Huan Zhang

Painter, Performer, Sculptor – Chinese


zhang huan

1965 born in Anyang, Henan Province, China.

Zhang Huan is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York. He made his BA at the He Nan University in Kai Feng (1988) and his MA at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (1993). He is primarily a performance artist but also makes photographs and sculptures.

Zhang Huan began his work as part of a small artistic community, known as the Beijing East Village, located on the margins of the city. The group of friends from art school pioneered this particular brand of performance in China and Zhang was often reprimanded by officials for the perceived inappropriateness of his actions. Zhang’s performances always involve his body in one way or another, usually naked, occasionally involving masochistic actions. For example, an exhibited photography showed him as "a naked man, his head half-shaved, sitting in a prisonlike space. His skin was wet and covered with flies. His face looked blank but tough, as if he were trying to meditate his way through pain." In a more benign group performance called To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, he asked 40 migrant laborers to stand in a pond, their physical presence, presumably, altering its volume. For another titled To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, he and nine other artists climbed a mountain near Beijing, stripped and lay down on top of one another to create a second, mini-peak."

Zhang involves the body in his sculptures as well. He makes giant copper hands and feet, magnified versions of fragments of broken Buddhist figures that he found in Tibet. By using quasi-religious ritual, he seeks to discover the point at which the spiritual can manifest via the corporeal. He uses simple repetitive gestures, usually regarded as meaningless work-for-work’s-sake chores. Buddhism, with its temple music, sculptures and philosophy are a prevalent theme in Zhang Huan’s work. His sculpture Long Ear Ash Head, for example, consists of a massive head made of incense ash and steel. It fuses the artist’s image with the lengthened earlobes representing happiness and good fortune in the Buddhist religion.
He has exhibited at shows including the 2002 Whitney Biennial and Rituals at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

In the nearly 40 different performance arts that Zhang Huan performs, he addresses a variety of issues. “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.”

12 Square Meters. Zhang Huan grew up with the experience of living in a crowded village area. He did not have much space for himself, which impressed the idea of China’s overpopulation on him at young age. In 1994, Zhang Huan was in a small village in China and needed to use a restroom after lunch. He found a public restroom just off the street and went on in. Because of a lot of rain the village had been receiving, the restroom wasn’t cleaned recently due to “weather precautions”. As Huan entered the restroom he found that it reeked with awful smells and flies were everywhere in the room. This experience reminded him of his childhood and the small crowded, unclean restrooms he used when he was growing up. “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 were being devoured by the flies.”
Being who Zhang Huan is, a major performance artist in China’s art community, he decided to do a piece with this. Shortly, after leaving the restroom, Huan contacted his people and told them of his plan for this piece. “Zhang Huan spread on his body a visceral liquid of fish and honey to attract the flies in the public restroom in the village. He sat on the toilet, almost immobile for an hour.” After doing such an act, you can only imagine what happened. In a matter of minutes, his body became covered in flies, seeking out to get some of the treat attached to Huan. The point that Huan was trying to get at here, went beyond the fact that restrooms in China are disgusting. He displayed a paradox of “what should provoke a sense of disgust, rather attracts.”

Angel One of Zhang Huan’s first performance art pieces dates back to 1993 at the National Art Gallery located in Beijing, China. Huan placed a giant white canvas on the floor of the exhibition space. Huan then stepped out of the exhibition area and had a jar of red liquid (supposed to represent blood) and mangled doll parts poured over him. After this disgusting act, Huan picked up the doll pieces and walked his naked body back to the exhibition space and onto the canvas. This is where he then tried to reassemble the doll back together on the canvas. “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.”

Foam Foam is one of Zhang Huan’s non-performance pieces, of which he has not done many. The piece consists of 15 photographs of his face where he is covered in what appears to be sea foam. In his mouth, is his wife’s family trying to express almost a sound. Many interpretations could be taken from this piece, one being the observation of the human birth process if the human was a mythological creature. But this piece can also be considered an act of speech to show how his ancestors speak through him.

Family Tree consists of nine sequential images of Zhang Huan’s face. The photographs are taken in a chronological order, from dusk to dawn. This non-performance piece is also a representation of Huan’s lineage. During the work, Huan would have three calligraphers write a combination of names known to Zhang Huan, personal stories, learned tales and random thoughts. The calligraphers worked on his face, adding more and more during the chronological period. Eventually, his face was covered by so much calligraphy, it was hard to make out what was actually written, and his face just looked to be completely painted in black.

Peace is another non-performance art work that Zhang Huan did in order to create a symbolic self portrait of himself. Again, in order to pay respect to his ancestors, Huan had the bell inscribed with names from eight generations of his ancestors. The bell itself is Tibetan inspired by small bells used in ritual practices. In order to ring the bell, Huan had a real-life cast made of himself, and hung just a few feet from the bell. The cast version of himself is supposed to represent the compassion that is the necessary counterpart for wisdom. The actual act of ring the bell is supposed to represent the “artistic struggle with the circumstances of and inheritance from family is both necessarily violent and richly generative.

Zhang Huan's more recent work has consisted of sculptures and paintings that reference the history of his native China, from significant political, intellectual, and religious figures to anonymous portraits and landscape scenes. For his two- and three-dimensional works, Zhang frequently uses both common objects and unusual organic materials, including feathers, cowhides, and for his 2005 sculpture Donkey, a taxidermied donkey. Particularly evocative is Zhang’s use of incense ash, a material that epitomizes both detritus and religious ritual, with which he paints and sculpts works that are as olfactory as they are visual.