Zhang Huan (b. 1965, Anyang, Henan, China) is one of the most vital, influential and provocative contemporary artists working today. The layers of ideas the artist explored in his early performance art, conceived of as existential explorations and social commentaries, have carried through to the more traditional studio practice he embraced upon moving to Shanghai in 2005, after living and working for eight years in New York City.
Following the success of Carte Blanche, the inaugural exhibition presented at the project space Chesa Büsin, in Zuoz, Switzerland, Pace is delighted to present a retrospective of Zhang Huan’s œuvre from 14 July to 31 August 2014.
Zhang Huan is one of the most influential and provocative contemporary artists working today. Spanning the artist’s twenty-year career, the exhibition will feature some of the artist’s most iconic works and emphasize Zhang Huan’s ability to move fluidly between performance, video, photography, work on paper, painting, sculpture and installation.
The exhibition explores the central themes of Buddhism, existentialism and the limits of the human body that have dominated Zhang Huan’s work. It features works created between 1994 and 2014 in Beijing, New York and Shanghai where the artist respectively lived and worked. “I combine impressions of China, with local culture, what people call glocal. It’s going from one place to another, and bringing what you have to offer to each new place.” Zhang Huan, March 2002.*1
The expressive potential of the human body and the self-portrait are at the core of Zhang Huan’s performances staged in Beijing in the 1990s. Zhang Huan at Chesa Büsin features a photographic still from his renowned performance 12 Square Meters (1994) in which the artist inflicted extreme conditions upon his naked body, drawing inspiration from performance artists of the 1960s. The artist challenges the vulnerability and durability of the human body by sitting for an hour in a humid public latrine in the ‘East Village’ of Beijing, where he lived at the time, covered in honey, fish sauce and swarming flies. Like many of his performance pieces, 12 Square Meters exemplifies his fascination with his immediate experiences; a situation that allows him to reveal the truth of human nature.
Also on view are photographs from his ‘½ (meat) and ½ (meat + text)’ (1998) performance. Drawing upon Rembrandt’s The Slaughtered Ox (1638) and Francis Bacon’s meat paintings, Huan juxtaposes human and animal flesh alongside Chinese calligraphy, thus bringing together eastern and western traditions. In the first work he stands naked holding an animal carcass, evocative of a Chinese warrior’s suit of armor, and in the second he is covered in Chinese calligraphy. Together these elements reveal two warring sides of human nature, the civilized and rational versus the primitive and animalistic. His body becomes the medium with which he can interrogate such dualistic universal concepts.
Zhang Huan’s intrigue with cultural and personal identity continues through the trajectory of his work, as evident in the photographic series ‘Family Tree’ (2000). Here nine portraits document the artist’s face being gradually covered in Chinese calligraphy slowly obscuring his image and thus his identity. The characters are executed by three calligraphers during the length of a day, mirroring the fading light of the sun as the day comes to a close. As the work progresses and his face disappears so too does his physiognomy,which the Chinese believe reveals each person’s innate character. What is left in its place is a blackened layering of traditional Chinese stories indicating a cultural heritage that is imposed upon the individual. The self-portrait is therefore lost, “I cannot tell who I am. My identity has disappeared”.*2
Later in his career, a more contemplative theme emerges within Zhang Huan’s work as indicated by the recurring motif of the Buddha beginning in 2004. ‘Small Three Legged Buddha’ (2007), a highlight of the exhibition is a study for a large-scale installation commissioned for the courtyard of The Royal Academy in London. This piece, where the form of the Buddha has been rearranged, references the natural disappearance of ancient monuments that Zhang Huan experienced whilst travelling through Tibet. Just as his early performances meditated on the mental and physical endurance, so too do these sculptures but with an increased sense of calm. The work highlights what he calls his ‘spiritual development’. For him the image of the Buddha resonates not within a political context but like the rest of his work, as a universal symbol of man’s often fragile existence in nature.
In 2005 Zhang Huan moved from New York to Shanghai. He deliberately retired from the provocative performances that led to his success, and set up a studio to focus on creating paintings, objects and sculptures. The resulting Memory Doors, Ash and Spring Poppy Fields series rose from this new direction and further reference Buddhism and the Cultural Revolution.
The Memory Doors comprise of silkscreen prints of photographs from the 1920s to 1970s mounted on antique wooden doors salvaged from traditional Chinese houses being torn down in the Shanxi Province. The artist enlisted traditional craftsmen to carve portions of the images onto the doors creating a contemporary object using traditional means. The black and white images pasted on the doors relate to key historical events and social changes that have shaped recent Chinese history. Cannon (2008), for instance, features an image of Communist soldiers fighting the Kuomintang during China’s civil war.
Back in his homeland of China, Zhang Huan reconnected with his country’s ancestral traditions too and was struck by the number of Buddhist devotees who would pray and burn incense as offerings. He regularly visited Shanghai's Longhua Temple and the ash soon became the metaphysical medium for both his paintings and sculpture and led to the Ash series. Zhang Huan has spoken about how, for him “all the dreams, aspirations, all the spiritual longings, all the ideas that people have” are infused into the ash. East Wind No. 6, (2011) presented in the exhibition depicts an elegant but dangerous wave inspired by the Japanese artist Hokusai.
Zhang Huan at Pace Chesa Büsin features several Spring Poppy Fields paintings. Alluding to Buddhist masks and the journey to nirvana, the recent Spring Poppy Fields (2014) series employs an almost pointillist technique that allows the artist to transmute the canvas into a field of psychedelic colours and motifs. Zhang Huan’s recurring use of skulls stems from the artist’s early performances.
Zhang Huan at Pace ChesaBüsinfollows the critically-acclaimed Spring Poppy Fields exhibition presented at Pace London from 25 April to 31 May 2014 and continues the gallery’s ongoing commitment to the artist.
*1-Roselee Goldberg, “Zhang Huan”, Artforum 40, no.7 (March 2002): 138-139.
*2- Zhang Huan talking about his work ‘Family Tree’: www.zhanghuan.com
Starting March 4, the Zhang Huan-directed Semele performance will be presented at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. A 450-year-old Ming Dynasty temple shares the stage with an inflatable puppet, debaucherous monks, and sumo wrestlers in George Frideric Handel’s sublime opera, directed by Chinese visual artist Zhang Huan. Renowned for his provocative interrogations of Eastern culture, Zhang transforms the restored 17-ton temple into an altar, palace, crematory, and heaven to tell of the
This summer, Les Recontres d’Arles, the celebrated, annual photography festival in Arles, France, features works by Vik Muniz and Zhang Huan. Vik Muniz’s Album and Postcards From Nowhere series is presented at the Trinitarian Church (Église des Trinitaires, Rue de la République, Arles, 13 104). Meanwhile, Zhang Huan's works, currently exhibited at Pace Chesa Büsin, are included in the Arthur Walther’s collection, as part of the exhibition. The festival remains on view until 21 September. More
Following the success of Carte Blanche, the inaugural exhibition presented at the project space Chesa Büsin, in Zuoz, Switzerland, Pace is delighted to present a retrospective of Zhang Huan’s œuvre from 14 July to 31 August 2014. Zhang Huan is one of the most influential and provocative contemporary artists working today. Spanning the artist’s twenty-year career, the exhibition will feature some of the artist’s most iconic works and emphasize Zhang Huan’s ability to move fluidly between pe