Zhang Huan

Altered States
Asia Society and Museum, New York
6 September 2007 - 20 January 2008

In a scant dozen years Zhang Huan has gone from performing in a communal latrine in Beijing, to peripatetic appearances at global art events while based in New York, to a return to China where, in a Shanghai factory complex, he now commands a staff of one hundred producing his work. ‘Altered States’, curated by Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society’s Museum, was Zhang’s first museum retrospective and in tracing his short, remarkable career the exhibition also suggested several incomplete allegories of the body, avant-gardism, and the rise of China as a superpower.

Chiu’s selection of photographs, video documentation, paintings and sculptures was organised around the three metropolitan sites—Beijing-New York-Shanghai—where Zhang has lived, for each city in turn has fostered a different mode of working. Born in 1965 in Henan Province, Zhang moved to Beijing to study oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. Two years later he relocated to the city’s grotty edges where he established Beijing’s East Village (after the same in New York) as a place for fellow artists. Here, in poverty and with the constant possibility of harassment, he staged his earliest performances, among them the now famous 12 Square Meters (1994), where Zhang sat naked for an hour, covered in fish oil and honey, in a filthy public toilet, and 65 Kilograms (1994), in which the artist was suspended from his apartment ceiling while his blood dripped from cuts into a metal bowl below.

Zhang’s quote ‘The body is proof of identity’ is important to the exhibition but in these well-documented performances Zhang also invests the body-tested-in-endurance with the possibility of resistance. Five years after the physical resistance to the rolling tanks in Tiananmen Square, the body could be the last arena of sovereignty, but the likely futility of this was not lost on Zhang. His To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), a clump of bodies lying atop a dirt mound, and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), a scattered group of immigrant workers standing in an outer urban pond, staged collective futility as art while echoing both ancient Chinese proverbs and the Great Wall itself.

An invitation to participate in the Asia Society’s exhibition ‘Inside Out: New Chinese Art’ in 1998 took Zhang to New York. Relocating to Brooklyn, he began a series of commissioned performances, most of which involved squads of volunteers and which mined his experiences in the city. For My New York, performed at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, he donned a muscleman’s bodysuit constructed from slabs of raw meat and wandered through the gathered spectators distributing white doves which the onlookers set free. Zhang’s adroitness at choosing resonant images and materials was particularly apparent in this work, executed less than six months after 9/11. My New York initiated a series of similar works in which Zhang acted out impressions of China with his impressions of various local and to him, foreign, cultures, a situation he calls ‘glocal’. My Rome (2005) documents his performance in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum, flanked by the enormous Fontana di Marforio. Zhang, in a white robe, cavorts with a huge bubble, setting up a play of opposites: East and West; bubble and stone; old Europe and new, or rather older, China.

Zhang’s New York base allowed him to mull his expatriate identity for a global audience from outside China; the explosion of international interest in Chinese contemporary art enabled him to return. In Zhang’s most recent work, covered by the exhibition’s ‘Shanghai’ section, the reintegration of his Chinese heritage looms large. His Shanghai studio/factory complex—his home since 2006—allows work on an industrial scale. Not surprisingly, his practice is now object-based and often includes found elements of historical value: Ming dynasty furniture, Tibetan artifacts, discarded rural objects. Two works from the Memory Door Series (2006) show Zhang layering Maoist iconography over imposing ancient rural doors; the resulting billboard-sized work remains ambiguous. Less so perhaps were the works acknowledging Buddhism, whether, like Fresh Open Buddha Hand (2007), modeled on remnants of Tibetan Buddhist statues looted in the Cultural Revolution and blown up to grand proportions by Zhang, or composed of incense ash sourced from Buddhist temples. Here, Zhang’s American Flag No 1 (2007) stood out.

The Asia Society’s exhibition space did not do justice to the change in scale of Zhang’s operation: the larger pieces made since his return were suffocated. More important than the change in scale however is the radical shift in Zhang’s mode of production: from marginalised avant-garde to an institutionalised exile—his performances My Australia (2000), My Japan (2001) and My Boston (2007) were always done under the aegis of an institution—to art star industrialist manufacturing bigger and bigger pieces. (Film production must soon be on the cards.) Zhang is not yet middle-aged. The rapid international trajectory of his career suggests a radical revision of older models of art practice and production. 

Zhang Huan, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997. Colour photograph of performance, Beijing, China. 41.25 x 61ins. Collection the artist. Courtesy the artist. © Zhang Huan. 

Zhang Huan, My Rome, 2005. One of a series of five black-and-white photographs of performance, Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy, 55 x 42ins. Collection the artist. Courtesy the artist. © Zhang Huan. 

Zhang Huan, American Flag No. 1, 2007. Ash on linen, 63 x 99ins. Collection Carol and David Appel. Courtesy the artist. © Zhang Huan.