Brilliant Ideas Episode #18: Zhang Huan
Collector who collects individual lives
Breakaway from breakaway
One of the public images of an artist is that he or she presents a breakaway from the things already existing. In that, Zhang Huan has taken steps to always surprise the public as an artist. The start of Zhang Huan’s steps was his first performance, which embarrassed Chinese people. Afterwards, he went to and returned from New York, suddenly embraced Buddhism, and presented sculpture installations, which are totally new compared to his performances that made him one of the world’s famous artists.
In fact, to Zhang Huan, a medium is a means, not an end. He reasonably chose depending on his attraction inside. Only the appearances of the works are different, while the subject of the works is narrowed down to the lives of the individuals and study on the inner side of the artist himself. Brilliant Ideas Episode #18 brought to you by Bloomberg and Hyundai Motor features Zhang Huan, who is curious about the life of himself and the lives of people more than anyone else.
China’s first-generation performance artist
In the early 1990s, in the middle of Beijing city, a man caused a scene by taking off his clothes. After spreading the white clothes he took off on the ground, the man raised a jar filled with blood and broken pieces of toys over his head, suddenly dropped it to the ground, and then created an object in a whole new shape with the scattered pieces. The newly created toy, called “Angel”, was installed on a wall of a gallery by the man, which marked the end of his performance.
This is the performance named Weeping Angels(1993) delivered in Beijing by Zhang Huan, one of the China’s first-generation performance artists. The performance was about abortion and death however it could not avoid a barrage of criticism from the Chinese art scene at that time, where the concept of performances and installation arts did not exist. Ironically, those who condemned him the most were the teachers and students of the art school Zhang was studying in. He was even fined for committing a public “misdemeanor” because some media saw his performance as a political act, simply focusing on the act of him taking off his clothes without looking at the artistic meaning of the performance.
The reason the artist, who studied paintings, became deeply engaged in performances is purely personal. He says that he had always suffered, and the sufferings he had generally resulted in physical conflict. Regarding the world and the environment surrounding him as intolerant, Zhang kept his head shaved, and walked the streets wearing a black vest, black boots, and sunglasses even in the middle of summer. His appearance was considered offensive to some in China and caused strangers to attack or verbally abuse him without any reason. Repeatedly being subjected to these happenings, the artist came to realize an important fact that only a “Body” can approach the society, and is a medium for directly letting the society to know a person. As he felt in paintings he had lack of opportunities to express his candidness, his body became a proof that he is alive and a language with which he can express himself. That is why a performance using his body and, furthermore, passing beyond the body itself emerged as the only way for the artist.
As mentioned above, Zhang Huan presented a series of performances, which started the history of Chinese performance arts. Even when no one could understand his performances, the artist had firmly believed in performances, the medium that he chose. He trusted that the only medium that could perfectly realize what he aimed for was performances. His trust became a drive for making him as one of China’s first-generation performance artists and a world famous artist.
Zhang Huan embracing Buddhism
In the 2000s, Zhang Huan showed works that are clearly distinguished from the past: images of the Buddha started to come out on to his works. As he made his debut by a performance, and has been letting himself known by continuous performances, the sudden appearance of the Buddha images raised a lot of questions from the public. The previous performances of his seemed resistant to the society as well as aggressive; the statues of the Buddha he newly created, which have a quiet and meditative ambience mood, seemed as if they are works of someone else. Zhang Huan responds to these questions by emphasizing that recent works are no different from his performances. He says that mental quietness and meditative emotions exist also in his early performances, and it is just that, as he embraced Buddhism, he has selected Buddhism-related subjects for his works, and the strong spiritual power inside rose more clearly on to the surface. It is the same with Zhang finding Buddhism. He was not suddenly fascinated by the religion after returning from New York to Shanghai; he always believed that, somewhere inside him it existed as his fate. He only made it official through a religious rite.
Zhang creates the statues of the Buddha with ash, among many materials, to make so called “Ash Sculptures.” The ash is generally brought from an incense burner at a Buddhist temple in Shanghai, which the artist believes includes people’s memories, spirits, prayers, and beliefs. He thinks the ash in the incense burner has power of countless spirits, and therefore, it has more meaning than just the ash does.
Berlin Buddha, which he presented in 2007, includes an aluminum Buddha sculpture mold, and a large Buddha made of ash installed in front of the aluminum Buddha. The work expresses the birth, aging, death, and reincarnation, the whole cycle of life. As a pioneer in Chinese performance arts, Zhang Huan showed a performance of removing the structure that had been supporting the head of the ash-made Buddha on the opening day of the exhibition. As the Buddha is made of ash, it started to gradually collapse to lose its form, without the support. Eventually it returned to ash, the original pure material. Through his performance and installation, the artist showed the ash that had been reborn into a Buddha return to the ash again, to not only show the cycle of life, but also to imply the natural circulation where no one can go back in time.
Zhang Huan is not talking about politics or the history of Buddhism through the Buddhist images. The statues of the Buddha he made clearly show his focus on humanity and the meaning of life such as desires and prayers of humans. He is an artist focusing only on art and life. ■ with ARTINPOST
<Mark No.20> 2011
Ash on linen 100×153cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio
Ash on linen 2013 286×3740cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio
<Cowskin Buddha No.5>
2015 Cowskin 285×210×42cm
<Free Tiger Returns to Moutains No. 18>
2010 Incense ash 150×200cm
<He He Xie Xie> 2010
Mirror finished stainless steel left 600×420×380cm/Right 600×426×390cm
<Long Island Buddha> 2011
Copper and steel 172×227×177cm
<My New York> 2002
<Spiritual Leader No.4> 2010
<Mark No.2> 2013
Ash on linen 230×170cm Courtesy Zhang Huan Studio
<Sudden Awakening No.1> 2010
Ash, steel and wood 60.5×77.5×100cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<Cowskin Buddha Face No.7> 2010
Cowskin 298×200×39cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<Free Tiger Returns to Mountains No. 27> 2010
Ash on linen 160×250cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<Hehe Xiexie> 2010
Mirror finished stainless steel left 100×70×63.3cm, Right 100×71×65cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<Hometown Sentiment> 2009
Ash on linen, 150×400cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<Meter Factory> 2007
Silk screen mounted on antique wood door 161×330cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan, Hakgojae Gallery
<The Beginning No.3> 2013
Ash on linen 66×56cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio
<Luke No.1> 2011
Ash on linen 80×60cm Courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio
Born in China in 1963, Zhang Huan is an artist distinguished by his performances and sculptures. Based in Beijing and New York, the artist is one of the artists that started performance art in China. At the time when performances were not allowed, he performed in the middle of a public place in Beijing, and then formed a group with congenial friends of his to keep presenting performances. Zhang Huan moved to New York in 1998 and encountered the western trend of contemporary arts, which led his performances to be more focused on themes as poverty, individual freedom and cultural differences. Currently, he is creating sensations by presenting sculpture works in a religious manner with a story about humans. Zhang Huan has held a number of exhibitions including exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Forte di Belvedere, Firenze, and the Pace Gallery London. He has also been a part of the Venice Biennale 1999 and the Gwangju Biennale 2006, continuingly establishing himself as an internationally influential artist.