By John Tancock
Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Asia, New York, March 31, 2006
Zhang Huan, widely considered to be one of the outstanding Chinese performance artists of the 1990s, moved to the United States in 1998. In the five years prior to his departure, he had gained considerable notoriety in Beijing on account of the provocative nature of his performances, particularly those in which he submitted his own body to tests of physical and mental endurance. While living in the East Village, a celebrated but short-lived artist’s community in Beijing, he performed the piece known as Twelve Square Meters in which, covered in fish oil and honey, he sat immobile in a filthy public latrine while flies and other insects settled on his body. To some extent this was a refection on the living conditions of the great majority of Chinese who had not yet benefited from the rapid development of the economy. More importantly, it was a demonstration of the power of the human mind to rise above situations that most would find unendurable. In Original Sound , 1995, his mouth filled with earthworms, he laid underneath a flyover in Beijing while ten artists observed him and offered their own interpretations. Potentially life-threatening was 25mm Threading Steel in which he laid flat on the floor beneath a steel-workers table while sparks flew dangerously close to his body.
Other works such as the well-known To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond , which took place on August 15, 1997, involved the participation of other performers. Forty or more participants, recent migrants to Beijing from other parts of China, were invited to walk into the pond in order to raise the water level, an absurd gesture that nonetheless underscores the far reaching effects of even the slightest movement or gesture.
While the move to America and the rapid growth of his international reputation enabled Zhang to work on increasingly ambitious scale ( Hard to Acclimatize/My America , 1999, held at the Seattle Art Museum and My Australia , 2000, held at the National Gallery of Australia) , he still continued to produce works in which he was the sole participant. Peace was produced shortly after his best-known work Family Tree and shares some of the same preoccupations.
Acutely aware of the distance separating him from his birthplace while not totally discounting the advantages, Zhang frequently chooses to emphasize the cultural conditioning that has made him what he is today. In this series of nine photographs, the famous story of "Yugong Moving the Mountain" is inscribed on his face until it is totally black. As he has stated: "Modern culture is slowly smothering us and turning our faces black. It is impossible to take away your inborn blood and personality. From a shadow in the morning, then suddenly into the dark night, the first cry of life to a white-haired man, standing lonely in front of a window, a last peek of the world and a remembrance of an illusory life." (Zhang Huan, Pilgrimage to Santiago , p.84)
In Peace he turns to a more public manifestation of remembrance, using the ancient form of the temple bell to convey his messages. Throughout the world, the sound of bells announces the passing of time and important moments in life. Cast from life, the rigid, naked figure of the artist is suspended at chest height. Pushed by the spectator, it causes the bell which is inscribed with the names of eight generations of Zhang’s ancestors to sound.
Despite the intense physicality of much of Zhang’s work, there is a strong spiritual aspect to it that adds to its power. He has remarked: "During the Culture Revolution, you could not engage in religious ceremonies publicly, but such activities continued inside the house. Spiritualism was acted out in various Chinese festival and ceremonies. Every year, for example, we would make an altar in the home to honor the New Year. We would light incense, paste prayers in the form of posters on the walls of the house, take a meal to the graves of the ancestors. Most small towns had spirits which were worshipped. You might go to the mountain to pray for a son to be born. Actually, I came from one of the highest areas of Buddhism concentration and my biggest spiritual influence was Tibetan Buddhism." (Roselee Goldberg, "Interview with Zhang Huan" in Pilgrimage to Santiago , p.22) Powerfully influenced by the spiritual atmosphere of the great pilgrimage center Santiago de Compostela, he announced that for his performance there "I shall piously immerse myself in the incense burner, to cleanse myself of any iniquitous odor in human nature with the scared incense, and to attain new body and soul for life." (ibid., p. 67)
In recent years a number of Zhang’s ephemeral performances have been carved in stone, for example the stone version of Pilgrimage Wind and Water in New York , performed at P.S. 1 on October 18, 1998. While not based on a live performance, there is performative aspect to Peace as it requires the active participation of the spectator to complete the meaning of the work.
Cast meticulously in bronze, the rigid body of the artist reveals the stress involved in being cast from life. The vestigial tube left in his mouth is a vivid reminder that the body is deprived of air while it is being cast. Through this process he offers his body as a sacrifice as it is transformed into a means of creating sound when it strikes the massive bell. In his contemporary version of a ritual familiar in Buddhist temples throughout the world, Zhang offers his own body to create sound waves calling for and offering peace to those who hear the message. Peace is a particularly successful synthesis of many aspects of Zhang’s practices.