Zhang Huan - Biography and Legacy
Chinese Performance Artist, Photographer, and Sculptor
Anyang, Henan Province, China
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.
Education and Early training
After private painting lessons at fourteen he was awarded a place at the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng. He received his B.A. in painting from Henan University in 1988. While studying there, he was most engaged and inspired by Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt van Rijn. His graduation piece was a painting with the title Red Cherries (1988), which showed a mother peacefully nursing her baby next to a bowl of cherries. He remained at Henan University as a teacher in the art department for the next three years before moving to Beijing where he changed his name, abandoning the revolutionary connotations of 'Dongming'. He received his M.A. in painting from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1993, an institution he was attracted to for its emphasis on the European classical tradition.
After graduating, he worked for one month at a commercial painting company in Beijing where he was tasked with making copies of Degas' works. His reproductions were excellent and earned a great deal of money for his employers. However, he only received a salary of 250RMB, which was far less than weekly expenses, and when he asked his boss for a raise he was yelled at rudely. On the way home, he was so upset that he punched a bus, which he now thinks of as his first conscious act of self-torture and perhaps a precursor to his later performance actions.
Around this time, Zhang felt unsure of what to do next as he didn't feel as politically-minded as his Chinese painter contemporaries and had hopes of discovering an alternative to painting. He was also extremely poor. He moved to a dirty, run-down artist's community on the edge of Beijing, formerly known as Dashanzhuang, but renamed the East Village by its artist inhabitants (after New York City's East Village, which the residents felt had an affinity with their experimental and collaborative aesthetic). He spent this time listening to Nirvana, Cui Jan (Chinese rock and roll) and Buddhist music and feeling increasingly depressed, but also making friends with the other artists who lived in this "glorified garbage dump". It was here, with little resources available to him to make art, that Zhang began to use his own body, as well as the bodies of his artist friends, to create performances. The members of the Beijing East Village were also inspired by the provocative "living sculptures" and other artworks of British artists Gilbert and George, who paid a visit to this avant-garde community in October 1993 while in Beijing for an exhibition.
The Beijing East Village community was closed by the police only a year after it began, following the arrest of Ma Liuming for cooking naked in a courtyard. The authorities had been displeased with what they considered to be the "inappropriate" goings-on of the community for some time, and jumped at the opportunity to make an arrest and shut it down for good. Yet the artists who lived there continued to collaborate and became the first generation of Chinese performance artists to produce work consistently within the country.
From this point onward, Zhang focused on using his (usually naked) body, in an attempt to address and critique various issues, including (as described on his website) "The power of unified action to challenge oppressive political regimes; the status and plight of the expatriate in the new global culture; the persistence of structures of faith in communities undermined by violent conflict; and the place of censorship in contemporary democracy." Some of his early performances involved extreme physical actions, such as strapping himself to a board hung from the ceiling while a medic siphoned his blood onto a hot plate, or locking himself inside a metal box with only a small slit for air.
In 1998, he visited the United States to carry out a solo performance titled Pilgrimage: Wind and Water in New York at P.S. 1. This was the first time he used overt Chinese imagery and symbolism in his performance work. For the piece, he walked slowly across the museum courtyard as Tibetan music played, until he reached a traditional Chinese bed, but one that held blocks of ice instead of a mattress, and which was surrounded by several live dogs. He then undressed, and lay face-down on the ice for ten minutes. The work was what he considered "glocal", combining both global and local elements (representing both China and the United States at once). He said of the work, "The use of dogs originates from my impression of New York. There are so many dogs 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."
Despite this complex first impression of the city, Zhang decided to move to New York later that same year with his wife Jun Jun, particularly as many of the works he had been making were only able to be shown outside of China. He says "At that time New York was the city of my dreams, so I wanted to go try my luck." In New York, he quickly fell into a schedule of performances and commissions from prestigious cultural institutions. Both of his children were born there, in 2000 and 2003. However, after eight years of living in the city, he began to grow tired of both America (in part because he felt that living there put too much distance between him and his Buddhist roots), and of Performance art itself. A fortune teller told him that the most suitable place for his next move would either be Eastern China, or somewhere to the Northeast of his birthplace (Henan province). In 2006 he moved back to China to live in Shanghai. He reflects on his time living in New York, saying "Since we've been living in China we look back on those years spent in the West as lost years. China has given me more passion and drive. New York made me sick at heart. China helped me to forget that."
With his move back to China, he decided to take a step back from Performance art. He explains that "In 2005 I did three different performance pieces, and after the last one I realized that I was starting to repeat myself. There weren't good ideas coming out, and also I felt really tired. So I decided to stop cold turkey." He opened an enormous studio in Shanghai's southern Min Hang district, where his team of over 100 assistants produce object-based art, particularly sculpture. However, he notes that his experience with performance art helped him significantly with this newer object-based practice, saying "It taught me how to conceptualize a work from beginning to end and it allowed me to live through the process of making art." He took over the 75-acre building where his studio currently stands after a fire ended the company's operations. He explains that "In China, it's believed that once you move into a place that's burned, your business will catch fire." Indeed, once back in China, he was no longer a small fish in a large artworld pond, and experienced high levels of fame in his homeland, where he lives with his wife and two children in a simple home. Every day at his studio, he takes a lunchtime nap underneath his desk in a two-foot-high space fitted with a mattress, pillow, sheets and comforter. He explains "I feel safe on a low level. It quiets me down."
Zhang has been represented by Pace Gallery, New York, since 2007. Although now working in sculpture and oil painting rather than performance, the body still features prominently in his works, particularly recreations of the fragmented body parts of Buddhist statues using incense ash from Buddhist temples. Returning to Buddhism has been a critical turning point in both his life and career. Rather than following a single school of Buddhism, Zhang says that "As long as they're part of the Buddhist tradition, I like them all. It doesn't matter which one. Also, I have the greatest respect for other religions. It doesn't matter which religion we're talking about, the core concept is the same - just as you are white and I'm yellow, but at the same time, on a human level, we are the same."
In 2009, Zhang also worked as the director and set designer of an experimental production of Handel's 1743 opera Semele, at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. Zhang was intrigued by the ancient Greek comedy's plot's relation to Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and karma.
The Legacy of Zhang Huan
As contemporary Chinese art scholar Gao Minglu notes, "The Chinese term for performance art is 'Xingwei Yishu', which in English means roughly 'Behavioral Art'. Obviously, behavior has a different meaning than the original sense of performance. The concept of 'behavior' is not limited to the physical actions of the individual but also encompasses the moral sense of the individual expressing himself within a community or within a social structure. This point relates to the Chinese Confucian tradition. In the Chinese Confucian tradition there is no such thing as purely individual behavior, all individual behavior is social and all behavior reflects some types of social relationship."
Zhang has boldly rejected the "accepted" art that Chinese authorities expect artists to produce, and has not allowed censorship to deter him from carrying out projects that shock and dismay. Other Chinese artists have embraced this philosophy, as exemplified by the underground OPEN festival of performance in Beijing, whose artists similarly challenge propriety in the way that Zhang and his contemporaries (such as Ai Weiwei and Zhe Yu) have done consistently. Even as recently as 2014, a program about Zhang that aired on the Discovery Channel in Asia was banned in China.
Zhang has set an example to other artists that they do not need to be afraid of making significant changes in their careers. As curator, critic, and gallery director David Teh writes, "[Zhang's] name had become synonymous with Chinese performance art. But Zhang's recent return to China and his pursuit of new formal directions yield fresh perspectives on some timeless ideas that haunt his work."