By Xiao Xiaolan
Zhang Huan: Dawn of Time, Published by Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, 2010
Beijing • New York • Shanghai: Continuation of Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan’s art can be divided into three phases, the first phase started in the 1990s in Beijing East Village. The second phase is conducting worldwide performance art after immigrating to New York in 1998, and the third phase is the creation of installations, sculptures and ash paintings in 2005 after settling down in Shanghai. How does one view these three phases of different manifestations and use of different mediums? I believe, Zhang Huan’s third phase is a continuation of the first two phases. Although the medium and approach has changed, but the voyaging spirit inside and outside the body has not, he still stubbornly puts to practice his own ideals – to depart from art itself, and expand its boundaries.
The first time meeting Zhang Huan, I was impressed by his calmness, as if telling others; he is the one who knows his own capabilities. He has absolute inner and physical strength to carry out the creation of performance art, this characteristic formed the natural superiority of this outstanding artist, and we can say this advantage also comes from his inherited physical and living awareness. In 1992, Zhang Huan began performance art at Beijing East Village, a home to many artists. In 1998 after the Chinese Contemporary Art Exhibition in New York, New York became his starting point on a road to create many different performances in North America, Europe and Asia; hence establishing a visual field of the international art scene. Today, Zhang Huan’s artistic performances have returned to China. He renounced performance art, and since 2005 in Shanghai, employing factory style production of sculptures, installations and ash paintings, he started a brand new phase of artistic creation. Overseas experience is important for Zhang Huan, for he integrated his foreign experiences and recognizances to deepen his understanding of the relationship between his homeland and himself, and had deeper comprehension of his blood ties, his identity and his culture, and once again established himself the commanding heights of the artistic creation.
Critics of Zhang Huan’s art believe that from a geographical point of view, his art creation occurred in three different cities (Beijing, New York, Shanghai); looking at the role he plays, he transformed from an iconic performance artist to a creator, designer and director of installation art, large-scale paintings and sculptures. The choice of immigrating for almost 10 years and his artistic transformation, were both incidental and inevitable in his career development. The cultural changes brought about by his setting did not strongly influence him, but only provided him with encouragement to seek enlightening. His heart is still surging with irrepressible, immutable thoughts and emotions, and any significant adjustments are quickly reflected in his new works. Artists that evolve and continue among one’s environment, are the same with his explored body and environmental art, both are propositions worthy of study.
Discourse today about Zhang Huan’s art, we have to distance ourselves from the traditional critiquing model, and use today’s unadulterated art perspective to re-examine his cases of engagement with contemporary art in 1990s. What we need to summarize is the individual experience and the development of artists that came from that era, as well as the relationship between their artistic activities and the history of Chinese society and culture. These individual art cases can help us to objectively and fairly judge the value of outstanding individual existence in Chinese contemporary art. Zhang Huan’s art is a very special and richly connoted model among these outstanding individuals.
Zhang Huan’s performance art, originated from the impact of western post-modern art concepts on China in the mid-1980s. At that time, East Village artist groups tried to rid themselves of the valued standards of artistic creation, they use body art to express personal views on the surrounding environment and existence to provoke social reactions, which resulted in the Avant-Garde approach of modern Chinese art. When Zhang Huan engaged in performance art, his spiritual and living status was that of a wandering phase. The rise of the pursuit of humanistic ideals and the free artistic spirit in the early 1990s evoked his creative desires. Zhan Huan was born in a rural household in Henan, after art study at the Hehan University he pursued advanced studies at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts. He has the typical character of Henannese, flow of the primitive life power in the blood, his vigorous body, courageous and endurable character, support him well in his artistic explorations. He believed the law of arts is "Those who follow perish, those who contradict prosper", he likes to create art that rings a different tune than the symbols of art, and therefore at the moment modern Chinese art had just begun, he found encouragement from his own body, and found the best method of art to express himself. In Zhang Huan’s earlier performance art, he used his body as the medium, and sought after personal spiritual freedom of expression, seeking to establish his mark within the voluminous artistic sky. At that time in the East Village, artists lived in poverty and under environmental depression, but because of this, it stimulated sufficient inspiration and desire for spiritual strength. Zhang Huan used the most direct body experience and interpretation to communicate with society and himself. During self-torturing, self-persevering and endurance test art performances, he found the way to sublimate the personal concept of artistic creation. He kept trying and experiencing the confrontation between body and the environment, thus arose the famous art performances 12M2, 65 KG (1994), To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) and To Rise the Water Level in a Fish Pond (1997), etc. This art form with body as the medium, an almost cruel form a dialogue with environment, himself, and society, during Chinese Avant-Garde in 1990’s art was so astonishing it aroused different reactions, and was explained politically from both domestic and foreign sides. As a matter of fact, Zhang Huan’s art motivation is quite pure and personal, he said: "I decided to do performances related directly to my personal experiences. I always have a lot of problems in life, and these problems often become a physiological conflict. I often find myself in conflicts among the environment I live in, and feel surrounded by an intolerable self-existence. Therefore, when these problems occur within my body, I find that my body is the only direct approach that allows me to feel the world, and also let the world know me." Seen from today, his works are injected full of creativity and highly spiritual significance is focused on Chinese performance art. He, as an individual artist, also found from himself a puissant artistic language, and let this body language be conditioned thus eventually obtaining the experience and great release of intensified spiritual force.
Through the early simplistic representation of performance art, Zhang Huan gradually deepened his understanding of his own body. He has the most suitable body to conduct performance art, and is capable to transform the physical body into a highly visual impressive artistic language. During the course of a performance art, his body and spirit separate, he fully supports the concept and allocates all elements, the body becomes a medium for transfer, or possibly be a voided independent entity. Obviously, a body as a soul carrier for life, spiritual or religious interpretation naturally conveys the most basic meaning of human nature. In this sense, the starting and ending point of Zhang Huan’s art performances originate from and reveal human conditions within an environment. Even though he relinquished performance art, this body awareness and accumulation continued to influence his artistic creativity, tenaciously being shown in new art form. Just like Zhang Huan said himself: "My nature has not changed, form and language are changing. But the essentials remains the same; it is very natural, very human, or it’s very primitive..."
Concerning his eight years of art performance in New York, Zhang Huan frankly said there was apparent "unfamiliarity" that in many aspects did not coincide with the environment he grew up in. The way I see it, this "unfamiliarity" and lack of harmony is largely manifested from orthodox East-West aesthetic differences and alienations. Europe and America over thousands of years constructed their own art philosophy; "noble" and "elegant" it dominated the fascination of almost all eyes, and perhaps with just a glance at Zhang Huan’s practically masochistic performance art would strike them most disagreeable. But if was not for the Chinese Avant-Garde artists of the 1990’s and adequate knowledge of unique Chinese artist ecology, it would be difficult to employ some method of presentation to sustain self-identity and even more difficult to profoundly contemplate the suggested meaning and the messages his body conveys to society. On the other hand, the use of blood and flesh off one’s body as essential material to carry out Buddhist-like or out-of-body performance art, even though it evokes a strong assault at one’s vision, ultimately possesses limits-limits of one’s body and the unlimited imagination of art are a perfect contradiction. Still in New York, Zhang Huan had an inescapable free time; unsure his role, he sometimes felt pained toward a growing cultural murkiness, using his words: "a squandering vagabond". Nevertheless, this period was critical for his artistic development, mostly because the drastic change in outside environment allowed him to overcome a mental comfort zone.
It is not difficult to explain why when Zhang Huan saw burning incense in Chinese temples or tilling oxen skins, seen so frequently as a child in Henan, he would bow down with the utmost feeling of elation and sincerity. An abundant resource of information resides within these two items that is directly intertwined with life and possesses Chinese, Asian and Eastern characteristics as well. Incense-ash is biological companion of praying and vow exercises which are fueled from people’s endless desires. In Zhang Huan’s eyes, it resembles collections of memories, thoughts and blessings; from ancient times to now, oxen are responsible for sustaining the logical relation between themselves and tilling lands, harvesting, food supplies and even feeding and clothing people. It equally is an animal fully conscious of its strength. And afterward, the Buddha hand and foot remnants, Zhang Huan found in Tibet, can be looked at as the materialization and extension of his body as a medium. The discovery of these new materials sparked a prodigious amount of artistic inspiration. More importantly, it allowed him to use these abundant Eastern characteristics and Chinese-style materials to repossess his national identity, thereby establishing his cultural origins and bondage. As he said himself: "It was the best feeling in existence to return to the creative setting which spoken my mother tongue.", "Upon returning to China, I had a greater appreciation for traditions and religion", this appreciation came from everyday life experiences. Therefore, I discovered the use of incense-ash, doors and ox hide...and constantly had new flashes of inspiration. Tradition is a nation’s body and religion is a nation’s spirit. Body and spirit form the complete existence. China charges forward at full speed now, but cannot abandon its body and spirit. Returning to one’s own country, I felt more down-to-earth and ingrained into society". Moreover, the new materials bring a multi-faceted and extensive bodily transcendence and also continues to prolong creation of natural, humane and original intentions. Therefore, a passionate surge sparked his second phase of artistic creativity.
Among Zhang Huan’s recent installations, sculptures and paintings, we are still impressed with the explosive and thought-out performance art he did earlier in his career, but now his prop-like body was replaced with energy emitting incense-ash, ox hides and Buddha hand and leg remnants. In fact Zhang Huan is a very emotional person. He collects historical pictures and memorizes stories to use as reference. These photos and stories reflect human moral fiber which all at one time or another caused physiological or psychological responses during his years of childhood. He only searched and performed things that corresponded with his own body and spirit, and for that matter his innovation continued to grow from the starting point of performance art. The meaning presented forth became broader and possessed deep historical ties.
In the sculptures Ash Head series, Fresh Open Buddha Hand and the large scale ash painting Grand Canal, we see the interconnection of content between his memories of living in his hometown, personal-self and collective stories, a common searching of spirit and a nation’s historical and religious idols, etc., be re-described. Still, it is like he stands subtly at the center of each performance expressing his experiences and expanding his spirit. After collecting whole pieces of Buddha hands, digits, feet, etc., and applying artistic alterations, at last giant sculptures take form. These gigantic Buddha hands and feet pieces, powerful even in fragments, are extreme amplifications of the human body that reach beyond a human body as a medium. That kind of naked, fierce and unoccupied incongruity is as if Zhang Huan’s body is spiritually and physically on the same level. Even though Zhang Huan no longer uses his own body to relay a concept, but in some other pieces he occasionally uses it as a mold, like using incense-ash to build the head section or a portrait from above the chest, and suddenly feels like the center of his performance art again. Nevertheless, Zhang Huan’s creative senses did not diminish when faced with local Chinese complexities. He also absorbed support from the vast setup of world cultures and problem solving; the large ox hide-sculptures Hero No. 1, which surpasses realism, is like this. An array of colorful ox hides sewn viscerally together to cover a large humanoid figure, as people approach they seem to feel the warmth of the ox hides, feel the texture of life and naturally emitting vibes; a visually assaulting spectacle. He got his inspiration from Jewish and Christian Messiah descriptions, the Messiah is said to be a legendary savior, however mankind waited two thousand years and did not predict anything of the sort to befall them. Zhang Huan uses this piece to try to express the soul’s desire to be reborn. The heavy sense of history and culture within these pieces far surpasses the creativity seen during his time in Beijing and New York. It can be said, Zhang Huan’s artistic creativity has grown from a single medium performance art of using body language to an area where ideas can be materialized. Inside this area he considers history, considers reality, and even connects religious beliefs, memories and prayers, familiar places and objects from our hometown, and events and demonstrations a nation has experienced; all this constitutes a complete atmosphere of the strength of national identity. Zhang Huan’s emphasis is derived from the originality of one’s own blood, hence constantly collides and conflicts with the environment. It’s this point that fits well his earlier performance art.
From Zhang Huan’s works in recent years, we can feel the strengthening of his spiritual beliefs. Between the years 1998 and 2005, he did performances in America and Europe, he once said: "I tried my best to let my thoughts exit my body, and forget the plight of one’s body. Once they return back to the body you feel more intensely towards physical existence. You will be more aware of the cruel reality, it’s extremely discomforting. This is not purely physical pain, but also mentally discomforting. This lingering back and forth between mental and physical planes is the thing I want to experience." Mental and physical confrontation implies Zhang Huan is helpless in many areas. This kind of helplessness is understandable and fathomable, but as he experiences the process of this kind of realization and temporary out-of-consciousness he obtains an extremely unique and rare personal experience that accumulates within his heart and enhances his personal faith. This kind of seeking of powerful faith is arrived at by attaining an indication of mature rationality though mental training.
Zhang Huan is always searching for creative sources among mental and physical realms, among himself and his environment, and among personal experiences and historical memories. He is always trying his utmost to widen boundaries of art. His artistic path is one of a kind. His artistic spirit is worthy of great esteem.