , was realized to perfection. This was an extremely beautiful and direct instantiation of the relationship between man and nature. The mountain in the work was humanized, leading us to speculate on what might happen nine months later.
In the summer of 1997, Zhang Huan invited forty-six migrant laborers then living in the city — construction worker, movers, and farmers between the ages of five and sixty — to a fishing pond near Beijing’s South Third Ring Road to participate in his epic To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond . The work comprised three parts: first, everyone surrounded and stared attentively at the fishpond of approximately 200 meters in diameter. Then, each individual moved forward from his position to the center of the pond, forming a human wall dividing the pond in two. Finally, they naturally split apart, facing forward to watch as Zhang Huan carried the owner of the fishpond’s five-year-old son atop his shoulders into the water and walked toward the center of the group. They literally raised the water level of the pond.
Zhang Huan had still other works that he was unable to realize in Beijing . He was determined to realize one piece in late 1995 or early 1996 that would take place during the first snowstorm of that winter in an empty field in the northern suburbs. Nearly twenty naked male and female artists would sit around a transparent table. A golden, bell-shaped Chinese hot pot would occupy the center of the table, and as the snow blew around them, the artists would wait for the pot to boil over and spew soft steam. The naked men and women would make merry, smugly eating and drinking. The proposal had been debated in detail numerous times, and fresh sparrows, frogs, snakes, mice, worms, turtles, and insects had been ordered for the pot. The ideal site, setting, objects, and equipment had been prepared.
When the meteorologists predicted snow, Zhang Huan invited the artists to participate. But somehow it failed to snow once that entire winter! I thought at the time that the artist had willed this. Perhaps, by means of his obstinate experientialism, he had engaged this power in nature and was able to reconstruct reality. Snow never fell that year, yet Zhang Huan was able to claim even that apparent anarchy of this non-event as his own.