By Benjamin Genocchio
Guide 2009-2010 La Monnaie De Munt, Belgium
Zhang Huan typically makes art about the human condition. From his early, radical art performances associated with Beijing’s East Village, an artist community located in a rural area on the eastern outskirts of the city where the fireball that is now Chinese contemporary art first began to flame, to his more recent, large-scale sculpture and paintings made of temple ash inspired by his devotion to Buddhism, Zhang has set himself the ambitious task of plumbing the universal aspects of human nature.
For those of you unfamiliar with the art world, Zhang Huan is one of China ’s most important experimental artists. Though today he lives and works in Shanghai, he is originally from Henan province in central China, an area that is traditionally regarded as the ’cradle of Chinese civilization’. Located here are the cities of Luoyang and Kaifeng, each of which served as the capital of several important Chinese dynasties. Henan opera (Yuju), a vernacular form of Chinese opera, is also widely admired across China.
Zhang first came to prominence in the early 1990s for his performances involving nudity, endurance and pain. Some of this art was extreme, even by western standards, and often crossed the boundaries of acceptable public taste. For "12 M²", a 1994 performance at Beijing’s East Village, the artist covered his body in fish oil and honey and then sat motionless in a putrid public toilet, about 12 meters square in size, for an hour, allowing flies and insects to cover his body in protest at the living conditions.
Further pointed, socially-attuned performances followed. For "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond" (1997) he invited a group of itinerant workers --referred to colloquially in Chinese as a ’floating population’ (liudong renkou) because they existed outside of the official government work unit structure-- to wade into a fish pond to raise the level of the water through their shared body mass. Captured in photographs, the artist’s performance gave weight and voice to this silent and invisible community.
In 1998 Zhang moved to New York, where over the next few years he established his international career with large scale performances involving collaborators in different cities across the world. These performances often involved animals and nudity, most memorably, "My Australia", a 2000 performance staged in the Sculpture Park at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra with naked people mingling among a flock of sheep. "My New York," done for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, saw the artist naked but for a suit made from raw meat. Standing on the street in front of the museum he set doves loose from cages, a Buddhist gesture of compassion.
The artist returned to China in 2005, establishing a studio in an old factory in Shanghai where these days he employs more than 100 studio assistants. His return to China marked a shift away from performance as he began to create paintings and sculptures with ash, woodblock prints, and carvings out of old doors that have won him further international fame. He visited Tibet the same year and subsequent artworks have acquired increasing references to Tibetan Buddhism, among them a series of giant fragments of Buddhist sculptures made from beaten copper sheets.
In September 2007, the Asia Society Museum in New York presented a retrospective of the artist’s work, including more than fifty pieces spanning performance, photography, sculpture and painting from all periods of the artist’s career. The show was a sensation, showering the artist with further success and visibility. He soon after joined the ranks of the world’s top galleries.
Today, the artist remains one of most exciting artists working in China. Partly it is because of his continued, experimental use of unusual or unexpected materials, and partly because his artworks combine imagination with impressive craftsmanship. His sculptures of anonymous soldiers, from the "Ash Army" (2008) series, are an extraordinary technical achievement: Loosely modeled out of nothing but powdery gray ash, they seemingly defy the laws of gravity and optics.
As a critic, I am often asked why I think an artist’s work I like is particularly good. This is easy with Zhang Huan: by being simple and unadorned, and by raising questions about human nature rather than making statements, he has created an aesthetic that is universal yet ardently his own.