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Zhang Huan

Chinese Performance Artist, Photographer, and Sculptor

Zhang Huan Photo
Movement: Performance Art

Born: 1965 - Anyang, Henan Province, China

"When you're really involved in your work, you don't have time to contemplate other things, such as basic living conditions and the meaning of life."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Zhang Huan Photo

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.

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