A month ago, Shanghai artist Zhang Huan installed his colossal sculpture "Three Heads Six Arms" (2008) at Civic Center Plaza. It will remain for a year.
The sculpture immediately began to attract tourists and others with cameras ... and bizarre interpretations. Viewed with City Hall as a backdrop, the sculpture might evoke government as a fallen leviathan. With such a possibility in mind, and awareness of Zhang's residence in post-Mao China, people might think of the vandalized ruins of iconic statuary that photojournalists seized on as symbols of the collapsed communist bloc.
In fact, Zhang says he intends no overt political reference in his work. He found inspiration for it in a fragment of antique sculpture that he bought at a salvage market in Tibet, a casualty of the Chinese campaign against indigenous religious practices, beliefs and artifacts.
Given the international controversy over China's Tibet policy, we might wonder whether Zhang did not see political critique in expanding so literally on a Tibetan religious relic. He has not said so.
In a public conversation with Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu, Zhang admitted that, despite his adherence to Buddhism, he did not understand the symbolism of the source sculpture in detail.
People familiar with Buddhist art will see in the giant figure a bodhisattva, a being who, having attained enlightenment, forgoes nirvana in order to mitigate the suffering of other sentient beings. Multiple arms and heads in Buddhist iconography symbolize the bodhisattva's superhuman inclusiveness in the dispensation of mercy.
Zhang has said that he merged the Tibetan figure with aspects - including three heads and six arms - of the Chinese Daoist deity Nezha.
I asked Zhang in an e-mail whether he intended an expression of pessimism in constructing a broken, fallen bodhisattva. Without saying no, he replied, "The meaning behind the form of 'Three Heads Six Arms' is the transcendental spirit of challenging one's personal limits, of challenging the very limits of mankind."
Zhang and New York's Pace Gallery, which represents him, have loaned the work gratis to San Francisco as part of its yearlong cultural exchange with sister city Shanghai.
Matson Navigation Co. and Waterfront Container Leasing Co. donated shipping services, and the National Endowment for the Arts supplemented private sponsorship with a $70,000 public arts grant.
Structural engineers dictated the precise position of "Three Heads Six Arms" according to the load-bearing capacity of the Civic Center underground parking garage ceiling beneath it.
"Three Arms Six Heads" belongs to a series of giant sculptures that Zhang has based on fragmentary source objects. It appears here for the first time outside China.
Asked why he chose this sculpture in particular for San Francisco, Zhang replied by e-mail: "This work is currently my largest public installation. She has three heads and six arms, she is so welcoming, tolerant, all-embracing. She is sure to bring greater peace and harmony to San Francisco, mankind and the whole universe."
Translation may have tinged the statement with a tone of unintended irony.
During his public conversation, Zhang was asked about the broken character of "Three Heads Six Arms," especially in relation to his performance work's visceral focus on the body.
He responded that it was "a very private concept." He had been "thinking about losing control of parts of the body - a very great fear for men. ... The upper body is about you ... the lower, about the passions."
His sculpture lacks an arm, Zhang said, only because the source object did.
"Three Heads Six Arms" must count as one of the most powerful artworks in public places that San Francisco has hosted. It merges cultural and historical references, yet blunts specifics such as the symbolic attributes typically associated with luminaries of the Buddhist and Daoist pantheons.
I see it as embodying the peculiar dilemmas of the contemporary artist anticipating an international audience, against a cultural background in which no belief system any longer appears intact.