By Nina Miall
Zhang Huan: Ash, Published by Haunch of Venison, 2007, UK
ISBN: 978-1-905620-19-7Like a Phoenix Rising: The Ash Works of Zhang Huan
In 2005, Zhang Huan returned to his native China after a period of seven years spent living and working in New York. The move coincided with a major shift in his practice, one which saw him retire from the provocative and uncompromising performance art on which he had built his career to explore a variety of object-based media. Taking a warehouse space in Shanghai’s southern Min Hang district, where today he is supported by over one hundred studio assistants, Zhang Huan embraced the new material and formal challenges posed by painting, sculpture and printmaking, experimenting later with large-scale installations and mixed-media works. Whereas New York had left the artist troubled by a growing sense of dislocation, Shanghai allowed him to focus. Sympathetic to his Buddhist principles, it afforded Zhang the space to re-examine his practice and to reflect upon the process of enquiry that underpinned his art-making.The East Village performances for which the artist had first become known in the 1990s were conceived in response to a politically and culturally-specific framework which had, by 2005 when he returned to China, undergone profound and rapid change. A growing awareness of the considerable political and economic gains to be harvested from Chinese contemporary art on the part of the State and, crucially, of how its more radical leanings could be recuperated for their own benefit, had encouraged a new permissiveness, one that dissolved the old dichotomy of progressive artists opposing an authoritarian regime.
Unprecedented economic growth within China saw political priorities shift from socialist ideas to capitalist values. In production terms, Chinese industry in the new millennium was characterised by a speed, skill and economic efficiency that allowed artists like Zhang Huan to realise works on a scale and ambition hitherto unimagined.
While these socio-economic circumstances were certainly favourable to Zhang Huan’s new direction, the transition from a performative to an object-based practice proceeded according to a stylistic logic internal to his work: ‘After years of doing performances, I had figured out the layers and meanings in my work. I hoped to execute these conclusions in new experiments with various art mediums.’ A classically trained painter, Zhang had always been a powerful and compelling image-maker, particularly so as a performance artist. It demanded no great leap then for the artist to consider the canvas as an extension of his own body, as a site on which the same struggles between the individual and the collective, history and memory, identity and spirituality could be played out. His recent work in traditional media continues the confrontations with the concrete, physical world that have always driven his art-making, but reveals a move beyond considerations of his own physicality to the contemplation of broader phenomenological questions. Enduring themes such as the vulnerability of corporeal existence are no longer communicated through the bodily experience of works like 12m2 (1994) or 3006m3: 65kg (1997) but are invoked as vividly through the spidery brushstrokes of Zhang’s insect paintings or the material volatility of his ash works.
As he acknowledges in his introduction to this catalogue, it was the transcendent beauty of ash, rediscovered while burning incense at Shanghai’s Longhua Temple a few years ago, which provided the sought-after ‘ingredient’ for Zhang Huan’s extensive body of new work. Having recently reconnected with his native culture, the artist was particularly receptive to its deeply held traditions, many of which had been sidelined by the experimental artists of the 1990s in their obsession with contemporaneity. For an artist embarking on experiments with new media, the allure of ash was manifold. In addition to the cultural and historical importance already unpacked by Zhang Huan’s introduction, incense ash held a crumbly aesthetic appeal and, more importantly, was redolent of an intensely practised spirituality: the material embers of an immaterial act. The swaying bodies and nodding heads that accompanied the practice of incense burning told of its hypnotic and transformative power. In the ash remains, the artist found a material as evocative, highly charged and rich in metaphysical association as fat and felt were for Joseph Beuys.
Incense had first made an appearance in Zhang Huan’s work in 2001, at a time when his performances were assuming an increasingly ritualistic tone. On a site visit to Santiago de Compostela in Spain where he had been invited to create a piece by the Museo Das Peregrinacións, Zhang was captivated by the beauty of the incense balls carried by priests in a church. The resulting work, Pilgrimage to Santiago (2001), saw the artist imprison his naked self inside an enormous thurible which swung like a Catholic reliquary around the main square in front of the cathedral: ‘I became interested in the idea of incense burners, and decided to immerse myself in a giant one, filled with bones. It would be a way to cleanse myself of all iniquities, and to attain a new body and soul. It would appear as if Buddha was sitting inside the incense ball of Christianity.’ Whereas earlier performances revealed Zhang Huan’s preoccupation with abject states and the body in distress (postures that invited comparisons with 1970s body artists such as Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic), Pilgrimage to Santiago showed the artist in search of spiritual illumination and the body’s symbolic purification.
Having witnessed with awe the incense burning at Longhua Temple, Zhang Huan embarked upon the haunting ash paintings and sculptures that form the basis of his exhibition at Haunch of Venison. His earliest experiments in ash – a series of ‘ash cubes’ – show the artist getting to grips with a new medium, foregrounding its materiality and making a virtue of its unsteady, formless qualities. Dry incense ash is compacted into one-metre cubes whose striated form – caused by layering ash of varying tones – recalls centuries of geological stratification. As exercises in the purity of form, these ash cubes pay homage to the freestanding ‘boxes’ of Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd. With no agent to bind the ash, however, their edges and corners quickly crumble, betraying a much closer affinity with process-orientated practices in which perishable or ephemeral materials are subjected to the natural forces of gravity, time and temperature. Process Art provided, in many ways, a fitting entry point for a performance artist moving towards an object-focused practice. For Zhang Huan, the insubstantiality of ash – signified by the rapid disintegration of the ash cubes, their defiance of objecthood – tallied with the immateriality of performance. Furthermore, Process Art’s emphasis on the creative process – art as residing in the gathering, sorting and manipulating of material rather than in the end-product – found sympathy with the artist’s Buddhist practice, according to which experience was thought to outweigh material form.
As Zhang Huan’s familiarity with the medium grew and he began to experiment with different formats, so the demands of production necessitated a move to an industrial scale of operation which prevails in the studio today. Collected weekly from some twenty temples around Shanghai, large quantities of incense ash are taken to a dedicated warehouse (the studio’s ‘soul’ according to Zhang Huan) where they sit in smouldering heaps. Here, the ash is sorted into patchwork palettes of different tones and grades: the finer dust is sifted from the coarser flakes, the lighter tones from the darker ones. With broad brushstrokes, Zhang applies a foundation of powdered ash to canvases with carefully prepared adhesive grounds, before building up the surface texture with larger flakes and joss stick remnants. Where a more sculptural effect is required, the ash is mixed with water and glue, creating a malleable, cement-like substance which is finished with a liberal dusting of dry ash. Working up the larger paintings demands such an energetic dispersal of ash on the part of the artist that it assumes a performative quality, inviting knowing parallels with the ‘action painting’ of Jackson Pollock so famously mythologised by Hans Namuth’s photographs.
Appropriately for this process, Zhang Huan’s earliest ash paintings are thickly-impastoed abstract works which, with their lack of compositional structure or dominant point of interest, evoke the all-over painting of post-war American art. While generally uniform in tone, a number of these greyscale pictures contain nebulous regions of lighter or darker ash which drift across the darkened sky of the canvas like clouds. Others, such as Ash Painting No. 9 (2006), are a muddy yellow, their anomalous colour determined by a particularly fragrant type of incense burnt only in the course of commemorating the dead. Devoid of figuration, these early ash works show Zhang Huan trying to reconcile the idea of ash as detritus with its symbolic importance as a repository for spiritual and emotional outpouring. In their encrusted surfaces, Zhang Huan reads the personal histories – the hopes, blessings and remembrances – of the millions of Chinese for whom incense burning is a daily ritual. As he remarks in the introduction: ‘To some, ash seems useless and insubstantial; it is a short-lived witness to human spirituality and spiritual practice. To me, ashes carry unseen sedimentary residue, and tremendous human data about the collective and individual subconscious.’ As if to make visible this unseen data, the artist has embedded old black-and-white portrait photographs among the joss sticks and other scorched flotsam littering the painting’s surface. The incorporation of these found objects makes direct reference to the idea of ash as the indices of individual thoughts and memories.
Long present in his work, the themes of history and memory have been given greater prominence in the figurative ash paintings on which Zhang Huan has begun to focus in recent months. For the most part, experimental art of the 1990s consigned the Cultural Revolution to a bygone era, instead taking its visual and intellectual stimuli from the profound socio-economic transformation that China was undergoing at the time. A decade on, artists such as Zhang Huan are renegotiating their cultural identity, a process which involves engaging deeply with historical thinking and, more importantly, developing a greater historiographical awareness. The disjunction between personal recollection and official record that was Mao Zedong’s legacy remains a sensitive issue in China to this day and offers fertile territory for contemporary Chinese artists revisiting their nation’s social history. Divided loosely into two genres – the portraits and the history paintings – Zhang’s later figurative works confront this disjunction, in the process reasserting the tradition of collective memory that Mao went to great lengths to efface.
Whether of studio assistants, master painters or military leaders, Zhang Huan’s ash portraits depict humble people radiating dignity. While studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he had been moved by Jean-Francois Millet’s compassionate portrayals of ordinary lives, a treatment of his subject that Zhang adopts. The majority of the figures are sourced from old photographs, and range from personages of cultural or historical importance – as in the arresting portrait of a Young General (2007) – to the anonymous middle-class types of Childhood (2007), taken from a 1930s family album. As testimonials to the once-living, these ash works do not represent the clinical memorialising of the posed portrait or marble statue with their cold, complete surfaces. Rather, closely cropped and rendered with a quiet lyricism, they are intensely personal characterisations in which the subject’s humanity is foregrounded over questions of their profession or status.
In his introduction to this catalogue, Zhang Huan speaks of using ash to ‘haunt’ his subjects with ‘blessings and solicitude from the human world’ and, through this haunting process, of seeking to invite a new awareness of collective experience. In works such as Zhang Xiao Mei (2007), there is a subtle but marked contrast between the solitary subject and the myriad thoughts that, distilled in ash, make up her features. Where in previous performances such as To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) Zhang Huan mobilised the power of collective action to transform the status quo, his ash portraits harness collective thought (as embodied by the ash) to similar ends. Their achievement is the act of bearing witness and, in the context of the Cultural Revolution, of restoring spiritual and emotional lives to a generation whose memories – often painful or tragic – were subsumed by an official historical account to which they bore little or no resemblance.
The idea of collective memory – its construction and decomposition – is further explored by Zhang Huan’s large-scale historical scenes. Like many of the ash portraits, the source imagery for these works derives from the iconographic tropes of socialist realism, although with their sombre palette and tone, they are a distant remove from the market-driven Socialist Pop produced by many of Zhang’s contemporaries. In Seeds (2007), a group of rural Chinese from Xinjiang province are depicted in the course of their ‘re-education’, ploughing a field at the height of the Cultural Revolution. At one time heroicised, the scene is now one of shadowy figures toiling a devastated landscape: a conscious cremation of the official history. With its high horizon line, dense, organic materiality and grand historical sweep, Seeds recalls the work of Anselm Kiefer, an artist whom Zhang has often cited as an important influence.
If Zhang Huan’s historical paintings represent a complex critical engagement with the vexed history of the artist’s homeland, in this they resonate not only with the post-war German psyche of Kiefer, but also with that of Gerhard Richter. Works such as Rain (2007) and The Moment (2007) are Richter-like remediations of old black-and-white historical photographs, their sfumato technique echoing the soft focus of Richter’s ‘photopaintings’. And, in many ways, Zhang’s ash paintings are driven by a similar revisionist project: smudged contours and fugitive forms imply a loss of legibility with regards to the notion of a singular, accepted history. Historical certainties are further unpicked by the incinerated flakes of the paintings’ surface which, while mimicking what one critic has called ‘the peeling and fading of history’, also operate as reminders of memory’s inherently fragmented character.
Zhang Huan’s three-dimensional ash works suggest a departure from the historiographical line of questioning that drives his figurative ash paintings in favour of a return to ontological investigations in the vein of his earlier performances. An ongoing series of small- and medium-sized sculptural busts are modelled almost exclusively on the artist’s own head, but with their idiosyncratic expressions and individual textures they communicate the rich pageant of human experience. Displayed on modelling boards with dust sprinkled around their base, these rudimentary ash heads are captured in the process of taking form, almost as though having combusted at the sheer effort. In making a feature of their own formlessness, they evoke the base materialism of art informel sculptors such as Dubuffet and Fautrier and, to a lesser extent, the attenuated forms of Alberto Giacometti. Zhang Huan has said that he intends for the ash heads to shed a certain amount of their surface material over time; in so doing, they confound the notion of a homogenous, stable identity, instead presenting a mutable subject constantly redefining itself.
Among the most impressive and technically sophisticated of Zhang Huan’s ash works, the ash Buddha installations move beyond questions of history, memory or being to embrace another recurring intangible in the artist’s oeuvre: faith. At up to 5m-high, these Buddhas are like slumbering giants, the smoke exuding from their oversized features warning that, at any moment, they could be fiercely provoked. Underpinned by a steel frame, Smoking Buddha (2007) is cloaked in a post-apocalyptic mantle, a blighted, volcanic crust from which joss sticks and other bits of unidentifiable debris protrude. The surrounding air is thick with ash, heightening the Buddha’s auratic power, while its closed lids convey spiritual enlightenment. The process by which Zhang Huan arrives at making these hulking ash Buddhas suggests the attainment of a similar state: ‘After the brainstorm, my mind reaches a state of calm in which I am sublime, hallucinatory, awed, expressionless and non-gendered. Ash seems to carry my soul away.’
Another major installation Berlin Buddha (2007), conceived specifically for Haunch of Venison’s exhibition space in Berlin, consists of a Buddha made from compacted dry ash which is seated opposite the aluminium mould from which it has been cast. At the mercy of its environment and with no glue to bind it, the ash Buddha slowly disintegrates in a manner whose significance is threefold: formally, it returns to the artist’s process-driven ash cubes of the year before; symbolically, it invokes the desecration of centuries-old artefacts under Mao Zedong; and, metaphysically, it enacts a conceptual reduction of being to nothingness which accords with the artist’s religious beliefs. His most ambitious ash work to date, Berlin Buddha represents the concise and poetic crystallisation of Zhang Huan’s current preoccupations.
Zhang Huan’s ash works perform exhumations of private lives and social histories in which ideas of collective memory and experience resurface. In the charred topography of these recent paintings and sculptures lie the silent prayers of the current generation from which, like a phoenix rising, the past may be reborn.