By Mary Jane Jacob
Zhang Huan, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, University of California Press, 2004, USA
Zhang Huan (ZH): Some people ask me: "You are Buddhist?" Inside, I’m a Buddhist; outside, I’m an artist. You know, Buddhism emphasizes Buddha should always exist in your mind.
Mary Jane Jacob (MJJ): This is a conundrum for the Western mind, contradictory and difficult to understand. D.T. Suzuki, who had so much influence on American ideas of Buddhism and was a direct link to the artist John Cage, put it like this:
To reach the goal of Zen, even the idea of "having nothing" ought to be done away with. Buddha reveals himself when he is not more asserted; that is, for Buddha’s sake Buddha is to be given up. This is the only way to come to the realization of the truth of Zen. So long as one is talking of nothingness or of the absolute one is far away from Zen, and ever receding from Zen. (1)
Can you explain how you see the meaning of this?
ZH: Shakyamuni [Buddha] wanted to find a road which can free birth and death. He was a prince, lived in a rich kingdom and had a comfortable life; unfortunately, he was unhappy. When he saw human’s birth, old age, illness, death, life’s impermanence and nothingness, the human caught in fear, Buddha understood. He told us that all things you see are just virtual images, all things will leave you. No matter how famous or rich or beautiful you are, those things are only displayed as form or shape, but actually are empty. Zen provides a way to deal with this world, to face tragedy, to alleviate suffering in our lives, to keep silence in the heart and have a peaceful mind.
It’s like with my early piece 12 Square Meters (1994): nothing to do, just sit there. No action, no performance, but at the same time, it was everything. Something simple is much more, more may be very simple. When I sat on the public toilet, local people saw me, but they didn’t understand what was happening. They thought it was strange: "Why does he sit there?"
MJJ: Did you understand what was happening at the time?
ZH: At that moment I just wanted to really know: "What is my life?" The public toilet was really my life. Every day I used it. So I sat there because I wanted to forget my life, my body. When I sat on the toilet, my spirit left my body; my brain, my brain, my mind, left my body. I forgot everything. Sometimes, when the flies were on my body, biting me, my mind came back, and then again at the end of the hour, my mind came back.
MJJ: Some critics, in writing about your work, have called your actions expressions of the futility of life and your performances masochistic feats of endurance. Do you agree?
ZH: You know the piece called To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), I wanted to make the mountain one meter higher. To make this work, I looked at many different mountains outside Beijing and picked this specific mountain. I liked this mountain. My friends piled up their naked bodies on top of the mountain one meter tall. But when we left, the mountain was the same as before. It was the same mountain that existed before the mountain piece.
But before that I was going to be in a steel box 80 by 80 centimeters and put this box on the mountain. Inside the box, I would sit cross-legged, like a Buddhist monk. That was the original idea: to sit there for twenty-four hours on the mountain. But the day before I was to do this, I was in my friend’s apartment. After eating dumplings, I got in the box and as I went in the clasp fell over the ring of the lock, and I became trapped inside. I tried hard to get out; I tried to move my body to one side to knock it over but there was no way. After five or six minutes, I got very nervous and began to call very loudly to someone--anyone. There were only two small openings in the box, on the left and right sides. I kept calling, yelling the apartment number. If the window in the apartment had been totally closed, no one would have heard me and my friend would have come back to a very bad smell in his house. But someone did come and got me out of the box. I went quickly outside for air and, at that moment, I had the feeling of life. It was a transformation. This was a very important experience in my life. I never felt this way before. I can have no money, food, everything, but to have life is a very important thing and to understand that when you’re dead there will be no life.
MJJ: How do you share that knowledge gained from your own deep experience with your audience?
ZH: The audience in China didn’t really understand me. They said: "He is not an artist. He should be in a mental hospital. Art is painting, sculpture, theater, dance. He does not make art." So I had to work underground in China. Here, in the United States, there are public spaces for performance. But I think people don’t really understand either. After the performance they say: "That was wonderful, beautiful." I don’t know if they really understand or not.
MJJ: So has moving to the United States changed your art?
ZH: My art, along with my life, always changes. 12 Square Meters I did in Beijing. In September 1998 I moved to New York; in New York there is no public toilet. One month later, when I was asked to do a work at P.S. 1, I did the piece Pilgrimage--Wind and Water in New York , a performance that ended with me lying naked on a block of ice on top of a Chinese bed with dogs all around. Here in America there is deep feeling for dogs, but it is a strange feeling to me. I never saw this in China. Here people give dogs toy bones; in China we have real bones. Here, people go around cleaning up after dogs with bags in the street, talking on the street to other dogs, treating a dog like a baby. In China, a dog is an animal, not human, not family. So, I asked myself: Why are dogs with people? I thought: people need to be together with this animal because they need life, because people are not close to people. Dogs are like friends, like children.
MJJ: So do you do such performances because you feel there is a necessity on the part of the audience for direct experience? you need to do works that are directly experienced by you so that others can have experience watching you?
ZH: I made a sculpture three years later, in 2001, based on my body in the P.S. 1 performance, a figure lying face down in water [ Pilgrimage ]. It is an interactive work: in the winter, the water keeps the form of the body as art, but in the summer, when the water is not frozen, I want people to just have a drink. It is also like a death bed and it can be compared to the Chinese bed in the original performance. I wanted to take the concept of the moment of the performance and make a sculpture. I think of this as a longer performance. It never stops. It never ends. I hope more people will see this sculpture and know it.
But for me, after a performance, it is like a big stone is lifted from my heart. Every time it is like this and every time it is always different. Flies, ice, bread, bloodletting---I need the feeling, this feeling close to my heart. After the performance I can know what happened. I can know my body. The body is the language: Where am I from? Who am I?
MJJ: Do you find an answer to that question of who you are?
ZH: I believe my life is not my choice. Life is not your choice. Like the tomatoes in front of us---we can eat them now because in April I planted them here in my garden. Why am I a man, you a woman? Why was I born in China, you in the U.S.? Why are some children born to a rich family, some to a homeless family? In my art, I want to change life but I know I can’t change things. Like in Pilgrimage--Wind and Water in New York , I wanted my body to change the ice to water but the ice changed me: my body went from warm to cooler. And so, is that a lesson for life? Yes, it is the same concept: my life cannot change.
Everything that happens was already decided five thousand years ago. We can’t change life. Even change was decided before. We can change things--so bad things can get better--but that change was already decided before. Like Buddhism says: even now happened before. Everything happened in the past. But Buddha also told people what you are doing will decide what is your future; good will be rewarded with good, and evil with evil. When the time of death comes, the body will decay and disappear; only good and evil will follow your spirit.
In another way I have made works that are perpetual, cyclical. Buddha Never Down (2003) is a large ball in a gallery that you push but it comes back. It is related to to a work made a year earlier in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, Pilgrimage to Santiago (2001) based on the form of an incense ball. I was naked inside this huge round cage that rolled around the cathedral square of this town where Christian pilgrims have come for centuries. In Brazil in the same year, I did a work called Gui Tuo Bei (Move the Mountain by Fool) based on the story of the foolish man moving mountains. It was a pillar with the image of a turtle with my face and, on top of that, a dragon head. Chinese people knew immediately the story of the fool.
MJJ: But at the same time, do you want---do you hope that your art can change people’s lives?
ZH: I hope. But I can’t do it. It is my dream: I hope from art there will be change. I hope to change my life. I don’t know about other people’s lives. But even if I can’t do it, when I do my art I get to know more what it means that I can’t change life.
I made a work last year called Big Buddha (2002). It is a six-meter-tall seated skeleton of a Buddha. The figure has a tailbone and is holding a one-meter-high stone figure of me, the artist. The rib cage of the Buddha is made of pear tree. I found this pear tree and the farmers in Shandong, China, helped me cut it down, get it out, and dry the wood. I worked closely with them for nine months, ten people, to make this---everything done by hand. Normally people go to the temple and they love these big Buddha sculptures. Big Buddha can make things happen for humans. But now, the big Buddha is a big question. Are they still working for us or not? How are they working? Can they help people? Can people help? Maybe they can get stronger. I hope to work to make things better. That is the idea of Big Buddha . And then, I had an alternate title-- Lost Body ; I am thinking of the death of people, maybe giving new life or life getting old and becoming dead. So we used dead material, stone, to make the living being, and we used living material, a tree, to make the dead skeleton figure of Buddha. Maybe Big Buddha hopes that we don’t lose out body.
MJJ: Another change you have advocated is for contemporary life to slow down.
ZH: Life should be slow--even stop--because this will be better for us as humans. People will be happier when slower, like this turtle. In the mountains they hear the wind, birds. It is more natural.
I also think there are traditional roots to preserve related to culture. In the countryside in China, in the traditional ideas that I grew up with living with my grandmother, everyone believed in Buddhism. If something bad happened, they went to the temple. They told the Buddha what they wanted. So big Buddha brings babies, for instance. It is still the same. Just change the bottle, but always drink the same wine. No change. But today, getting bigger is not really good for people. Small house is more comfortable, more happy. In a big house, you start getting nervous--feng shui--not good for the family. Like a big body, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the human body is too heavy, too heavy for the heart. Bad things happen.
I want to keep great traditional things, not for China and New York to become the same in the future, but because there are traditional roots important to preserve for human culture. In the work Keep Rooting (2003), I use a traditional Chinese tree of welcome with an eagle on top and the body of person coming out the sunroof of a car and going up into the tree. The tree is pine; it is the traditional Chinese tree of welcome. We can see this kind of tree image in many Chinese paintings and sculptures from the past.
MJJ: Buddhism takes its central notion that we are born into suffering. As we live in this world, do you think art can ease our suffering?
ZH: Yes. Art, to many people, to me, is another kind of religion---art lovers, Christians, Buddhists---People need a feeling to save themselves, to ease suffering, to live lighter. When we enjoy great artwork, we get happiness which nothing else can replace. In Zen, when we learn and practice the sutra’s wisdom, we get Zen’s enjoyment. I appreciate art giving me a living way.
MJJ: So do we need Buddhism now more than before?
ZH: Buddhism for human is a dream. Buddhists can’t change anything. It is just a dream---But it is a good dream. A human is a human, always the same as before. If people live in Buddhism, they can make life better for themselves, calm themselves down, clean the mind. They can help other persons, finally everyone---I hope---to forget himself or herself.
(1) Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, An introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), 54-55.