By Eleanor Heartney
Zhang Huan: Altered States, Published by Charta and Asia Society, 2007
Zhang Huan: Becoming the Body
Body art subverts all traditional definitions of art. When artists use their own bodies as an art material, normal distinctions between creator and created disappear. By becoming art themselves, they render disinterested aesthetic judgments of the art object absurd or irrelevant. Because the “artwork” is also a sentient, reasoning being, body art brings moral, ethical, and political issues into play.
This becomes abundantly clear in the work of Chinese body artist Zhang Huan. In the course of his career, Zhang Huan has subjected himself to painful trials: sitting motionless for hours in an outhouse covered in honey and fish oil while flies crawled over his body; suspending himself from the ceiling in his apartment as his blood dripped slowly from incisions into a metal bowl; and lying on a block of ice until his body temperature reached dangerously low levels. He has presented himself to audiences in different ways, ranging from near solitary actions witnessed only by a few friends or bystanders to full-scale performances involving the orchestration of dozens of people before large audiences.
These performances vary in many ways, and in fact one can detect the gradual evolution over years from private introspection toward an embrace of larger communities and contexts. What unites them is Zhang Huan ’s sense of the body as the point of social, mental, and spiritual contact with the outside world. Rejecting western tendencies to block off mind and body into separate spheres, he instead embraces a corporeal consciousness that is acquired through, rather than in spite of, the body. He has remarked, “…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.”
In Zhang Huan ’s work body consciousness operates in a number of ways. It is the link between the inner spirit and the outside world, a relationship that is heightened in works of endurance where pain makes other distinctions collapse. But it is also the medium through which we connect with others, as Zhang Huan ’s more communal works attest. He often chooses to be naked in his performances and asks others to be naked as well, because nudity strips us of our cultural shells and places us back into the natural order.
These are hardly new ideas. In Zhang Huan ’s case they have roots in Buddhism and other Asian spiritual practices. From a more western perspective, they resonate with the feminist movement’s revalorization of bodily experience. And, as many commentators have noted, Zhang Huan ’s approach also recalls the explorations of extreme physical states undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s by artists like Chris Burden, Gina Pane, and Marina Abramovic. However, body consciousness is increasingly marginalized in a society prone to frame the relationship of mind and body using computer-inspired metaphors that make inviolable distinctions between software and hardware. In this situation, Zhang Huan ’s insistence on the corporeal aspect of knowledge offers a useful corrective.
Zhang Huan ’s emergence in the 1960s from the Beijing East Village art scene has been well documented. Along with Ma Liuming and other Chinese avant-gardists, Zhang Huan used apparently irrational and even potentially self-destructive actions to subtly undermine the mental and physical restrictions placed on individuals by China ’s authoritarian regime. While his earliest performance involved demonstrations of self-mastery, by the late 1990s he had begun to carry out more communal actions aimed at altering aspects of the natural environment, such as orchestrating the bodies of friends and strangers literally “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain” or “To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond.”
In a similar spirit, Zhang Huan addressed the urban environment in his first performance outside China . 3006 Cubic Meters/65 Kilograms was performed at the Watari Museum in Tokyo in 1997. In this work he tried to pull the museum building down using a system of metal tubes running from his body to the museum exterior. Here, the challenge was posed not by nature but by a human built institution. The title refers to the imbalance of force — 3006 cubic meters is the mass of the building, 65 kilograms is Zhang Huan ’s much smaller body weight. Thus, his efforts embodied a quixotic resistance to the institutional art world that was supporting him.
In 1998, a few years after the government closed the Beijing East Village art collective, Zhang Huan moved to New York City . This change led the artist to reconsider not only his approach to art, but also his place in the world. Living outside China for the first time, he was forced to deal with feelings of displacement and alienation as an immigrant. He still relied on bodies (his own and others) as his primary art material, but he began to put them into situations that underscored his sense of social isolation and vulnerability to external social circumstances.
Zhang Huan ’s first performance in the United States was Pilgrimage — Wind and Water in New York , performed at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, Queens, in 1998 as part of “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” a groundbreaking exhibition of Chinese art organized by Asia Society and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Unlike Zhang’s earlier Beijing East Village performances, this work attracted a large audience. Attired like a Buddhist monk in Buddhist pants and shaved head, the artist walked through the museum courtyard toward an ornate Ming-dynasty-style bed to the gong of Tibetan bells. The bed was surrounded by tethered dogs and covered with three blocks of ice. Zhang Huan stripped and lay on the ice for ten minutes until he became so cold he had to get up. The work was a commentary on his uncertain place in his new home: instead of warming the ice with his body heat, Zhang Huan came close to freezing, raising questions about the kind of impact an immigrant may hope to have on his new environment. The dogs were meant to refer to the coexistence of races (and species) in his new home, but they also added an uneasy undercurrent, blurring the line between their status as predators and as pets.
A similar conundrum was explored in Zhang Huan ’s 1999 performance My American (Hard to Acclimatize) . Zhang Huan notes that this work was inspired in part by a small twelfth-century Jain relief at the Seattle Asia Art Museum , where this work was performed. He built a stage set that included a three-tiered scaffold, designed to resemble the three rows of figures in the sculpture. The work’s subtitle, Hard to Acclimatize , suggests its larger message. Unlike earlier works, this performance had many elements and required its cast of fifty-six naked Americans to perform a series of ritual actions drawn from Tibetan Buddhism and tai chi. These included instructions like Lie Face Down on the Floor and Do not Move ; Act and Sound like Animals; and Climb the Scaffold. The final action involved running in circles around the seated artist and climbing the scaffold to throw loaves of bread at the artist seated below. The sight of this mob turning on the impassive artist was both comic and unsettling, and it dramatized Zhang Huan ’s sense that he could never fully belong in the alien world. Meanwhile, the reference to eastern spiritual practices that preceded this hostile action pointed to the gap between the cultures of East and West.
Speaking of the audience’s role in performance like these, Zhang Huan has remarked, “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.”
My American (Hard to Acclimatize) was the first of a series of commissioned works — including My Australia, My Sydney, My Japan, My Rome, and My Boston — that take on his response to different geographical locations. Zhang Huan created My New York in 2002 as part of that year’s Whitney Biennial; like My American (Hard to Acclimatize) , this performance represented Zhang Huan ’s efforts to take control of a difficult situation. For this work he was covered with a white cloth and carried out to the museum courtyard on a palanquin. The cloth was removed to reveal the artist draped in raw steaks, which gave Zhang Huan ’s slight physique the appearance of pumped-up bodybuilder. Set down on the ground, he began to walk through the crowd and distribute white doves to various bystanders, who set them free. After crossing the street and circling the museum, Zhang Huan disappeared back into the museum, signaling the end of the performance.
My New York brought together several ideas, The steak suit created a protective shell that gave Zhang Huan a formidable presence. However its raw red surface also suggested a flayed body and reduced the artist to an almost animal-like condition. The doves, a symbol of reconciliation and liberation, referenced the Buddhist tradition of setting live animals free to accumulate grace. Thus for Zhang Huan , this work again summed up a series of mixed feelings about his complex relationship to his adopted city. Describing this work, he has remarked, “A bodybuilder will build up strength over the course of decades, becoming formidable in this way. I, however, become Mr. Olympic Bodybuilder overnight.”
With My New York, one begins to sense a more hopeful note creeping into Zhang Huan ’s performance as the artist reconciles himself with nature, though only after literally transforming himself into a piece of meat. The same year, Zhang Huan created a performance in Germany entitled Seeds of Hamburg . For this work he covered his body in honey and sprinkled himself with sunflower seeds. He then entered a cage containing wooded crates and a leafless tree. To the sound of music by Wang Guotong, a contemporary Chinese composer, the cage was filled with doves that settled on the artist’s body and began to eat the seeds. Again, in a gesture of hope, he released one of them so that it might plant the seed and initiate a cycle of growth.
The performance created since Zhang Huan ’s move to the West increasingly employ objects and elements that refer to traditional Asian rituals and spiritual practices. This is a development that is equally evident in the work of other expatriate Chinese artists like Chen Zhen, Wenda Gu, Huang Yong Ping, and Cai Guo-Qiang, for whom departure from China heightened a sense of the preciousness of tradition. Zhang Huan ’s work has always contained an undercurrent of Buddhist thought and has drawn on Buddhism’s emphasis on the release of ego and the union of self with the larger forces of nature. This influence is evident in the way the artist has described the early endurance works as ways to heighten his sense of the mind’s union with the body. In more recent works addressed to non-Chinese audiences, his allusions to Asian spiritual practices are more explicit in order to contrast them with the individualistic and materialistic orientation of the West.
Another development in recent years is Zhang Huan ’s experimentation with more permanent art forms like photography and sculpture for their own sake, rather than as documentation of his performances; these retain links to his earlier works. For example, Family Tree (2000) consists of nine sequential photographs of Zhang Huan ’s face made at regular intervals during the course of a single day. he instructed three calligraphers to inscribe his face with a constant stream of names, stories, and thoughts until, by the end of the day, his face was completely black. Thus, his body became a parchment, transferring consciousness from within his mind and memory to his skin and breaking down the barriers between mind and body in a similar way to his performance works.
Zhang Huan ’s recent sculptures, meanwhile, are further distanced from performance. Instead they deal with metaphors and body surrogates. For instance, a series of sculptures based on fragments of the Buddha’s body where inspired by antique Buddhist sculptures the artist encountered in Tibet . These had been shattered and parts stolen during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Huan was able to purchase some of these fragments in antique markets and he was impressed with their beauty. These damaged bits of Buddha sculptures underscored the body’s vulnerability in adverse social conditions in a way that was analogous to his use of his own body in performances. He began to enlarge fragments of Buddha statues that he had collected, creating them out of a skin of copper and leaving them open and perforated to emphasize a sense of their fragility.
In these and other works, one senses an identification with the suffering Buddha. In a symbolic self-portrait from 2001 entitled Peace, Zhang Huan created a large bronze bell based on Tibetan temple models and inscribed it with the names of eight generations of his ancestors. Beside it, a large and detailed cast of the artist’s body is suspended horizontally. The bell is rung when the artist’s effigy crashes head first into it; thus, the artist and Buddhist bell become one through an act of apparent violence. In a similar way, these fragmentary fingers, hands, and feet point to acts of destruction that fail to diminish the continuing vitality of the Buddha’s spirit, which lives on in them unimpeded.
The paradox of Zhang Huan ’s work is its marriage of violence, self-inflicted pain, and physical transgression with a Buddhist-inspired quest for peace and enlightenment. This is body art of a specifically Asian variety, in which oppositions dissolve, mind and spirit meld, and inside becomes inseparable from outside. Through acts centered on his own sensate and often suffering body, Zhang Huan hopes to bridge the gap, not just between mind and spirit or nature and culture, but also between individuals and societies. He remarks, “I often get the impression that people do not understand who they are nor do they know what leads them to act as they do. But in the end we are all equal. We all love life and fear death.”