By Melissa Chiu
Zhang Huan: Altered States, Published by Charta and Asia Society, 2007
Altered Art: Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan’s works contain powerful, sometimes disturbing self-portraits. They record his body in extreme states: covered in a viscous attractant for a multitude of insects, bound and suspended by chains, locked in a small suffocating metal box, subjected to flying sparks, and lying on a bed of ice. Bodily discomfort and endurance are the artist’s chosen idiom. These describe, for the most part, works begun in 1992 when the artist lived in Beijing. This was an early phase in his career when he was seeking and individual voice among his peers working in China. When Zhang Huan decided to emigrate to New York in 1998, his international career was launched; since this time he was staged performances at a range of venues across the world, including Seattle (1999), Cincinnati (2003), and Boston (2005), as well as Ghent (2000), Santiago (2001), Yokohama (2001), Hamburg (2002), Copenhagen (2003), Sydney (2005), Rome (2005), and Bern (2005). His works became much more choreographed and involved many more participants. When Zhang Huan moved to Shanghai just over one year ago, he established a studio where his focus has been on creating objects. Today, he has largely abandoned performance art in favor of sculpture, woodblock, and painting. These recent works in diverse materials ranging from copper,ash,and wood to found objects still retain a connection to self-portraiture; but instead of using his body as a medium, he frequently transforms it into metaphorical allusions to specific insects and animals, namely flies, dragonflies, and donkeys. Most importantly, he has created self-portraits sculpted from incense ash that signal a new chapter in his oeuvre shown here in this exhibition and book, both of which are designed as a chronicle of three different phases of Zhang Huan’s work created in three different cities over the past fifteen years.
Although Zhang Huan is identified as a member of the band of radical avant-garde artists who burst onto the scene in the 1990’ s, he was significantly younger than many of his peers. Born in 1965, Zhang Huan came of age as an artist after the 1985 New Wave movement and the "China Avant-Garde" exhibition-just four months before June 4, 1989-at the National Art Museum of China (China Art Gallery). He had spent most of this decade in Henan at university and then teaching western art history at Zhengzhou Education College. After petitioning his principal to send him to Beijing for further training at the nation’s premiere art school, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Zhang Huan found himself in the center of China’s art world. His very first performance, titled Angel , was staged at the entrance to the National Art Museum of China. When asked why he chose performance art over other media available to him, he replied. "I had never seen performance art before, but I learned of its potential through books at the Central Academy library. I saw images of Tseng Kwong-Chi’s photographs, which appealed to me." Without a work unit or family to assist with housing, Zhang Huan searched for inexpensive places to live, and in his second year of study he settled in Da Shan Village, Chaoyang, in the northeast of the city center beyond the third ring road, Zhang Huan later named this area Beijing’s East Village-an homage to New York’s East Village, which he learned about from returning Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei. By 1994, the East Village had become a haven for artists who staged individual and collaborative performances throughout the year. Zhang Huan’s peers included Cang Xin, Zhu Ming, and Ma Liuming. He explains that the East Village was ideal because "it was inexpensive, only $ 15 a month, you could find materials for art works around you and most of all, we were free to create art." He listened to Buddhist temple music and rock-and-roll, such as the homegrown star Cui Jian and Kurt Cobain. His performances pushed his body to extremes. They said much about his living circumstances in the ramshackle cluster of brick buildings owned by local farmers on the very outskirts of Beijing. Works such as 12 Square Meters (1994) and 65 Kilograms (1994) are good examples. The inspiration for these came directly from his lived experiences and immediate environment. He comments:
My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles often ended up in physical conflicts. I often found myself in conflict with my circumstances and felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence…All of these troubles happened to my body. This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me.
His performances were simply staged works about his own body’s response to a set of conditions. In this way, they reflected individual expression, which Chinese artists in the previous decade had sought out as a reaction against the state-initiated programs of the Cultural Revolution. In another way, Zhang Huan’s performances from this period can be seen as a counter-balance to the Political Pop and Cynical Realism painters who at this time were benefiting from international attention and sales of their work. Zhang Huan and his peers in the East Village were motivated by the idea of pushing the limits of what was acceptable. In this book, Kong Bu, a friend of the artist and a writer who lived in the East Village, has contributed a firsthand account of many of these works.
After 1995, Zhang Huan began to stage larger-scale performance works that involved the participation of others. One of the most memorable and contested is To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1996) wherein the artist collaborated with nine others to produce a performance work in which the participants were weighed and then lay naked on top of one another in the formation of a pyramid on top of a mountain. In recent years, photographs of this performance have been circulated in the marketplace by some of the other participating artists. Zhang Huan provides an account of his direction of this performance and others in his artist statement in this book. Another work in this vein, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) was a performance where Zhang Huan invited nearly forty people, mostly itinerant workers, to join him wading into a fishpond to raise the water level through their body mass. These collaborations saw the use of sites around Beijing as backdrops for conceptual experimentations.
In one of the last works Zhang Huan created in Beijing, He used his own skin as artistic medium. He has said that he searched for materials and that his skin was not just available to him but also free, at a time when he had little money to buy materials. Titled Skin (1997), this suite of twenty black-and-white photographs shows the artist pushing and pulling the skin on his neck, nose, ears, chin, mouth, and head. The artist’s clean-shaven head against the solid black background make this an exercise in the full potential of the artist’s body. This work brings to a close Zhang Huan’s works created in the artistic community of Beijing where conceptual issues became paramount.
When the artist decided to emigrate to the United States following the "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" exhibition in 1998, his works had all the qualities of his earlier works in Beijing, except they were now being performed in museums and in the public sphere. For example, his first work performed in the United States, Pilgrimage-Wind and Water in New York (1998), saw the artist prostrate himself in the courtyard of P.S.1. Making his way to a traditional wooden Chinese bed furnished with a mattress of ice, the artist sat and lay on the bed for nearly ten minutes in a test of bodily endurance while dogs tied to the bed surrounded him. As Zhang Huan’s first performance in the United States, the work showed a desire to reflect upon this new local environment. He says:
The use of dogs originates from my impression of New York. There are so many gods in this city, and they are very well taken care of. But like human beings, dogs are sensitive to the external environment and are afraid of possible dangers. What strikes me the most about this city is the co-existence of different races and their cultures. By the term fengshui , I am referring to the vitality and vigor of this metropolis characterized by the co-existence of cultures. Yet for me, there is a fear, or culture shock, if you like. I do like the city, but at the same time, I have an unnamable fear. I want to feel it with my body, just as I feel the ice. I try to melt off a reality in the way I try to melt off the ice with the warmth of my body.
Zhang Huan’s art practice in the United States could be described as having a dual approach. On the one hand, his connection to China increased with the use of traditional Chinese references, especially in the objects he used. On the other hand, his works began to change so that local influences were also incorporated. Two years after settling in New York, he summarized this approach:
I combine impressions of China, with local culture, what people call glocal. It’s about going from one place to another, and bringing what you have to offer to each new place. Sometimes I understand the experience, sometimes not.
At this time, Zhang Huan also began to create photographs that were performative but did not involve an audience. They were created specifically as photographs rather than documentations of an event. Family Tree (2000) is a good example. It offers nine views of Zhang Huan’s face covered by more and more calligraphy in black ink; the last photograph shows his face completely covered. In this final image, the artist is unrecognizable, appearing like a void in the image. Zhang Huan commissioned three calligraphers to write different selected texts on his face; most of the texts were folklore rather than the rarefied poems found in Chinese traditional paintings. The title of the work, Family Tree , hints at a transition from the works Zhang Huan produced in China to those he made in the United States. By painting calligraphy over his face, the artist identifies himself as being Chinese without the kind of specificity one would find if he still lived in China, which would be marked by family background, hometown, and education. It suggests that he recognizes a greater family tree or genealogy as that of being Chinese. This heightened sense of being Chinese has become more of a focal point in his works, especially since leaving Beijing.
Two years later, he was invited to participate in the Whitney Biennial, America’s Premier visual art exhibition in New York City, for which he conceived a performance called My New York . In a performance staged in the museum’s forecourt, the artist emerged from a small side door dressed in a suite made from meat fashioned in the likeness of well-built muscles. He was carried on a plastic tray by a group of Chinese men and set down after a short time. The weight of the suit was obvious, constricting the artist’s movement. After a short time, Zhang Huan led a procession our onto the streets of the Upper East Side letting white doves free from cages and giving them away to passers-by in the streets. The meaning of the work is ambiguous, but perhaps Zhang Huan’s suit is a metaphor for America’s role as a world power. The performance took place less than one year after the attacks on the World Trade Center that prompted the American campaign in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. In this work, Zhang Huan juxtaposes the physical strength suggested in his bodybuilding meat-suit and the white doves, an international symbol of peace, in a commentary on the political climate of the War on Terror. Eleanor Heartney writes on this work and others created in the United States in greater depth in her essay included in this book.
Peace (2003) combined performance and sculpture when it was staged in New York. The sculpture served as a prop for the performance. In some ways, the sculpture illustrates the artist’s attitudes towards China. It harks back to the Chinese tradition of large bronze temple bells. This one is cast with the names of those Zhang Huan knew as a child in his village, not unlike a genealogy. In place of the conventional long swinging beam used to strike the bell, Zhang Huan suspended a gold cast of his own body, so when Zhang Huan’s head touched the bell it would sound. The sculpture is evidence of an increase in the use of elements that are more noticeably Chinese in Zhang Huan’s works. The performance first featured Shaolin performers; Zhang Huan joined them later, dressed only in an artificial grass skirt and plastic apron containing live birds, which he proceeded to set free. This was one of the first sculptures Zhang Huan made with references to Buddhism, which acquired greater prominence in his work after he visited Tibet in 2005.
Since establishing a studio in Shanghai in 2006, Zhang Huan has created sculptures that refer in more direct ways to cultural traditions, including Buddhism. On his visit to Tibet he collected a number of fragments of small Buddhist sculptures, especially in bronze and copper; fingers torn off; crushed hands, feet, and legs. These have inspired him to create a new series of works rendered in copper on a gigantic scale. He began with Buddha’s fingers. There is a phrase in Chinese, " puo zh i," which translates as "broken finger," but it bears a similar sound to "broken son." This brings an understanding of the misfortune or a recognition, especially for Chinese collectors, that a Buddhist statue without fingers is incomplete and perhaps even bad luck. On another lever, the fingers of Buddha also provide worshippers with symbolism, because the position of fingers into various mudras conveys different meanings. Zhang Huan fashioned Buddha fingers from sheets of copper, and at the place where they should have been attached to the hand he has created a small mesh cage, transforming the fingers into cages for birds and tortoises. Others are filled with rolled cloth scriptures. Here the artist considers the twelve fingers in the series as receptacles for the written word and the living. On an even larger scale, Zhang Huan has made Buddha legs and feet as well as hands. For most of these, innovation lies in the magnification of scale. Their size dwarfs us, yet it is strange because the object is but a remnant of what one imagines an even larger whole. Zhang Huan has said: "When I was in Tibet, it moved me a lot to see the arms and legs at the markets. The sculptures were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. By making them larger it somehow takes away the pain." The exhibition includes one such work, a Buddha leg and foot. Like the others, it is also made of copper. One of the differences with this work is that Zhang Huan returns to self-portraiture. He was always at the center of his performances and photographs, and with this work he reinstates this position in his art practice. The leg begins below the knee and extends towards a foot adorned with an anklet, much in the same way that those in Tibet are often adorned. At the ball of foot emerges an appendage-the artist’s head. Zhang Huan has created a sculpture that draws a connection between the Buddha’s body and his own.
Other new works created in Shanghai include a series of paintings and sculptures made from the ash of burnt offerings and incense collected from a nearby Buddhist temple. It is convention for the temple visitors to light incense and put it into a large bronze urn. Zhang Huan comments upon his use of this material: "According to tradition, ash is buried or put into the lake and ocean. Nowadays the ash must go into the rubbish so that it does not pollute the environment. The first day I got the ash in my studio I was very excited. I felt as if I has found the right material for me." Zhang Huan’s ash from the temple is sorted according to color and consistency, from fine to chunky, and then dusted across the surface of the painting. The focus of these paintings is equally on form and texture. In the exhibition two paintings are included, one of the American flag and one of the Chinese flag. Zhang Huan’s sculpture in ash offer another interpretation altogether. Zhang Huan’s head has been sculpted from the ash he collected. Not unlike the truncated Buddha hands and feet, Zhang Huan’s sculpture of his head only begins at his nose and is divided into sections. Inside we see incense being burnt, the smoke wafting out of the artist’s head. One addition to the artist’s likeness is the ears that show the long earlobe of the Buddha stretching down to the floor and becoming a physical support for the sculpture. These ears are based on a relic the artist bought, a single ear with elongated earlobe, which traditionally symbolizes the early life of the Buddha, who was born into a wealthy household but later abandoned the jewelry he once wore. There are many connections that can be made in reading the copper sculptures of Buddha relics, but it is their metonymic qualities that are most important: Buddha hands and feet stand in for the Buddha, while ash stands in for temple offerings and the broader Buddhist community.
Zhang Huan’s interest in ready-made materials, especially those peculiar to China, has seen him comb the countryside for objects such as bronze bells, grass cutters, and wooden doors. From the latter, he has made a series of pictorial works drawing from modern Chinese historical photographs. These works called Memory Doors were begun in 2006 and consist of screen prints of historical photographs from the 1920s through 1970s on heavy wooden household doors collected in Shanxi Province. At different places the artist has carved the surface, creating a positive and negative visual effect as well as drawing attention to the natural grain of the wood. The images on the doors relate to historical events such as model agricultural units, the construction of buildings and dams, and political meetings in the recent history of China. These works identify the past through images and are a significant departure for Zhang Huan. He said: "When I was a child I lived on a farm. These doors remind me of my life and reflect my life experiences. There is purity to the old images. I identify more with history now." Zhang Huan’s works from the past fifteen years reflect one artist’s search for an artistic voice, first in Beijing, then in New York, and finally in Shanghai. Zhang Huan’s experience in these three environments has informed the creation of unique works in performance, photography, painting, and, most recently, sculpture. Since settling outside China he has placed a progressive emphasis on Chinese sources with which he finds great inspiration in the shared memory of symbols, stories, and materials of his homeland, where he was born and has now returned to live.