By Christina Yu
Next Level, Edition 01, Volume 03, 2004, UK

Tangible Metaphors

Walking through Battery Park in downtown New York, one cannot miss a giant bronze bell hanging from a wooden kiosk. Next to the bell is a life size nude male hanging horizontally, waiting for the viewer to swing him and strike his head onto the bell. This interactive sculpture, titled Peace, is the creation of Zhang Huan, one of the most active performance artists working today. The large bell is modeled after the ritual instruments used in ancient China, and the gilded male nude is a cast of the artist’s own body. While ancient Chinese bronze bells are inscribed with pictorial motifs of daily activities, such us fishing and hunting, this bronze bell is inscribed with the names of the artist’s ancestors from his native village in China. A spiritual connection between Zhang Huan and his ancestral past is reinforced when the body strikes the bell, and the consequent resonating sound perhaps recalls the peaceful and solemn atmosphere of an ancient ritual. For those who witnessed Zhang Huan’s performance of Peace on October 7th, 2003, the experience would be even more memorable, for the artist collaborated with twenty-eight disciples from the Shaolin Temple, a Buddhist monastery well known for its tradition in the Chinese martial art of Kung Fu. Around Zhang Huan’s waist hung several transparent plastic pockets, normally used by soldiers to carry grenades. Instead of the deadly weapons, in this performance Zhang Huan had stuffed these pockets with eight black guinea fowls. These birds, which according to the artist resemble vultures, were set free to mingle with previously released white doves to symbolize a state of peace.

Zhang Huan gained international attention through his provocative performances which often incorporate his own body. Most notable are a series of performances that took place between 1994 and 1997 in the "East Village," an Experimental art community formed outside Beijing. In the performance To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) Zhang Huan and forty immigrant workers stood in a fishpond with torsos exposed, behind them a backdrop of Beijing’s modern skyscrapers. Even since the photograph of these men standing motionlessly and emotionlessly in the serene fishpond was exhibited in 1998 at the Asia Society and the P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center, both in New York City, it has become a symbol of the new generation of contemporary Chinese art. The East Village art community was shut down by the police in 1997, and one year later Zhang Huan moved to the Untied States.

After leaving China, Zhang Huan’s performances became more elaborately orchestrated, involving more props and settings. However, one element remained essential to Zhang Huan’s artistic creation - the integration of his intuitive response to his immediate surroundings and his ties to his cultural roots in China. In a series of site specific performances, Zhang Huan utilized many native elements, including local residents and architecture, physical materials (such as stone, grass and seed) and animals (such as dogs, fish, doves and even lizards). The titles in the series include the names of performance locations, such as My America (1999), My Australia (2000), My Japan (2001) and My New York (2002).

The use of the word "my" is significant in that it explicitly suggests an ownership - through the performances the artist transformed these locations into a personal space belonging to himself. This ownership was established through his contact with, and consequently his understanding and interpretation of, these places, their history and culture. My America was presented at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 1999, one year after the artist moved to America. The piece started with more than fifty naked people, led by Zhang Huan, performing movements from Yoga and Thai Chi in unison. They then absurdly and fiercely threw pieces of bread, and finally an egg, from a three-tired scaffolding, at the artist who sat innocently and firmly at the bottom-center of the scaffolding. A comment on the artist’s new experience as an immigrant to the country, the piece may be seen as a manifestation of the confusion and dislocation experienced in a new environment.

In the recent performance Fifty Stars (2003) at the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, Zhang Huan’s response to American life changed. His approach shifted from that of a newly arrived immigrant to the perspective of a closely involved resident. With the American national anthem as background music, Zhang Huan, covered by an American flag, entered the lobby of the museum. Then a police dog searched him and the two dolls he was holding (symbolizing his two young children), a reference to the investigation that many Americans and immigrants, including Zhang Huan himself, might experience when going through a U.S. airport nowadays. At the end of the performance, the artist released one hundred white doves.

While the piece is a direct reflection of the artist’s experience of living in New York after September 11th, 2001, it is also a proud declaration of his love for his children and to this country.

To use Zhang Huan’s own word, "my children were born here (America). They are American citizens, I love this country." It is interesting to note that Zhang Huan’s artworks created when he was living in China were more focused on his own body and physical experience and less overtly concerned with social issues. After he left China and its system of government control, however, his artistic creation became more socially conscious. Zhang Huan’s close connection to his native country and his admiration for its long tradition also became more apparent in recent work. Residing in New York and traveling around the world to keep up with his busy schedule, Zhang Huan always gives voice to his interaction with new places and new cultures. Such interaction, at the same time, is integrated with a deep rooting in his native country where many ruins still remain. Zhang Huan grew up in Henan province, a cultural and religious center from the 10th to the 14th centuries. Exposure to such tradition in his earlier life has influenced his artistic creation. Being an immigrant and an artist in a new city is an experience that is unique and at the same time universal. When confronting Zhang Huan’s artwork, be it in performance, photography or sculpture, one cannot help but be touched by his transformation of intrinsic feelings into strong sensory experience. One may even be shocked by his emotionless expression under the most tense and dramatic physical conditions. Zhang Huan’s works are embedded with personal, social and cultural commentary, and the use of his own body as a metaphor makes this commentary tangible.