By Olivia Sand
The Asian Art Newspaper, Jan. 2003, USA
Following his first show abroad in the early 1990s, Zhang Huan quickly earned a reputation as an uncompromising, challenge-driven artist. Indeed, his performances rely greatly on his highly focused mind overcoming pain inflicted on his body. Zhang Huan was one of few international artists in the Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (7 March to 26 May, 2002).
When referring to the visual arts, people generally think of painting, drawing, sculpture and video art. Performance art, on the other hand, is frequently ignored or forgotten. Breaking the mould, the Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan (born in 1965 in Henan province) has gained international recognition and caught the attention of an audience much broader than the art community. Within a few years, Zhang Huan has become instrumental in re-positioning performance art within galleries, museums and biennials. Performing naked, something that has almost become his hallmark, Zhang Huan puts himself through extreme conditions, demanding of his body and mind immunity from external conditions. The image of Zhang Huan performing at PS1 in New York (New York Fengshui, 1998), with his naked body lying on a block of ice, has been widely published and shows him as stoic as a fakir.
Like other artists from mainland China, Zhang Huan followed a classical curriculum at the art academy where he was trained as a painter. In fact, he has a great appreciation for painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, such as Millet and Rubens. His own paintings, completed in the late 1980s, show a strong interest in the body, depicting parts like brains, arms or legs. Feeling limited by painting, Zhang Huan finally opted to bring his subject matter alive, using his own body as the medium. ‘I always felt distant from the painting I was working on. Using my body, I could achieve much more: I could express myself in an immediate and very powerful way. It almost felt like a natural step to evolve into performance,’ says Zhang Huan. ‘It is interesting how one of my first performances in Beijing came about. I was living in an area close to a garbage dump. All kinds of things could be found there. I ended up finding half a body of a mannequin that I brought back to my studio. In Angel (1993), I became a man with three legs.’ One of his most famous performances in Beijing (12M2 from 1994) that received a lot of attention shows him sitting on a public toilet with poor hygiene conditions in the east village, where a lot of artists lived. Having applied a mixture of honey and oil on his body, within minutes Zhang Huan was covered with insects crawling over his naked body. Sitting still, the artist showed neither reaction to the smell, nor any sign of irritability at the moving insects on his skin.
Like 12M2, numerous performances link to the artist’s personal experience. The public toilet did indeed exist, and was only one aspect of the poor neighbourhood in Beijing’s east village. For Zhang Huan, performing in situations he encountered earlier, living through them again, but in even worse conditions, seems to have had a purifying effect. Performance becomes therapy, enabling him to transcend the extreme conditions to which he exposes his body. Indeed, I can not recall a performance where Zhang Huan failed to achieve his goal. One of the limitations of performance art that Zhang Huan points out is its confinement to museum spaces: “As a lot of museums share similar architecture, there is sometimes no connection between the background of the museum and my performance, which should actually take place in a very different environment.”
Beyond the videos and photographs documenting his performances, lately Zhang Huan has also begun to explore installation art. In his show in New York in December 2001, he presented a large scale work entitled Peace (2001), based on the Chinese legend ‘a foolish man moves the mountain’. The artist’s bronze cast body was suspended horizontally from a wooden beam with his head pointed at an oversized Chinese bronze bell inscribed with the names of his ancestors. As Zhang Huan explains, this is a way to communicate with his family. He also addressed a similar issue in the photographic series, Family Tree (2001). His face, shown as a close up, is covered in Chinese characters, very few at first, then gradually progressing to the point where the artist’s face is completely black. From this perspective, divisions such as ‘ancestry’ and ‘genealogy’ seem to take on very different meanings: homogeneous families, or races, have more in common than they appear to at first.
Whatever the issue, Zhang Huan always presents his work in a very intelligent manner; none of his performances intend to shock or lecture the audience. On the contrary, Zhang Huan has always found a way to playfully integrate his own goals with the audience’s curiosity, or voyeurism (he brings their fantasies alive). Up until now, Zhang Huan has followed a narrow path, carefully avoiding vulgarity or violence. The medium he has chosen is certainly not an easy one. Relying on a single tool, the body, like others rely on brush, paint and canvas, Zhang Huan manages to remain extremely dynamic and successful. The absence of speech in his performances and action in his videos preserve a certain aura and mystique around the artist. With a minimal mise en scène and no special effects, Zhang Huan monitors social issues and addresses them in his performances. He silently presents the facts, leaving us with thoughts to reflect on.