Chinese Performance Artist, Photographer, and Sculptor
Anyang, Henan Province, China
Summary of Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan's work is at times confrontational, visceral and personally dangerous, and it engages both implicitly and explicitly with problems of overpopulation, cultural erasure, political repression, poverty, famine, and want. He is one of the most significant contemporary artists working in China today, and a pioneer of Performance art within the country from the early 1990s. Although living in New York for a time, Zhang is part of a generation of contemporary Chinese artists that believe that modern China is the right context for the production of their work, with all its contradictions and difficulties as an emerging global superpower.
Originally making small (usually solo) performance work, Zhang is now an internationally renowned artist with a huge Shanghai studio, equipped and staffed to produce large-scale sculpture work. His career reflects the wave of modern Chinese art that became internationally recognized in the early 2000s, and his practice continues to shape and reflect the international art market's concept of active and significant Chinese artists.
- Central to Zhang's work (and to the wider development of contemporary Chinese art) is the combination of Western artistic techniques and concepts with traditional Chinese cultural production. Rather than adopt alternative models of expression, Zhang is able to imbue modernist techniques of minimalism and abstraction with a strong Chinese and Buddhist cultural resonance, demonstrating that it is not necessary for Chinese artists to break with or deny their cultural background when making contemporary artworks. This has allowed him to retain his identity as an inherently Chinese artist whilst also achieving great success in the international art world.
- In his performance work Zhang built on the Western Performance art tradition of task-based performance, complicating simple tasks and activities through allusion and reference to Eastern cultural traditions. Deceptively basic activities, such as lying naked atop a mountain, are both an intervention in space in the tradition of Western artists like Dennis Oppenheim, and a reference to ancient Chinese folklore.
- Zhang's work often embodies the unique cultural context of contemporary China, which is caught between the capitalist impulse and the communist state apparatus. His more recent large-scale sculpture and installation, for example, are imposing and meticulously crafted pieces with great potential as commodities, but are also made from waste materials like incense ash (literally the remnants of past traditions and ritual) that undermine their ability to be moved or sold.
- Zhang's experience of New York, and his observations about the culture of America offer a new perspective on Western society to international audiences. Rather than seeing America as a place of freedom from the repression of his homeland, Zhang highlights the superficial nature of its multiculturalism and frequently myopic notion of exceptionalism. Zhang creates unapologetically from a Chinese perspective, with the West positioned as the 'Other', in an inversion of the colonial gaze. This is an important challenge to the Anglo-Centrism of the international art market, and a signal of the growing dominance of Chinese culture.
Biography of Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan was born into a farming family in Anyang City, Henan Province (Southern central China) and originally known as Zhang Dongming, a name meaning 'Eastern Brightness'. Zhang grew up knowing struggle, spending his first eight years living with his grandmother in the countryside in Tangyin County. He says that growing up in such a central part of the country strongly shaped his identity, explaining that "Henan combines the masculine North and the feminine South. So I have both qualities." He and his family struggled to earn enough money to survive. He had a hard time in school saying that he was "wild", and could never concentrate in class, as well as struggling more generally with Chinese social convention. He also experienced many deaths throughout his youth, both of his family members and of political leaders. He was born a year before the start of the genocidal Cultural Revolution in China, and was embarrassed by his revolutionary name, which was a recognizable homage to Chairman Mao.
Important Art by Zhang Huan
For his first performance work, which appeared as part of a group show at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, Zhang placed a large white canvas on the floor of the exhibition space in the western courtyard of the gallery. He then smashed a jar filled with red food coloring and disembodied baby doll parts and covered himself with the jar's contents before attempting to reassemble the doll parts on the canvas. The red blood stood vividly out against the white canvas, spilling out over the floor and spattering the steps leading to the courtyard. Zhang later strung up the partially reassembled dolls as grim trophies.
The performance piece invoked many associations for its original Chinese audience. The bloody scene reminded many of the June Fourth massacre at Tiananmen Square (1989), for example, where images of similarly vivid blood against steps and street were widely seen. The juxtaposition of the child-like doll parts and the blood red color also reminded many Chinese citizens of the Young Pioneers, the youth movement of the Chinese Communist Party who were recognizable by their red neckerchiefs. But perhaps most notably the blood red dye and mangled doll parts brought to mind China's controversial "One-child" policy (effective 1979-2016). Zhang himself knew of many women close to him who were forced to undergo abortions as a result of this policy. The strung-up babies that were left as relics of the performance were a stark representation of the human cost of the policy and the psychological scars left.
As art historian and curator Thom Collins writes, "This work, a startling and visceral commentary on the Chinese government mandate of abortions for women conceiving more than the legal limit of one child, led to a quick closure of the exhibition and serious censure of the artist." Not only was the group show promptly shut down, but Zhang Huan was fined 2000RMB and forced by the National Art Gallery to write a self-criticism. He did this only so that the group show would be allowed to continue, but it never re-opened and Zhang was blamed by the other participants. He received several negative comments from his peers as well as his teachers. He was told by some that he only took off his clothes because he had no talent for painting. Others said that he was "out of his mind" and a "complete pervert". Yet Zhang did not allow himself to be deterred, and his friend, the artist Ai Weiwei, encouraged him to continue with his performance-based work.
In this work, carried out on June 2, 1994, Zhang slathered his naked body in fish oil and honey, and proceeded to sit motionless in a public toilet for exactly one hour as insects crawled all over his body, including into his mouth and up his nose. Throughout the performance, Zhang maintained a calm, yet tough, almost meditative demeanor and facial expression. At the end of the hour, he arose, slowly walked to a nearby pond, and entered until he was completely submerged. The performance was documented in black and white photographs by the Chinese photographer Rong Rong.
This performance piece was directly inspired by Zhang's memories of growing up in an overcrowded village. One day in 1994, he needed to use a restroom after lunch and entered a public restroom just off the street. He found that the restroom had not been cleaned for some time, as the area had been experiencing flooding. The putrid smell and swarms of flies left their mark on his memory. As he recalls, "Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. I felt as if my body was being devoured by the flies." By re-creating this situation, he presented a phenomenological account of his personal experience of overpopulation, one which many Chinese citizens are likely to be able to identify with and calling attention to the issue. Zhang's performance was an endurance feat that forced its audience to reconsider what might otherwise be a familiar and everyday space, recognizing the injustice of the squalor.
At the time, Zhang was quickly learning that using his body to enact Performance Art allowed him to experience a unique sort of catharsis, particularly in response to traumas and anxieties. He notes that in his youth he was often verbally and physically attacked by strangers, simply because he had a strange appearance and style of dress. He says, "I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles often ended up in physical conflicts [...] 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. The body is proof of identity. The body is language."
During a 1999 interview with art historian Qian Zhijian, Zhang shared his personal philosophy that sometimes "the best way to get rid of the horror and to return to a state of ease might be to torture the body itself to calm it". He went on to say that "each time I finish a performance, I feel a great sense of release of fear". Indeed, in this and other performance pieces that physically challenged his body, Zhang enters a meditative state of mind, during which he keeps entirely calm to be able to endure and overcome physical discomfort, sometimes even reporting that he hallucinates while doing so. He recalls that while he was performing 12 Square Meters, "I first felt that everything began to vanish from my sight. Life seemed to be leaving me far in the distance. I had no concrete thought except that my mind was completely empty." This ability to enter a meditative state reflects his Buddhist spirituality, which would become a more central aspect in his later works.
In 1995, shortly after the artistic community of the Beijing East Village had been forcibly disbanded, Zhang and several other member artists - Wang Shihua, Cang Xin, Gao Yang, Zuoxiao Zuzhou, Ma Zongyin, Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, Zhang Binbin, and Zhu Ming - collaborated on this performance, wherein they climbed to the peak of a nearby mountain, stripped naked and lay one on top of each other to create an additional peak. To assist in the creation and documentation of the work, the group hired two surveyors and some equipment from the land bureau and also arranged for photographers and film cameras from a movie studio to be present.
The work was inspired by an old saying, "Beyond the mountain, there are more mountains". Zhang explained that the work "is about humility. Climb this mountain and you will find an even bigger mountain in front of you. It's about changing the natural state of things, about the idea of possibilities." The cultural resonance of this saying is an excellent example of Zhang's use of a performance tradition most associated with the West (naked public interventions) in order to reflect a Chinese perspective. The performance echoes Western works like Dennis Oppenheim's Parallel Stress or even Yayoi Kusama's Naked Happenings in New York, but does so to reframe an ancient proverb. It demonstrates how similar actions might provoke extremely different resonances according to the site of their performance.
Collaborator Kong Bu recalls the meticulousness with which the group executed and documented the performance, saying, "At 13:00 on May 11, 1995, only the occasional truck along the highway disturbed the calm atop the mountain. Surveyors Jin Kui and Xiong Wen stood on the road below where they set up their equipment. They measured the mountain's height at 86.393 meters. I was in charge of recording each participant's weight. Everyone climbed the mountain, and one by one the artists shed their clothes. The participants divided into four rows by ascending weight and then lay on top of each other in the form of a pyramid. Between 13:26 and 13:38 that afternoon, the surveyors' measurement of the anonymous mountain was 87.393 meters, precisely one meter higher than Miaofengshan Mountain."
A secondary idea presented by this performance is the connection between man and nature. By using their naked bodies to augment the size of a mountain, the participating artists put forth the idea that man and nature can become one. They further explored this idea in their very next collaborative performance, carried out later the same day, titled Nine Holes, in which they travelled to another nearby mountain where the men dug holes in the earth into which they inserted their penises, and the women aligned their vaginas with protrusions on the earth, becoming one with the mountain. Zhang also explored the connection between man and nature in The Original Sound (1995), a performance wherein he filled his mouth with earthworms and allowed them to crawl around his mouth and over his face and body. He recalls "I liked the feeling of the worms creeping into my mouth and ears and onto my face and body. I felt as if I were one of them. I think man and earthworm are similar creatures in the way that they are related to the earth. They come out of the earth, but eventually they all go back into it."