By Roselee Goldberg
Pilgrimage to Santiago, 2000

ISBN: 84-453-3162-0 84-607-3005-0

Interview with Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan and I are sitting side by side in my New York office. Mathieu Borysevicz, who will translate from English to Mandarin and from Mandarin to English, sits opposite. At the start, this triangulated interview seems that it will be difficult. It will require work. It will require concentration to cope with the lapses between speakers, to keep a particular train of thought moving steadily from one to the other and back again. I ready myself for the effort. But quickly the sound of Chinese takes over. It is a different Chinese from the one we think we hear in New York. It is soft, seductive. It is mesmerizing. The two men speak at the same pitch, with similar cadences, lots of swish sounds. It’s like humming. Now and then Zhang Huan rises from his chair, back straight in the air, head pitched forward so slightly as though the top of his skull is waiting to catch a ball, or as though staring down a Kung Fu partner.

One time, he moves the chair, lifting it gently and putting it down a few feet behind us, creating a space for himself next to the bookshelf. He crouches between our legs, talking all the while. He shapes a small box around himself with his hands. He mimes the action of pulling a lid closed, over his head. He ducks to show how tight was the space. His eyes widen. His voice indicates panic. He rocks frantically. He points at the phone on the desk, trying, impossibly, to propel his body over to it. He grunts. His breath is fast, faster, and then slow. He is exhausted. Then he breaks into a smile. He is rescued.

I am not sure if Mathieu translated the story or if I imagined it. It was about a solo performance in his apartment in Beijing; he made a box just large enough to climb into and sit cross-legged, he became stuck, his friend was out of town for several weeks, he made the biggest noise he could. He was terrified. Luckily, neighbors heard him, or his friend might have come home to a terrible smell.

Zhang Huan has just returned from Japan where he went to look at the site for his next performance, in Yokohama. He opens a manilla file-folder and shuffles through 4x6 photographs, as though through a deck of cards. He points to a photo of a small pagoda- a pavilion.

ZH : The pagoda’s blue, in faux marble. The other part is introduced by several men wearing suits, like serious bankers, who will carry a sculpture of myself in the nude, made from polyester resin, which is in the shape of a calligraphy brush. This piece is a quite special for me, because it talks about the things that China and Japan have in common. Japan is newer than China, but they share many things, and I have mixed them together in this work. The pavilion image is from the former Imperial Palace in China- The Palace of Peaceful Longevity- and the carved floor is from the Xishang Pavilion, which is in a city named Shao Xing, where my wife grew up. The city is a famous calligraphy center, because there was a big master who lived there. Every spring, there is a very popular festival in this place, which attracts many calligraphers from around the country, who come to write and read poems. They also clean their brushes in a special ceremony. I have notes that I made from those visits, which describe a cup-floating canal in Xishang Pavilion. Wine cups would be floated along the winding 10 centimetre deep canal, cut into the rock floor during the festival, meant to cleanse away evil influences. This work will be different from my previous performances because I shall leave behind the sculpture of myself. It will hang from the center of the pagoda, after the performance, and will remain for the three month duration of the triennale. The sculpture tableau will have a continuous stream of pink smoke coming from under the canopy. Pink for me represents Japan, while China is red. Pink has less presence, but it is also sexy and more modern.

The original idea, Zhang Huan tells me, was to have two teams of Kung Fu fighters, one Chinese and one Japanese, engage in battle in front of the structure. But then he went to China and met martial arts instructors at the academy, who told him such a flight would be hopeless, because, they said, even the lowest level Chinese martial artists was superior to the highest qualified Japanese fighter.

This would become a pattern in our discussion; all performances have a Plan A and a Plan B. The first, the grand vision, is a fantastical expression of desire, a visual spectacle, reaching for the impossible, no limitations. Plan B is the performance that actually took place. It is the very essence of the original idea, distilled, made literal, made possible. He describes the two as part of a thought process, a series of mental sketches that incorporate physical longing for flashes of colour and countryside, a grandmother’s story, an outsider’s attempt to harness a heap of sensations, and make them beautiful. In his earliest performances, in China, the choices were entirely his own. Nine bodies on a mountain top, forty people in a body of water, a single seated figure in a latrine. Sometimes, as in the case of a work entitled Rubens (2000) he asked the curator Jan Hoet to choose.

ZH : Jan Hoet invited me to make a piece in Gent, which is not far from Antwerp, the hometown of the painter Rubens, This was very interesting for me since I had a special connection to the artist. When I was a nineteen years old student in He Nan, my art history teacher told us that Rubens had created the most wonderful red in the whole world. Ruben’s red, he said is the most powerful red in the history of art. Later, when I became a teacher, I showed my students reproductions and said, "This is Ruben’s red; the most powerful red in the history of art". Ruben’s red, I told them is layered, it has many dimensions. Chinese red is flat. This is what I was thinking about in Gent.

Plan A was for the piece to take place in a large courtyard attached to a church, to cover the floor with hay, to have chickens and ducks running around, and for me to sit at the base of a large column, with a newborn calf on top of the column. Plan B was the Ruben’s story. This was Jan Hoet’s choice. It involved 60 people, all wearing 17th century clothes. Ten horses, ten riders. It took place in a huge barn adjacent to the church. In the beginning, all these people were behind the scenes. Then 20 people dressed as monks entered, each person holding an empty red clay pot, their heads bowed. They were accompanied by Tibetan folk music, which almost sounds like speaking.

In the background you see two couples being married by a priest, and at the same time ten horses gallop through the space, disrupting the ceremony. Two horsemen take off with the brides on horseback. In my mind was Ruben’s painting The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1618. The performance was based on my impressions of Rubens and his many assistants. Everyone wanted to wear grand clothes from the period, but I wanted to turn Rubens into a pauper, to tear off his clothes. I also wanted to present a feminist reading of Rubens. For his wife, the models, to pull off his clothes and take revenge on him for all the rapes depicted in his paintings.

The hour-long work ended with Zhang Huan dropping from a central beam, onto the stage, wearing clothes from the period, which he removes. On a backdrop of white canvas, he drew an horizon line, and wrote in red and black, Chinese and Roman characters, the words from Tang Dynasty poet, Li Shang Yin: "Sunset is so beautiful, but it is close to dusk. A very famous poem in China", Zhang says. "It’s about getting older, about beautiful things ending. It’s very sad".

Zhang Huan’s recent performance are visually stunning and rich in content. They are filled with his past, in China, and with his present, in New York or Gent, or wherever he may be. What does it mean to have grown up in a communal society in rural China? "Twenty years in the countryside", he said, " are inscribed in my bones". Born in An’ Yang City, He Nan Province, in 1965, Zhang Huan spent his first eight years living with his paternal grandmother in the countryside, as did his three brothers. His grandmother had a small parcel of her own land, about a half hour from the house. At eight years old he re-joined his parents in An’ Yang City, a teeming metropolis of almost five million people with a history of 3,000 years. An’ Yang used to be one of the seven ancient capitals of China. "I was a wild child in the classroom", Zhang Huan says of school in An’ Yang. "I couldn’t stay indoors. I wasn’t interested in the subjects, I was always asked to leave the room. I drew all the time". His father had an elementary school education, as did his mother. "At the time, if you could write a letter, or read the newspaper, that was considered respectable", Zhang Huan said. His father became an accountant at a factory. His mother taught elementary school and later became a guard at a factory gate.

ZH : My America (1999), initially entitled Hard to Acclimatize, was based on a small Indian sculpture (a twelfth century Jain Relief from Rajputana) at the Seattle Museum, which I wanted to reconstruct in some way. A three-tiered scaffold to resemble the three rows of figures in the sculpture was built. Then fifty six naked Americas of various ages and backgrounds were invited to participate. They were given twelve instructions, such as Lie Face Down on the Floor and Do Not Move, Act and Sound like Animals, or Climb the Scaffold. There were many references in this piece- to Tibetan Buddhism, to Tai Chi- and the work was about the contrast between ancient spiritual practices and the spiritual poverty of modern American society. The daily monotony of going to work, making bread, and the pointless of it all at the end of the day.

Spirituality in China? Wasn’t it outruled by Mao during the cultural revolution?

ZH : During the cultural revolution, you could not engage in religious ceremonies publicly, but such activities continues inside the house. Spiritualism was acted out in various Chinese festivals and ceremonies. Every year for example, we would make an altar in the home to honor the New Year. We would light incense, paste prayers in the form of posters on the walls of the house, take a meal to the graves of our ancestors. Most small towns had spirits which were worshiped. You might go to the mountain to pray for a son to be born. Actually, I come from one of the highest areas of Buddhist concentration and my biggest spiritual influence was Tibetan Buddhism.

My America was Zhang Huan’s second live performance in America. The first was included in an exhibition of New Chinese Art at P.S.1 in Long Island City, New York in 1998, just two months after he arrived in the United States. A solo work, it took place outdoors in a courtyard. Pilgrimage- Wind and Water in New York was, in many ways, "very Chinese", An ornate throne- like bed was its center- piece, the sound of Tibetan gongs was its musical accompaniment, and Zhang Huan’s hands, pressed together, his flowing orange trousers and his shaved head, gave the work a Buddhistic air. Except for the dogs of course. Ten different breeds were tied to the bed where Zhang Huan lay prostrate, on blocks of ice. The imagery, Zhang Huan Said, was about coming to America. The dogs were a way of acknowledging his new situation.

My America was Zhang Huan’s first piece made entirely in America, and its confident title, given to the work by the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, belied its more disturbing aspects which dealt with the difficulty of integration. Hard to Acclimatize, the original title, was a more accurate description of how the artist felt about his status in America. It was also considered too American by some critics, no doubt because of the implied criticism of the artist’s host country. In this aspect only, it resembled Joseph Beuys Coyote; I love America and America loves me (1974) in which the German artist and a wild coyote shared a room in a New York gallery for one week, as a symbolic protest against the treatment of native American-Indians by early settlers on the continent, and the continuing disregard for this group. How differently Zhang Huan’s work might have been received if all participants were Chinese; it would have appeared as an exotic important, an elegant tableau of entirely foreign bodies. By using Americans, as with Beuys indigenous coyote, both artists created a superior vantage point from which to condemn certain moral and cultural practices in the United States. Both live performances were radical in the way that they expressed the artist’s disapproval of a range of behaviours in this country. Each work instantly raised the artist above their "outsider" status.

Without saying so exactly, My America was Zhang Huan’s way of protesting the racism that was frequently directed at him in the States. He told a somewhat oblique story as to how he decided on the final scene of the performance (but which made his feelings perfectly clear), which involved all 56 participants hurling loaves of bread at his head.

ZH : Up until the day of the performance, I hadn’t really figured out the end. But I recalled an incident in New York when I first arrived. I was walking near Penn Station. I remember my wife was pregnant at the time and a perfect stranger offered me some bread. I suppose the person thought I looked hungry. I was really shocked.

My America and subsequently My Australia (2000) and My Japan (2001), show an artist on the move, far from his own culture, his homeland, his mother tongue. Marco Polo in reverse. The artist as outsider, attempting always to find a way in. But Zhang Huan says he was always an outsider: as a country boy in a city school, as an applicant for college, when his "backward" background made it difficult for him to pass the required entry exams, and, in 1991, at age 26, when he moved to Beijing, abandoned traditional painting and began solo performances that were executed in the nude and frequently involved extreme endurance and danger. Before he moved to Beijing he says, he was quite a conservative artist. Once there, he changed completely. He met artists who had lived abroad, he read articles and books on avant-garde art in New York and London. Chris Burden- I loved the extreme risk of his work; Laurie Anderson, I love her work because it is so intellectual, and because she always dreams of the future. Marina Abramovic and Ti-hching Hsieh, with their extreme acts of endurance and self inflicted wounds (in the case of Abramovic) were also important models. He learned about New York’s East Village art scene, so that when he joined a group of artists who lived in a run-down area in West Beijing, they changed the sign on the road-way to East Village, and, in 1993, he met Gilbert & George at a museum opening of their retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing. The British artists would later visit Zhang Huan in his apartment studio. Suffice it to say these things together electrified him and inspired him to confront his world from an entirely new perspective, in performances where his body was prime material, and where the social and political environment of China was the very matrix of his work.

Zhang Huan’s early performances such as Angel (1993) , in which he emptied an urn filled with red paint and doll’s body parts over his head (a reference to the frequent abortions of many young women of his generation, who were forced to take such measures), 12 Square Meters (1994) in which he sat in a filthy latrine for an hour, in silent protest against the fly infested public toilets in Beijing, and 65 Kilograms (1994), in which he suspended himself from the ceiling in his apartment, and slowly dripped his own blood into a metal bowl to concentrate the blood and spread the stench, were shocking for their masochism and for the harrowing daily experiences which they implicitly critiqued. No one can escape cruelty, neither myself, nor the audience, Zhang Huan says. Once the audience members step into the site of the performance, they become involved in the reality before their eyes. They have nowhere to escape, just as they have no way to escape reality. To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) or To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), on the other hand, were quite pastoral, even literary. Executed in the countryside where he was most comfortable, they would be his final performances before he left China for good.

ZH : The early works- from conception to execution- were so simple. They didn’t involve any people beside the participants, and the feeling was one of great freedom- to be able to make such pieces in a situation where there was so much pressure from all around. The body performances were a necessity for me. The mountain and the pond pieces were also a necessity- they came from my need to be in the countryside. Making the Anonymous Mountain One Meter Higher was inspired by an old saying Beyond the mountain, there are more mountains, which is about humility. Climb this mountain, and you will find an even bigger mountain in front of you. Raising the Water Level of a Fishpond was an extension of this idea. It’s about changing the natural state of things, about the notion of possibilities.

Since coming West, Zhang Huan’s performances have become far more layered, and are composed of several parts. He says that in the early days, a performance would be a single action, whereas now he is more likely to combine seven or eight such actions, so that his most recent performances are a sum of several parts.

ZH : In China, I was doing things for myself. Now people invite me to perform, to become a cultural event. I have a job to do. I try to understand each new situation. I combine impressions of China, with local culture, what people call glocal. It’s about going from one place to another, and bringing what you have to offer to each new place. Sometimes I understand the experience, sometimes not.

Zhang Huan’s recently commissioned performances are each a vehicle for him to become engaged in any given geographical location. He is the consummate traveler. As soon as he is invited to present a work, he begins his research and visits the new site armed with information. He then starts to make plans. On his visit to Santiago de Compostela last fall, he video taped the medieval pilgrimage town, with its 40 churches, which he would take back to New York.

ZH : When I visited a church there, a very formal and serious ceremony was taking place. I had never seen anything like it before. I was struck especially by the incense balls carried by the priests, which flashed by so beautifully. I became obsessed by the idea of incense burners, and decided to immerse myself in a giant one, made of bones. It would be a way to cleanse myself of all iniquities, and to attain a new body and soul. It will appear as though a Buddha is sitting inside the incense ball of Christianity.

Zhang Huan describes a work that will be both awesome and interesting, and imagines a totally new experience awaiting him, when he performs it amongst hundreds of pilgrims. My responses are instinctual, everything emerges intuitively Zhang says of his creative process. Sometimes I think I was born into the wrong era. Making art is a primitive act for me, Zhang adds, suggesting that his is an unfiltered, visceral response to places and situations. It is not the primitive act of a Paul McCarthy, whom Zhang Huan finds too American and too obsessed with seeing humanity at its most abject and dejected, but a primitive born of responses to physical and emotional settings that he translates into visual tableau, relying on his background as a traditional painter for compositional and aesthetic direction.

Zhang Huan’ s solo exhibition in New York in 1999 comprised colour photographs of performances he had made in China over the previous five years. Boldly framed, larger than life, head shaven and naked, he appeared front-center in most of them. The blues (of water, of sky) were a powdery turquoise; the pinks (of flesh), peach pink. Also available for viewing were cleanly edited, straight-forward video tapes of each performance. The stories behind the photographs. They were devoid of spectacle or any particular grace. They were documentary back-ups, background information, to the moment captured in the seductive surface of each finely produced image. The photographs on the other hand were instantly iconic. Indeed, Zhang Huan’s pictures- especially the image of forty men and a baby To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond which appeared on posters and catalogue covers for the Inside Out exhibition in New York- became visual headliners for Chinese art of the late nineties; they declared the emergence of a new, globally savvy and socially aware generation. They were also original and potent calling-cards for the artist. Zhang Huan’s large photographs are objects unto themselves, carefully designed containers for huge amounts of information, on China, on the biography of the artist, on humanistic and universal value systems. Any suggestion of time passing, of process, of the ephemerality of an event, has been completely edited out. Instead, these photographs are the objects of performance, and as such are evidence of the artist’s visual strengths, of his background as a classically trained painter with a passion for Jean-Francois Millet and Rembrandt, and of his desire to compose emotionally evocative pictures that echo thematically and visually, the impact of such masters of form and content.

That Zhang Huan’s art straddles several worlds at once is an indication of his talent as an image maker, and the intensity of his character. In conversation, he is deeply focused, lyrical and buoyant. He exhibits a fierce awareness of the moment, yet seems always to be measuring it against an under-current that connects him to his past, other pasts. There is an acute awareness of the dailiness of life, which he examines within a larger Buddhist like mindfulness. His dream, he says, is to take humanity’s problems and clean them up. Such is the inspiration for his most recent performance in Santiago de Compastela. The poignancy of communal ceremony- people arriving from across the world, bearing incense and wishes, to gather in a mountain city of 40 churches- really moves him.

For today, Zhang Huan has one last story. It’s an old Chinese story- How Yukong Moved the Mountain- which was used by Mao to explain his land-ownership policy. It’s about an old man, and how every time he wants to go anywhere, he has to go around the mountain. He decides to get rid of the mountain, no matter how long it takes. This story is the grain of a Plan A project; Zhang Huan would like to move a mountain from his home town in China, to somewhere near the water, to Europe or the United States.

ZH : I’d like to take it apart, piece by piece, and reconstruct it elsewhere, in a different material, like steel. I would write the story of How Yukong Moved the Mountain, on its surface. It’s about the spirit of conquering the unconquerable. I want to make work so people can be moved by a sense of the possible.