By Liu Jingjing
Zhang Huan: Dawn of Time, Published by Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, 2010
Dawn of Time
Zhang Huan’s work represents a new sensation. He contributes never before seen standards. We see the analysis and exploration of this sensation in the five artworks exhibited at the Dawn of Time exhibition. These works explore this sensation and are not intended to be taken lightly, and at the same time integrate enjoyment, wit, nostalgia and historical awareness.
Through ash paintings Zhang Huan intends not to convey photos, but to convey a capacity. The figures on the paintings Grand Canal and Reservoir are entirely "drifting beings", they are not grounded, but rather floating. The ash painted sky and roads create an extraordinary feeling of space; the stunning sunshine which still can be seen gleaming off the black-and-white, ashen covered photographs, and the laborious painting seems framed by a sudden shower of volcano ashes from Pompeii. Even though masses of people float and roads seem to hover, the gray, black and white flakes on the surface are stuck motionless. This is an epitome of a nation and use of tremendous space cast through the representation of the of collective lives. There is a saying "rivers and mountains are places worthy of establishment, and talent appears among this kind", because ash naturally possesses condensed material and aesthetic features it thus reveals a beauty of pure painting textures within a whole painting.
The Grand Canal and Reservoir emphasize the purity and strength of Chinese business start-up times. The socialist construction era is a period most Chinese people today have been through, now an entire China charges forward with rapid speed, but Zhang Huan use ash paintings to look back on the earlier China. Just as a delayed expression, ash brings together two very contradicting and opposite "emerging" and "passing" states, similar to some bizarre fate, because it is the nature of ash to scatter and collapse. If the material, with such a feature, is used in an opposite way, the results would bring a sense of deviant and rebellious beauty: condensed and gathered ash, despite painting a most puissant scene, it still shows amazing vulnerability that, even on grand scale, makes no noise. It remains very tranquil. As the creation process takes it course, ash floats, covers and accumulates, and once again shows life is impermanent and tragic. But Zhang Huan deliberately destructed that glory. Which is similar to Kiefer’s tragic glory, but different from Kiefer’s pause of disordered beauty in a performance. Zhang Huan sees orderly beauty and hopes to look beyond death to express mortification and vulnerability of life. Appeal is often fragile, and death is too powerful. The Bible • Song of Solomon describes love as strong as death - although death is a kind of beauty, it is not a fragile beauty; because death shrouds everything and silences masses. Ash is a non-living material like a Terminator. It is also a bridging material, bridging importance and modesty, and also a connecter of distance between society and time. Hence making ash painting more surreal compared to their blueprint photos or original photographs counterparts. Ash occupies the planar of old black and white photos, its flakes of gray shades drive the old photos’ haggard and distressed abandonment to a romantic, impressionist glow. Figures in Zhang Huan’s ash paintings are not the desperate and kindly surrender type; instead with a calm gaze, they surpass ordinary people and are above the souls of the deceased. Totally different from the figures of oil paintings, they are utterly unhappy and unnatural, because there is no light burning within them nor any noise or activity. They pierce through a strong world, and simultaneously traverse through viewers to reach an undecided location. Their history of despair is relentless and unyielding, yet have become very humane through ash, They even possess an elegance and idleness of ancient Chinese scroll painting, that avoid the likely old-fashioned: warming, sentimental, pseudo-native, revolutionary romanticism...
The image of Grand Canal is from the photographs of page 42-43 in the 1972 China Pictorial, fourth issue. "I tried to combine a minimalist style and maximized image into a new artistic language." Ash originally is the result of an image disappearing, but now it becomes the basic element of the image. Zhang Huan is seeking a sort of connection between ash and image, and tried to use ash, this negative material, to create violent, humorous, and vigorous masculine temperament. "Many" and "few" is a pair of contradicting words, "appear" and "disappear" is another pair of contradicting words, the junction and fusion of ash makes ash painting a new emotional mixture, which is so powerful it makes people ignore the content, idea, metaphorical meaning that it expresses ... it builds upon any now considered dying out, momentary or distant reality. Zhang Huan compresses and revises the historical scene of surrealism, this is not Platonism, nor is it new sideline political pop, because ash painting is actually a heap of waste or a sacrificial altar. We see on the large climatic scene of Grand Canal and Reservoir those assembling crowds and laboring individuals, gives an almost hallucinogenic effect: they are up to something. This could possibly be due to the incompletely burned and thicker particles of ash, because one can never know for sure the words that were on chapter scroll before it turned to ash. A kind of adulteration and imperfection wins ash its mysteriousness and solidarity, however, ash brings with it an enormous force, and more precisely, it suggests to the silent and calm observer a heartless world.
The incompletely burned particles are clues as well as is faith that refuses to melt away nor have the chance to melt. Their beauty and feelings of regret mixed within the ash dazzle the eyes, the information the particles carry during the process of becoming ash is far more rich than the image itself. They are residual, unfulfilled and fragmented, like a practitioner still abound the six emotions and seven sensory pleasures. Or like Monk Fahai being secretly in love with the White Snake Lady; without a doubt he at the last moment inexplicably remembers the nightly phantom inside the plum blossom. The particles are the "love" from the passage "high heaven and deep earth, sigh ancient and modern endless love" in Dream of Red Mansions. There is no absolute right or wrong on earth, and is nothing like Tang Xian-zu’s "dream is over, love is end". Particles of Buddhist scripture rolls and paper money appear on complete-ash paintings, it’s a type of inquiry between human and "straw dog". The world’s kindness and unkindness is the deep bottom, human beings must go on continuously and indefinitely on top this bottom. Perhaps the most glamorous moment of ash paintings is not now, but instead the one day when it is swept up into the sky, and turns blank.
These three installations can bring a person back to reality. The little wild horse from the Silk Road is stacked on the bricks of the Dawn of Time and the little pig looking upon the world from out the window of the Pagoda, are two curious and sophisticated witnesses. If we say the bricks dumping from a tipping bin in the Dawn of Time is proof of construction in progress, then the gray bricks of the Pagoda are seemingly an upside down memorial Buddha bell for this century’s natural disasters, the so-called "seamless pagoda". Scattered bricks and neatly piled bricks are two configurations of order and disorder, they themselves have a strong sense of form. Ox hide used to sew the huge Hero together, possesses a sense of self-sufficient and uncertain animal existence. Today’s audience, who has become "image addicts", is relevant, conscious and sensible proof. Its super-realistic shape and texture like Lautreamont said: "So beautiful just like an umbrella and a sewing machine gathered on a dissecting table". Both have redemption and memories. These three installations possess the unofficial style of historical Chinese humor of generalizations and popular simplicity, as well as sense of pure rite that Zhang Huan has always maintained. Ever since the Republic was established, the ritualistic sense of many things has suffered. The reverence has been replaced by a perfunctory void. This lack of rite has caused uneasiness within people, and foils the great poetic sense and tolerance among ordinary people. This is one way it manifests itself the power to sustain the most primitive rituals and beliefs. Zhang Huan started from lonely and violent earlier performances and onto the ash paintings and installations of today. Both have a diffused sense of tranquil ritual. In Duchamp’s words, Zhang Huan’s works should be called "guts". Besides being visually persuasive and a high level of autobiographical technique and complex body features, the essence of Zhang Huan has not changed. Despite any changes of form and language, his essence remains yet the same: nature, human nature, the very primitive kind of extreme, and his DNA all forever immune to alteration. Zhang Huan’s art work nowadays has a kind of metaphysical look to it; large-scale, well planned production, and thorough understanding of imagery turn this look into reality. And different from the metaphysical mystery and solidarity of Duchamp-style "finished products". Zhang Huan’s new works show a very straightforward capacity for traditional Chinese culture of Buddhist spirituality, myths and legends, and at the same time irradiate the lack of meditative glow of Western "finished products". Zhang Huan’s "DreamWorks" are not a separation from the larger environment, his production of art has been but revamped through the eyes of history, culture and practices transferred beyond those memories of art history. They, as well, represent an understanding of the latent implications of art, that rouses a kind of expression of enthusiasm from the abstract side of society.
The challenges with space and psychological intervention Zhang Huan contends with in his oversized ash paintings and installations are worthy of revere. The effect of his art in terms of the complexity of its plan, it certainly is complementary to employ massively sized pieces. Onlookers feel tiny in front of the ash paintings and heroic giants. The copper Buddha feet allow people expand their imagination and hide oneself in a space inside an invisible body. This amplification brings with it pressure, a jarring, and even awe, triggering off the piece’s centripetal force among the audience’s experience and stimulating a sense of distance between space and time. The juggernaut pieces also antagonize a diffusion of culture and language, that is condensed into a religious meditation state of poetry. By experimenting with size of this scale Zhang Huan hopes to observe: what size is actually able to move people, and how make the intrinsic charm of a piece be more provocative.
From here on the performance art that Zhang Huan did in Beijing’s East Village gradually began to reveal his own unique approach. He began to shrug off the influence of the performance art of the eighties and turned towards exploring his own psychology, physiology, and emotional experience and to emphasize his ability to express himself through his own body language. He also focused on his relationship with the everyday aspects of his surrounding environment. He abandoned the conscious attention that the performance art of the eighties had put on the event or the incident. That type of consciousness had more often than not sought to use the public image of one’s own body performing as a symbol, often projected in a violent form, that would, in turn, incite some kind of public disturbance. Zhang Huan, on the other hand, was more interested in his own internal conflicts and in exploring his physical and emotional capacity for endurance.
This size amplification is Zhang Huan’s external correspondence to his psychological space, as well as an accurate checking of the developing society status’ pulse. Under society’s "the world is the limit" psyche, only those outlandish types remarkably conquer their profound space. Zhang Huan has used materials like as ox hide, incense-ash and copper to breathtaking proportions. If the whole world indeed "depended upon the arrangement of pieces of material", then his works (ash paintings and installations) that demonstrate vigor, massiveness, candor and the ones still in the rough, are to a large degree just the trust one has in his own art. Zhang Huan’s has established new order and new standards for Buddhism practice all within the packaging of "Super Arts", namely Zhang Huan own Dawn of Time.