By Pernilla Holmes
Zhang Huan: Buddha, Published by Haunch of Venison, 2008, UK

ISBN: 978-1-905620-19-7

Beyond Buddha,
Zhang Huan in Conversation with Pernilla Holmes

In 2004, an image appeared in Zhang Huan’s work for the first time: the figure of Buddha. The installation was called Dharma Circle , and would mark the start of a new means of expression in his work. It would be another year before he would go through the ritual of becoming a Buddhist himself, and two more before Buddha would proliferate through a variety of media within his oeuvre.

Returning to China from New York in 2005 has brought greater depth to Zhang Huan’s exploration of Buddhism and its meanings. During trips around Tibet , China and Southeast Asia , he has found broken-up, dismembered bits of copper, bronze and gold Buddha statues that were damaged and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and possibly beyond. Taking them back to his Shanghai studio, he lives with them, contemplates them and ultimately re-works them into vast sculptures, often two or three stories high, that confront viewers in a very different way from his earlier performance works.

In 2007 Zhang Huan was invited to create a sculptural installation in the courtyard of London ’s Royal Academy of th Arts, the heart of the British art world since 1768. There he installed the Three-Legged Buddha , a gargantuan, sprawling, copper behemoth, cut off at the torso, with its extra leg stepping out onto a human head.

At the same time, in Haunch of Venison’s Berlin gallery, another manifestation of Zhang Huan’s interest in Buddha took place. Berlin Buddha , a four-metre high sculpture made from compacted incense ash, sat opposite the aluminium mould from whcih it had been cast. At the exhibition opening the artist removed the final aluminium plate from the ash Buddha’s face, causing the figure’s head to crash spectacularly to the floor. The rest of the ash figure was left to crumble slowly over the course of the exhibition,a meditation on the ephemerality of life.

The following conversation took place at the time of these exhibitions, on the subject of what Buddha means to Zhang Huan and within his recent work. While the Three-Legged Buddha and Berlin Buddha invite various socio-political readings of these works, what is perhaps most striking is Zhang Huan’s uncompromising humanism, an insistence on foregrounding compassion, pain and transcendence over religion and politics. In discussing the works, the artist quotes the passage of samsara : ‘Buddha is Human, and Human is Buddha’, bringing both a simplicity and a gravity to these works that moves beyond borders and beliefs.

Pernilla Holmes: You began addressing Buddha, and by extension Buddhism, as a subject matter in your work in 2004. When did you become a Buddhist?

Zhang Huan: I became a Ju Shi Buddhist (meaning a Buddhist who lives at home) three years ago. My master gave me a Buddhist name – ‘ci ren’. A young couple from Jiangsu Province were given their Buddhist names at the same time – ‘ci tian’ and ‘ci di’ respectively. Thus, we three together are ‘tian’ (meaning the sky), ‘di’ (meaning the earth) and ‘ren’ (meaning the human). But I feel that in some way I’ve always been Buddhist – that it’s part of my destiny. The naming is just a ritual, though ritual is important, as we know.

Buddhism makes me feel peaceful and calm, and encourages a deeper understanding of impermanence and causality more deeply.

Pernilla Holmes: This ‘calm’ seems to fit with how your work is developing. The ‘ash’ works, for example, have a meditative quality that feels very different from your more confrontational performance works.

Zhang Huan: The development of my work is coincidental with my spiritual development. I believe my early performance works also have a still or meditative quality. After becoming Buddhist, however, I have created more works that directly take Buddha as their subject. In these works, you can feel a stronger sense of that calm or meditative quality, and a deeper spiritual significance in them as well.

Pernilla Holmes: Such as cultural significances perhaps? Buddha has so many varied traditions and associations around the world. Do you want your works to address these histories and traditions?

Zhang Huan: For me, I don’t think I’m making ‘Buddha’ works as such, but expressing humanity and the meaning of life through the form of Buddhist figures.

Pernilla Holmes: And yet Tibetan Buddhas, for example, are very important in your work. The bits of sculptures you found there are seriously damaged, raising the issue of the desecration of Tibetan temples, monasteries and the items inside by the Chinese government. It could be argued that enlarging these damaged objects seems to give your work a political edge.

Zhang Huan: Actually, I never care about politics, I just focus on art and life. What I really care about are the problems that all humans have to face together. Traffic accidents may cause people disabilty; violence may cause inury; wars kill innocent people; disasters result in homeless and broken families. These damaged states make me think about the fragility of the human.

Pernilla Holmes: Still, Tibet seems to have been an important part of the development of Buddha in your work – particularly the large sculptures such as the Three-Legged Buddha that you exhibited at the Royal Academy . It was in Tibet that you found the original object that the sculpture is based on.

Zhang Huan: Yes, most of these objects were found in Tibet , though some were from southeast Asia. For me personally, Tibet is a very powerful place. The particular environment – the tough, altiplano geography and climate – creates a kind of supernatural power. Facing such demonic nature, choking and difficult to live within, the Tibetan people look to a more powerful force to confront nature. The force is Buddha. For the Tibetan people, the meaning of life is death, and death is life. For rebirth, they spend two years on a pilgrimage to their holy land from their native villages.

In May 2005 when I was in Tibet , and went to Bakor Street in Lhasa , I was lucky to find a stub of a gold-plated statue’s lower torso. The legs on this Buddha statue spanned 40 centimetres across. The craftsmanship was impeccable, but the surface was completely beaten up and the original gold plating barely visible. In Tibetan Buddha statues, the upper torsos are typically composed with ‘three heads and six arms’ or ‘a thousand-arms’, or after ‘Joy Buddha’. During the Cultural Revolution, this stub was stolen from a monastery and since then has been passed around common society. For a long time this stub sat in my studio, and every time I looked at it I was moved by its mysterious power. These figures have traces of history in themselves, and a belief in life as well, just like human bodies.

Pernilla Holmes: I’d love to hear more about Lhasa and Bakor Street , where this object was found…

Zhang Huan: Lhasa is the holy land for Buddhism, where Potala Palace and Da Zhao Temple are situated. Bakor Street is on the west side of the plaza of Da Zhao Temple . Many people there are pilgrims who have come from all over Tibet . Each carries with them a prayer wheel (mani scripture wheel) in their hand, turning it clockwise ceaselessly and muttering the magic words, Om Mani Padme Hum constantly. These words are printed inside the prayer wheel. As such, turning the wheel all the way substitutes reading the words aloud numerous times. In this way Tibetan pilgrims think they can prolong their lives, and approach samsara early. On my way to Na Mu Cuo Lake, I found a small house built of stone and clay. I was curious so I stepped inside the house, and was surprised to discover a huge prayer wheel, powered by water, that turns endlessly. Such cleverness and wisdom.

Pernilla Holmes: Going back to the Three-Legged Buddha , it sounds like the original, dismembered object had two legs, while your sculpture has three. And it is stepping on a human head. Why?

Zhang Huan: In my early ‘ East Village ’ period, I made an experimental work, in which I fixed another leg, a black plastic mannequin leg, to my left leg so that I then had three legs. This third leg I considered as the origin of life and a symbol of mythical power.

I think of the Three-Legged Buddha as somewhat like a monster from outer space; and the half-head as like a soul flying out of hell. The work demonstrates the confrontation between these two kinds of powers, and a relationship between the dominant and the dominated. Mao Zedong once said that where there are pressures, there are resistances.

Pernilla Holmes: The copper surface you use is very sensual, sometimes quite uneven. You mentioned the original found object was gold-plated. Do these surfaces have special meaning?

Zhang Huan: There are several kinds of materials used for traditional Buddha sculptures: bronze, wood, clay, and copper. Usually these Buddha sculptures are gold-plated or coloured. Most Buddha figures in India and Tibet are made of copper, that is to say, made by a coppersmith then, usually, gold-plated. But for me, I like to keep the original quality of copper and the traces of welding, and also try to endow it with a language of painting on its surface. The copper seems to me to possess the rawness of sealed skin, after it has been opened up and exposed.

Pernilla Holmes: When you finished installing Three-Legged Buddha you burnt a large amount of incense in the heart of the Buddha, the smoke seeping out through holes in the toes. It had the aura of an initiation rite.

ZH: I first proposed to burn incense in the leg throughout the course of the exhibition. Because of safety regulations the Royal Academy could not allow this. So, I made this ‘initiation’ on the morning it opened to the public. I hope the Three-Legged Buddha has good fortune, a good Ming Yun (meaning ‘fate’). The Chinese word for fate is composed by two characters: Ming and Yun (‘destiny’ and ‘luck’). The relationship between Ming and Yun is akin to that of the road and the car. Ming is destined, while Yun can be changed. Ultimately, however, Yun is decided by Ming. I want the Buddha to bring good fortune to London .

Pernilla Holmes: Now you have seen it installed, do you feel the sculpture works well in the very grand, very English courtyard of the Royal Academy ?

Zhang Huan: I remember when we were trying to install the Three-Legged Buddha , curator Norman Rosenthal said humorously that the Three-Legged Buddha obviously implies London’s occupation by Oriental culture.

My monster from the Orient appears so inconsonant and incompatible with the London environment. It seems that he can jump over the sky and into the earth at any moment. When I saw a professor talking with his students about this work, I really had no idea about what was he talking about. In the centre of the courtyard, there stands a bronze statue of the famous President of the Royal Academy (founder Sir Joshua Reynolds), holding a paint brush and palette in his hands. He looks as if he is commanding the monster to act radically.

Pernilla Holmes: I thought he looked very dwarfed by it. The contrast was extraordinary – seeing one of British art’s great icons so overwhelmed by relics of a Buddha from a different world. You yourself have also come a long way since growing up in rural, Maoist China. What was it like – for example, was your family religious?

Zhang Huan: When I was little, I lived together with my grandmother and uncle, in the countryside of Henan Province . Like everyone, we were poor – my school had no windows and only concrete benches – it was very cold in winter. We wore blue Maoist uniforms, and I climbed trees to pick fruits to help feed my family.

Every year before the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), we had to go to the cemetery to “invite” my dead grandmother and ancestors to celebrate the New Year with us at home. Before dinner, we put the dumplings and other foods in front of the photos of our ancestors, waiting until they had finished. Then we could have our meal. We also burned incense in their memory.

I went with my family to temples when I was young, but I could not understand these things at the time. Still, they were already part of my life and culture.

Pernilla Holmes: It’s very different for you now – you have a huge and impressive studio complex, with over 100 assistants whom you also house and feed. How has this helped you to realise your increasingly ambitious works?

Zhang Huan: My studio operates according to a model of collective/collaborative practice. For different types of work, we have different divisions. We have young artists graduated from art colleges, traditional craftsmen, welders, electricians and woodworkers, etc. I’m doing my best to discover what everyone is good at, to motivate them and integrate their wisdoms and creativities into my own creation. By giving them a more relaxed space for thinking, the pattern of collective working can be more effective.

On a practical level, for works like the Three-Legged Buddha , first I make preliminary drawings, then maquettes, and then when I’m sure of what I want I invite specialist craftsmen to enlarge the model to the size and effect that I’ve envisioned.

Pernilla Holmes: I’d like to explore more how moving back to China has impacted on your work both practically and spiritually. I understand that when you left New York , after living there for eight years, you felt tired of it and uninspired. Has Shanghai/China given you new energy and ideas?

Zhang Huan: After moving back to China , my work has become more and more free, relaxed and confident. I think this is related to my horizon and experience. Here I’m in my stride, and I can make key decisions about my work in seconds.

China today is so active and dynamic, especially compared with European Communism’s long dormancy and America ’s sleepiness. China is at present a country that needs no rest. There are no lazy people in China . Even the thieves are working hard.

Pernilla Holmes: It’s also since you moved back to China that you started making works out of different kinds of incense ash, such as the Berlin Buddha. What does ash represent for you?

Zhang Huan: At first when I went to temples to burn incense, I always prayed for myself. Later, I learnt to pray for my family and all the staff in my studio. Now, when I am in the temple, I pray for the peace and harmony of all humans and for our Earth. This is also the process that Buddhism aims to enact, passing from the state of ‘big ego’ to ‘small ego’, and finally ‘no ego’. But it is easy to return to the state of ‘big ego’, which is why we need to dedicate ourselves to self-improvement.

More generally, everybone in temples prays for different things: some pray to have children, some for the safety of their family, some for health, some for good luck or good fortune, for getting through difficulties, and some for professional success. The world in the temple is a world of hopes.

Life is different. In hospitals we witness struggles against illness and death. When you see a young mother touching a cold stone Buddha foot, muttering for hours; when you see an old cat, trying his best to suck the water tap; or when you walk through a dim narrow alley late at night and see a homeless person already asleep, these are the moments in which you see life at its most real.

Pernilla Holmes: It seems extraordinarily powerful to harness other people’s hopes in your sculptures through using the ash that comes from their prayers.

Zhang Huan; I first brought ashes from Shanghai Jing An Temple to my studio two years ago. I can hardly describe my feeling at the time. My colleagues and I all fell on our knees in front of the ash. For me, ash is not a material or a medium, but something that expresses a collective soul: collective memory, collective blessings and collective collapse.

The Berlin Buddha is made of the ash that came from the incense burnt in prayer. I sometimes work with another kind of ash that comes from the burning of silver paper, which is burned to honor the dead. With the Berlin Buddha I try to express the fragility of human life: birth, aging, the and death, and the state of samsara .

Pernilla Holmes: What does samsara mean to you?

Zhang Huan: According to the passage of samsara , ‘Buddha is human, human is Buddha’. Causality produces effects. Maybe I was reincarnated from a donkey and will be reincarnated as a donkey in the next world. I have no idea what will happen – it is up to my destiny. I like the word ‘Ni Long’ (meaning indomitable dragon): only faced with stormy seas can it move freely.

Pernilla Holmes: Being a process-based work, in that it changes daily and has a beginning and end, your Berlin Buddha has a performative aspect and a theatricality to it. How do these works relate to your earlier, often time-based, performance pieces?

Zhang Huan: I never think about the relationships between my works. I just take into consideration whether the information the work expresses is synonomous with what is in myself. I believe that my work develops as I do, though my DNA never changes and my appetite never decreases.

With the ash works, each piece has its own process of transformation. We cannot foresee or control its movement. There will be interactions between the work and the surrounding environment, often the result of changes in temperature and humidity. It will grow bigger, sometimes get smaller, then parts will break off, fall apart, and finally it will disappear. Time passes second by second; so it should be used second by second.

Pernilla Holmes: But your earlier works were also very meditative, like 12 Square Meters , where you sat in a public lavatory for an hour covered in a sweet sticky substance as flies gathered on your skin. There is quite a Buddhist quality to the way you transcended the world around you in such works.

Zhang Huan: You could read it in this way. What I wanted to experience in those works was to forget the reality and stop thinking. When I look back, I feel those works themselves are pure, powerful and well-founded.

Pernilla Holmes: Your earlier work has often been linked with both 1970s performance art, and with German artists such as Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. Have these artists or any others been influential in your Buddha works?

Zhang Huan: Everything in daily life gives me inspiration. Anything in history can be borrowed, altered and reimagined by oneself. There are no limits in the field of art, if only there are no limits in your mind. It reminds me of a song that was often sung by people when I was young, with the words: ‘to lift your sword above the heads of the devils.’ But in my opinion, this sentence should be rewritten as ‘to lift the sword above our heads ourselves’, until our death. Only in this way can you be reborn.

Pernilla Holmes: So really, these Buddha works are about the big themes in life – love, peace, violence and death - but delivered through a universal figure in the Buddha.

Zhang Huan: People come from different races, with different colors of skin, different histories and cultures, different customs and traditions, and different languages and beliefs. But human nature is universal. Humans need belief. People need to look for different heroes who can speak to them.