By Yilmaz Dziewior
Zhang Huan, Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2003
Seeds of Hamburg
"The body is a proof of identity and also a kind of language." (Zhang Huan)
When we speak of globalization nowadays we are thinking of phenomena that affect all spheres of social life in business, politics and culture. A big role is played in the debate by spatiotemporal localization no less than the perception that spatial and temporal distances are dwindling rapidly. The worldwide activities of multinationals, the global exchange of information and cultural goods, and migration caused by economic, political and military factors are all easing national boundaries. In their book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri characterize modernism as an era defined by Hegelian dialectics, while postmodernism in their view contradicts its dualistic argumentation, and hence also negates the necessary conditions of patriarchy, colonialism and racism. "In the context of postmodernist theories it is evidently the hybridity and ambivalences of our cultures and of our senses of belonging that call into question the binary logic of self and ’other’ behind modern colonialist, sexist and racist constructs. The postmodernist insistence on difference and particularity likewise resists the totalitarianism of universalizing discourses and power structures; its emphasis on the fragmentariness of social identity appears in effect to contest the sovereignty of the modern subject no less than that of the modern nation state and its concomitant hierarchies." But what might a reality beyond essentialist and nation state world views look like? Against the backdrop of supraregional global claims and self-conceptions, what options remain to establish or preserve one’s own, locally molded identity, without ignoring the new world order? Hardt and Negri employ the concept "multitude" to indicate a form of opposition to empire’s global sovereignty and its attempts to gain control of all spheres of social life.
This expansion of empire, which perpetuates imperialism by different means and in new fields, is not restricted to the Western industrial states. It stands out also for the powerful influence it exerts on non-Western countries. China is a special case in this respect. It has opened up partially to Western-capitalist activities and yet hung on to its rigid systems of political and social control. Hou Hanru’s analysis of the country in the 1990s remains largely true: "Chinese society in the 1990s evinces an interesting contradiction. Despite extensive economic liberalization, official control in the ideological sphere has never let up. The opportunities for experimental artists to express themselves within institutions have hardly improved." Following the events at Tienanmen Square in 1989, the Chinese regime redoubled its efforts to repress all artistic activity not involving traditional moveable pictures, sculpture or calligraphy. Given performance art’s immediacy, the fact that it requires less (art-historical) background knowledge than painting or other traditional media for its--frequently emotional--power to be felt, the authorities viewed it with particular suspicion as a threat to social order. For Zhang Huan, who was initially interested in painting but turned to performance and its documentation in photographs and video when he moved to Beijing at the start of the 1990s, this not only marginalized his work and severely restricted the practice of his art; it also posed real threats, including the danger of imprisonment. As of his fellow artists, with whom he formed the loose association "Beijing East village," the sole option was to withdraw from the public arena into back rooms and studios.
His early performances can be seen as socially and politically oriented happenings which, although often minutely planed, were put on at short notice and with little public warning. Hence the police generally learnt of Zhang Huan’s and his fellow artist’s activities too late to be able to intervene. His action Angel (1993), one of his very first public performances, was an exception- the repressive measures it attracted are described by Yu Yeon Kim in her essay in the present publication.
In Angel Zhang Huan alludes to personal experiences concerning women in his immediate circle-artists, friends, acquaintances- who were forced to undergo abortions as a result of the Chinese government’s doctrinaire one-child policy. But it would be reductive to interpret Angel purely as a commentary on the situation of many women in China. Formal criteria, such as the combination of the white fabric and the red bloodlike liquid, already play a role in this early work. Zhang’s performance, in the one hand, deliberately rejects painting. On the other, one can read it as a literal translation of Action Painting, hence a modified continuation of the project of painting. Rather like the situation in Europe and North America in the 1970s, when artists reacted with Body Art to the social upheavals resulting from the 1968 student movement, positing the immediacy of their own bodily experience as a political necessity, Zhang Huan inserts himself into extreme situations, selecting and embodying experiences both subjective and social. In contrast to later performances, in which he maltreats his body and subjects it to grueling strains, thus inviting parallels (deliberate or otherwise) to the performative strategies of Chris Burden or Vito Acconci, or to the methods of Vienna Actionism, the predominant character of Angel is abstractive, theatrical, staged. While artists like Hermann Nitsch or Rudolf Schwarzkogler used real blood, Zhang Huan only used a simulation. Formal comparisons to Paul McCarthy suggest themselves, yet they overlook that Zhang Huan’s fake blood was not ketchup- it was not a socially and popculturally defined substance.
A year later, in his 12 Square Meters (1994) performed in a public WC, he pointed a finger at social conditions in China as he had already done in Angel, this time at neglected public facilities. While the event and its location make 12 Square Meters unusual and spectacular, its action as documented in the photos and video is extremely calm and devoid of all sensationalism. Once again, formal features are accorded especial attention, the artist’s sculptural pose for instance, and his facial expression, which enhances the statuary aspect of the images.
Formally and thematically, Zhang Huan’s works pick up and modify Western modernism’s performance tradition in highly individual, subjective ways, taking his own biography and culture as points of departure, yet without establishing an unambiguous narrative structure. Despite their in part clear relation to China’s social reality, the real background to his actions remains deliberately veiled and underdetermined. Yet it was not only their atmospheric density, and the cultural and political allusions, that attracted international art criticism and curators to his photographs and videos upon his emigration to New York, but also formal criteria. The specific aesthetic quality of his black-and-white prints, even of his color prints, calls to mind photographs from the 1970s when performances were making their entrance on the scene. For all their familiarity, Zhang Huan’s photographs are different, ambivalently exotic, in a way that seems partially compatible with the current globalization debate in art. Further reasons for the success of Zhang Huan’s performances while still in China are the way they could be linked to Western art history and their apparent development of Asiatic performance practices. A text by Octavio Zaya offers a good example of this receptive stance, positioning Zhang Huan’s work thus: "At first glance, Zhang Huan’s performance is no different from the type of instruction we got used to with the Dadaist: John Cage, Fluxus, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneeman--- At any rate, we should mention the New Wave Movement of the eighties, a group of Chinese artists who related Western art and theory to Chinese tradition, getting their inspiration as much from Dadaist conceptualism as from Chan Buddhism." Even when the choreographed sequences in Zhang Huan’s performances evince clear links to Fluxus and Happening Art, they are nevertheless distinct from the latter, being conceived not by a collective but by one artist alone, namely, Zhang Huan. And in contrast to Dada, Fluxus and Happening Art, Zhang Huan’s actions are devoid of all irony. Individualized, ritual-like, with a meditative aura, they come closer to Body Art in their tremendous physical exertions, provocative use of nudity and the way they display the artist’s vulnerability.
12 Square Meters was one of a sequence of Zhang Huan’s works shown by Harald Szeemann at the Venice Biennial 1999. Prior to this there had been the New York group exhibition on current Chinese art titled Inside Out, with Zhang Huan’s To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) providing the cover illustration for the catalogue. Precisely in the early Chinese performances, staged in locations for rural aspect, here a fishpond in Beijing, Zhang Huan succeeded in capturing-or enacting-universally valid moods that gave moving and thematically charged expression to such fundamental themes as man’s relation to nature, while also alluding to the socially and culturally exceptional character of the situations. For all their naturalness, these early works never denied their staged, artificial character. The dialectic between nature and man on the one hand, and the artificiality of the depictions (a result of their opaque absurdity), is what gives them their characteristic atmosphere of temporal aloofness.
In his three-photograph series 1/2 (1998), Zhang Huan likewise proceeds dualistically, opposing body and mind, while perfectly aware that they interact and interdepend. Lacking all clews such as clothing, haircut or other temporally determined- hence decipherable- codes, it is impossible to order the photographs. The first in particular, for which the artist asked a row of friends to write whatever words came into their heads on his body in black ink, is unintelligible if one can read no Chinese characters- the image simply eludes interpretation. The letters ABC and the word "freestar" on the artist’s right arm constitute an insignificant exception, but these few legible signs merely serve to underline the foreignness of the rest. Exhibited in a Western context, such works are exotic, because the culture literally inscribed onto Zhang Huan’s body is translocated, decontextualised and reinterpeted. Misunderstanding or incomprehension inevitably result. The point is, however, that while the work opposes current views on art in its country of origin it is not exotic. The process of decontextualisation, and the altered conditions of the work’s reception, are what exoticise it.
Zhang Huan’s first performance outside China was at the invitation of the Watari Museum in Tokyo, 6 April 1997. Naked on the roof of a low building opposite the museum and connected to the museum’s towerblock architecture by hundreds of blood transfusion cannulas, he endeavored, with the aid of an ancient-looking two-wheeled axle, to pull the museum down. The title 3006m/3 : 65 kg expresses the ratio of the artist’s weight to the volume of the museum. Once again, nature (the artist’s naked body) and culture (the museum building) are opposed and mutually demarcated. On the one hand, the work is a critique of the institution. At the same time, however, the cannulas can be read as symbolizing the artist’s dependence on the institution. No matter how often Zhang Huan tries to brace himself against the museum by tautening the connecting lines, the tension always relents as the wheels roll him closer to the museum.
In the two years before emigrating to the USA Zhang Huan produced several works which, however, could only be exhibited outside his homeland. Skin (1997) is a series of nine full frontal photographs shot against a black backdrop, in which Zhang Huan performed simple gestures such as holding his eyes shut with his two middle fingers or tugging the skin of his cheek. Camera position and cropping were the same for each shot, underlining their serial nature. Such images created outside public performances the artist refers to as concept photographs. In contrast to post-studio practice (the background to most of his works) Zhang Huan acted here in the solitude of his studio. Via their relation to 1970s Body Art, these photos also reflect Zhang Huan’s specific situation in China, where the means for any materials other than his own body were lacking. To draw a comparison to Bruce Nauman’s well-known Studies for Hologram (1970) goes only so far, for Nauman’s fragmentary depiction of his face omits identity, whereas in Skin Zhang Huan’s ethnic origins and cultural background are a definite hermeneutic level. Yet for both artists the starting points is the body, the task to alienate it, whereby performance and photograph interdepend.
The works Zhang Huan has produced in the West employ similar strategies of referncing sociocultural conditions as those made in China. But the actions realized in the USA, Australia and Europe also become more complex. The number of people involved increases, and the props become more elaborate. Buddhist and Christian rituals are combined, and citations from Western art history merge with traditional Chinese culture. By working with local extras, Zhang Huan avoids tying interpretations exclusively to his own cultural identity, opening the field for further levels of meaning that counter essentialist, unambiguous readings. While the Chinese bed and the intimated procession in his first US performance Pilgrimage- Wind and Water in New York (1998) evince clear links to his own culture, the domestic dogs grouped round the bed reference a more typically Western phenomenon. Describing how the performance (originally titled Fengshui) came about, Zhang Huan has said: "The use of dogs originates from my impression of New York. There are so many dogs in this city and they are very well taken care of--- what strikes me most about this city is the coexistence of different races and their culture." The cultural differences the artist experienced between himself and his new surroundings are also the subtext of his performance My America (Hard to Acclimatize) (1999). Yet it is not from a rigid demarcation of cultures, but rather from an awareness of their mutual interrelations- as is seen for instance in American society’s fashionable adoption of Asiatic meditation exercises, or its current enthusiasm for exotic musical styles- that his works arise. The fact that in his new home country he found not a homogenous but a highly pluralistic society, albeit one whose absorption of different lifestyles is often superficial, finds expression in the mix of musical and choreographic styles in My America (Hard to Acclimatize), which fuses a multitude of ethnic allusions- from yoga positions and Tai Chi to Tibetan ritual chants. In his Western performances, as opposed to those realized in China, Zhang Huan almost always acts as part of group. This is of interest in the light of Edward said’s cogent observation in his essay "Reflections on Exile," namely, that the experience of exile is invariably one of solitude, the sense of belonging to no group. That community acceptance is purely temporary for Zhang Huan becomes clear in the course of his performances. While he was integrated into the group in one performance involving some fifty people, he nevertheless acted most of the time as the group’s express leader and impresario; as the performance progressed the participants turned against him aggressively. In the end, he was completely isolated. The artist elaborated a sequence of actions that may not have been decipherable in every detail, yet it evinced a clear linearity and expressed his life in exile in its various aspects. Belonging- whether to a particular circle, to one’s own family or to an ethnic group- finds expression in the fifteen-photograph series Foam (1998) as in the nine photographs of Family Tree (2000). Both works reference the individual’s relation to family, a site both of protection and of regimentation. while the individual’s momentous anchoring in the family group is the subject of the series Foam, which was produced in China, showing family pictures of Zhang Huan and his wife in the artist’s open mouth, his face covered in foam, Family Tree thematises not only solidarity and the potential staying power of family generations. The artist’s face is progressively covered with Chinese characters, until in the end it is pitch black. This gradual mutation intimates Zhang Huan’s contradictory relation to his own culture since his emigration, negation as image the idea of a homogenous, stable cultural identity in favor of a subject that changes and repeatedly redefines itself over time.
My Australia (2000), realized in the Sculpture Park of the National Gallery Canberra, is his most elaborate performance to date. Consisting of eight segments and lasting over an hour, the event linked together a number of scenes some of which related specifically to Australia. Not only the Australian national flag- behind which Zhang Huan squatted and let performers relate their own and their ancestor’s family histories- denotes the context for which and within which the work was developed. Sheep were also used. They too can be seen as referring to the performance venue. The event culminated with Zhang Huan explaining the works in the museum to a lamp, thus establishing a clear connection to Beuys’s Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklart (How to explain pictures to a dead hare, 1965).
There are striking parallels between the early Beuys event and Zhang Huan’s most recent performance developed for his exhibition Seeds of Hamburg at the Hamburg Kunstverein. While Beuys smeared his face with honey for his action and applied gold leaf to it, Zhang Huan covered his entire body in honey, then sprinkled on sunflower seeds. Uwe M. Schneede’s interpretation of the Beuys performance is applicable, ceteris paribus, to Zhang Huan’s Kunstverein event: "Without referring to any one culture, he fellows all those practices of exorcism and invocation in which masks and disguises indicate a metamorphosis into a figure of exceptional supraindividual and spiritual powers. Masks are rooted in cult; the mask-wearer wields religious powers of nature." For his performance Seeds of Hamburg, which lasted only a few minutes, Zhang Huan entered a cage of wood and chicken wire he had designed, and in which two wooden crates were stacked in front of a leafless maple tree. Once he was inside the cage, 28 doves were let in slowly, some setting on the artist’s body. To the sound of music by Wang Guotong, a contemporary Chinese composer whose compositions blend Asiatic and classical Western traditions, the audience witnessed an act as simple as it was symbolic- when all the doves were in the cage, the artist released one of them. That plants might one day sprout from the sunflower seeds is a promising thought that suggests hope throughout all cultures.
(Translated from German by Christopher Jenkin-Jones, Munich)