By Gao Minglu
Pilgrimage to Santiago, 2000

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

Private Experience and Public Happenings,
the Performance Art of Zhang Huan

Chinese artists began to adopt the performance art medium in 1985. Some from a few self-organized avant-garde groups, such as the Three Step Studio in Shanxi province, the Rhinoceros Painting Group in Shandong province, and the M Group in Shanghai, etc. created performance pieces as part of their unofficial exhibitions. Subsequently, a few painters and conceptual artists, such as Wu Shanzhuan, Song Yongping, Huang Yongping of the Xiamen Dada Group, and others were also occasionally involved with performance art while concurrently with their panting and installation works. For performance art the peak came in 1989 at the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition. Several performances, especially one in particular involving shots fired by Xiao Yu and Tang Song, caused the exhibition to be closed down twice. Despite these efforts the performance art of the 1980s can only be considered as a secondary by-product of the avant-garde artists of the time, because during that period there were no artists exclusively concentrating on performance art. It was not until the 1990s that performance art as a specialized form appeared.

Zhang Huan has widely been considered the earliest and most influential full-time performance artist of the 1990’s. Zhang Huan and a handful of other artists living in an area called “Da Shan Zi” created a number of artworks, performance in particular, and subsequently came to be widely known as the “Beijing East Village” avant-garde art movement.

Performance Art came to China from the West in the early 1980’s. The Chinese term for performance art is “Xingwei Yishu”, which in English means roughly “Behavioral Art”. Obviously, behavior has a different meaning than the original sense of performance. The concept of “behavior” is not limited to the physical actions of the individual but also encompasses the moral sense of the individual expressing himself within a community or within a social structure. This point relates to the Chinese Confucian tradition. In the Chinese Confucian tradition there is no such thing as purely individual behavior, all individual behavior is social and all behavior reflects some types of social relationship.

This traditional concept imparted to the Chinese performance art scene inherently (or congenitally) a social significance. This social content is always present regardless of whether or not an individual performance artist attempts to express certain social content or not in his/her specific performance work. Traditional art forms, such as painting and sculpture, require some audience sophistication. Performance art however is able to more directly communicate with its audience through a much more direct and comprehensible way through its use of the human body. For this reason it has been regarded as a form of dangerous social subversion by Chinese officials and conservatives.

Since performance art has always had such a strong ability to emotionally move an audience through its unconventional form, it has never been permitted in China. But this type of taboo or ban has effectively encouraged artists to choose the performance art medium to express their social critiques. It has ironically also afforded their work more opportunity of being noticed.

The efficacy of performance art lies in its chance and incidental nature. As a result, the common methodology of artists in the 1980’s was to meticulously plan their projects in advance with the goal being to create some kind of public disturbance. These conflicts would normally arise between the performance artist and either officials or other more conservative members of the art community. By comparison the audiences were, by and large, quite tolerant. Consequently, this sort of performance art as “social or political happening” often contained a strongly provocative and/or violent tone towards authority. More and more, artists came to be thought of, or even in some cases wanted themselves to be thought of, as “trouble makers”.

Zhang Huan’s involvement with performance art began in Beijing’s East Village in 1992. His first piece of performance art took place in 1993. As part of his installation piece titled “Angel” Zhang Huan smashed a jar filled with red food coloring and fragmented baby dolls in the West side courtyard of the National Art Gallery in Beijing. He then tied up the baby dolls and his body, both of which were splattered all over with red. This sort of “bloody” spectacle obviously brought to some minds the tragedy of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, which had not too terribly long before occurred, the baby dolls covered in “fresh blood” might also have been associated by some with the “Red Youth Pioneers” of Communism. This first piece by Zhang Huan, it should be said, shared a similar violent sensibility, and an air of being a “Social Happening”, with the performance art of the 1980’s. As a result of this piece, Zhang Huan was fined and forced to write a self-criticism by the National Art Gallery.

From here on the performance art that Zhang Huan did in Beijing’s East Village gradually began to reveal his own unique approach. He began to shrug off the influence of the performance art of the eighties and turned towards exploring his own psychology, physiology, and emotional experience and to emphasize his ability to express himself through his own body language. He also focused on his relationship with the everyday aspects of his surrounding environment. He abandoned the conscious attention that the performance art of the eighties had put on the event or the incident. That type of consciousness had more often than not sought to use the public image of one’s own body performing as a symbol, often projected in a violent form, that would, in turn, incite some kind of public disturbance. Zhang Huan, on the other hand, was more interested in his own internal conflicts and in exploring his physical and emotional capacity for endurance.

Zhang Huan’s conception of himself also differed from that of the eighties performance artists. His predecessors more often than not thought of themselves as preachers, on a “martyr’s path” to educate the masses. Zhang Huan, however, conceived himself as an average member of the general population. There was in his work an attempt to examine ordinary life. Zhang Huan has said in his essay “A Personal Account of ‘12 Square Meters’” : “What I am actually most interested in is people at their most ordinary, during typical daily moments when they are most prone to being overlooked, and this is also what constitutes the original material for when I create. For instance, when we are sitting on the couch talking, smoking, in bed every day resting, going to work every day, eating, shitting, and so on. In these daily activities we find the nearest thing to what humanity is, the most essential human thing - the question of the human spirit, the quest to discover how we relate to the environment we exist in.”

Experiments in this regard, as seen in “12 Square Meters” (1994), “65 Kilos” (1994) and “Diameter in 25 Millimeter of Corrugated Steel” and other works, revealed that Zhang Huan had already surpassed the performance art tendencies of the “Guerilla Forces” type of the 1980’s. Conflict was actually avoided so that Zhang Huan would be able to fully realize and complete his performance endeavors. For this reason most of Zhang Huan’s pieces were done either at his own home or in the home of friends, in private areas where attention would not be drawn.

He concentrated instead on how to learn through experimentation with his own body, and how to understand the meaning of an authentic existence for the average person. According to him performance art is a process by which a certain spiritual force can penetrate inward, rather than a process by which an artist vents his emotion outward. As a result in the above mentioned performance pieces, he gradually abandoned all elements of performance and focused instead on his own internal feelings and suffering. Here we can find hints of a psychological meaning to his work, a kind of masochism.

“12 Square Meters” took place in a Beijing public toilet around noon on a very hot day in May 1995. Chinese village toilets not only have an odor that is hard to bear, they are also infested with millions of flies impervious to swatting. Completely naked and smeared all over with honey, Zhang Huan sat in the outhouse-style toilet for one hour. Countless flies freely partaking of the feast of his body, Zhang Huan was allowed a taste of an extreme version of the type of “enduring hardship” that every person in the countryside must face on a daily basis.

In 1994 Zhang Huan created the piece “65 Kilos” in his studio. The process involved tying his body with ten iron chains and suspending himself three meters above the ground from a ceiling hook for about one hour. He faced the ground. The original idea for the piece had been that he would lay on a bed suspended from the that the iron ceiling hook. He came up with the idea while he was laying on bed and looking up at the ceiling on a dark night.

Once Zhang Huan’s body was suspended in the air a “nurse” then took 250 milliliters of his blood. The blood then dripped slowly onto a large white hospital pan. A small electric heater was set up beneath the pan, causing the blood in the pan to quickly heat and cook, releasing a highly unpleasant odor of burning blood. Zhang Huan’s body quickly went numb from hanging. The pain was extreme. Blood and sweat fell from him. As he would explain it, this “cruel torture” actually allowed him a high level of mental and physical concentration, and allowed him to test the limits of his patience.

Words come easily but to effectively learn through actual experience can be very difficult. In life there are two ways to seek the spiritual realm, one is a profound test of one’s own mortality, monks and nuns spend their lives in the quest for this sort; the second is make an invaluable contribution to shared human civilization. The former is more often than not attained via a solitary path, the spiritual power of which is given to the public by spending his/her entire life as a model of virtue. The latter is more often than not achieved through social interaction. Zhang Huan has, of course, no intention of becoming a sage through his performance. But the spiritual energy Zhang Huan cultivated through his endurance is beyond a doubt and this energy is one of the essential qualities that humankind must have.

Of course, endurance is strengthened by a foundation of hope and the expectation that one will be rescued from suffering. Zhang Huan did once, however, come nearly to the brink of losing hope for survival. Once, he put himself in a metal box, in order to have the sensation of what it would be like to be in a metal box, failing however to realize that when the lid closed it locked automatically. At the time he was alone in the room and the house was locked from within. Zhang Huan felt claustrophobia, then fear, then panic, and finally began to lose all hope. The only thing he could do was to scream for help through the one small hole in the box. Fortunately, because a window had been left open, the sound of his screams alerted neighbors and he was rescued. Only after this experience did he feel for the first time how precious freedom is, the wonder of the world, and how valuable life is. Not everyone has this kind of near death experience. In spite of our supposing the glory of nirvana and Ascension, and regardless of whether or not they are real, they are not the world that we mortal beings inhabit.

The idealized realm of nirvana grew out of the human desire to escape the reality and the suffering of the physical body and mind. Some theories of escape encourage us to embrace that suffering.

Another performance piece having to do with suffering included Zhang Huan lying on the floor near a steel machine, while bits of molten steel flew off and landed on his naked body and face. Yet another time he filled his mouth with live worms and allowed them to crawl in and out of his mouth freely. These pieces don’t really even count as performance pieces really because there was no audience present. But from photos taken at the time, videos and text descriptions, we have a sense of what it was like, and can imagine the artists’ suffering. We don’t get something gentle, warm or elegant from his performance, but instead a feeling that is hard to describe, tension, cruelty, sympathy, or maybe admiration for his endurance. But what do these emotions have to do with us? We don’t come away having experienced the moment in the photos. I think for certain that Zhang Huan achieved a feeling of having transcended (overcome) something. Having gone beyond what he thought his limits of endurance were, he probably experienced time slowed to the point of being frozen.

Zhang Huan has also curated and organized some group performance pieces where he worked together with other artists. For example in 1995 Zhang Huan curated and took part in the performance “To Add One Meter to A Unknown Mountain” and “Nine Holes”, both of which took place in the outskirts of Beijing in the Miao Feng Mountain area. The former piece involved ten artists from the Beijing East Village group stacked one on top of the other to create a small mountain of flesh. The second piece “Nine Holes” involved nine naked artists of different sexes lying on the side of the mountain, the men dug a small hole in the ground beneath then, while the women used dirt to make a protrusion. Making love was traditionally referred to in China as the marriage [meeting] of heaven and earth, and was thought to be a way of balancing the Yin and Yang elements. While the artists breathed in the fresh air they also embraced the earth; they connected with the earth as if through marriage. There were many feelings that the artists felt that are bound to be lost in the translation to print photographs and that an exhibition audience will miss out on. But the photos do convey the sense of harmony between earth and sky, and an almost traditional tableau reminiscent of Chinese brush ink landscapes. For those in the city, trapped within the culture of commerce, this image of close communion with nature acts as a foil, a contrast to the essential alienation humans undergo by living in society.

“To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond”, which took the metaphor of the same subject [expression] a step further, was a group performance curated by Zhang Huan. Zhang Huan invited around 40 people from the countryside, mainly itinerant laborers, ranging in age from 4 to 60 years old, to stand in a Beijing fish pond. Standing at the front with a young boy on his shoulders was Zhang Huan. The bodies were being used to raise the level of the fish pond, a concept which of course was a very imaginative joke compelling us to think of a person lying in a bathtub. But the symbolism of the fish and the water in the pond brings to mind the relationship between nature and so many things, and also the relationship between people and their lovers. In traditional Chinese culture water symbolizes femininity, as in the saying: “Virtue loves mountains while wisdom enjoys water, virtue is in tranquility while wisdom remains in motion.” In Zhang Huan’s work, the men are like mountains and they do not move, and furthermore all the participants were male, which at some level expresses the male female dynamic.

This piece could also be read in terms of its real social significance. The modernization of cities brings with it the expansion of the human population and a shortage of natural resources and the second generation problems facing peasant laborers, and so on. Through the photos which were taken to capture the process the scene becomes even more symbolic. The important thing is not that this is the product of an individual or the expression of a heartfelt emotion, but that it expresses something about a group of people and each person’s relationship with the environment (nature). In addition to the other signifying factors that this sort of relationship gives rise to.

These signifying factors were more fully developed after Zhang Huan’s move to America when he did several performance art pieces in the West, including one in Seattle titled “My America” and another in Australia titled “My Australia”. Zhang Huan directed the entire process and each detail of the planned sequence of events, but he also allowed room for some freedom of expression for the other participants. By doing so, he consciously minimized his own power as a performer, and at the same time paid more attention to his communication with the other participants. He put more attention into the emotional impact and conceptual message that his body language could send to his partners (without intentionally directing it to be so, however).

For example, in one part of “My America” in Seattle the participants threw rotten bread at Zhang Huan. Here the reins of the participants’ tone and acting choices were essentially given over to the participants themselves. This sort of interpersonal relationship in some way reflected the type of questions that Zhang Huan had been dealing with since moving to New York relating to questions of cultural identity and cultural dialogue. Perhaps he became conscious that a solitary, egotistical monologue could not adequately express the experience and feelings of being in a new living environment. He had to take his own internal experience and find a way to transfer it to a form of external expression, to create the choreography and an stage-like environment in which to act out the performance, and finally to allow an investment and room for expression on the part of the other participants. His interaction with the other participants was a kind of cultural dialogue. While this dialogue took place in the midst of a large audience it was still sensitively and intimately enacted through the body language of all the participants. Perhaps this sort of group body language as a medium is able to convey things about cultural negotiation [dialogue] that writing and speech [language] cannot adequately express.

These experiments arose out of a piece that Zhang Huan did when he first arrived to New York at P.S. 1 which was a one man performance called “Pilgrimage”. The piece appeared to be Zhang Huan imitating a Tibetan going through the motions of a pilgrimage. Barely dressed, and prostrating himself as he went, he approached the temple, which was a traditional Ming Dynasty style bed with three large blocks of ice on it. Zhang Huan, now completely naked, laid face down on the ice mattress. People watched breathless, knowing that as Zhang Huan lay there on the ice, that his body heat would begin to melt the ice. This is what the people were expecting. In fact, the opposite was true. As Zhang Huan lay on the ice his body temperature was lowered. He was gradually being frozen by the ice blocks, as if he were in a freezer. There was even a danger that the freezing would cause him to have a heart attack. It was as if the antique bed and the blocks of ice signified Chinese tradition, still elegant but irrational, and immune to melting by any external force.

As if to perhaps lend a little warmth to the cold reality there were nine dogs surrounding and tied to the bed. These dogs were the dear beloved pets of Americans and were symbols of warmth and affection, symbols of the modern American bourgeoisie society. The dogs were one of Zhang Huan’s first impressions of New York. He probably had originally hoped that they would keep him company, would keep him from feeling lonely and cold. There was a sort of cultural divide that Zhang Huan had sensed since he first arrived in the West, and one that had no doubt caused him to begin to question whether or not he would be able to put all his strength and focus into performing one man pieces such as “65 Kilos” and others he did in China, or whether or not they would even be as effective in a foreign country or whether or not he would even be able to continue to do solo performance art at all. In China, he was like a human animal, and because almost everyone had nearly identical physical features and attitudes, he was able to realize in a very profound way the differences and also the relationship between his own animal-like human body and the human spirit. But in the West humans were cultural animals.

People must frequently experiment to find their own cultural stamp (more often than not it is in contrast to the “Other” that one comes to define it) and all the things that come with that cultural stamp.

It should be said that Zhang Huan’s performance art pieces from early in his career to recent times, from his work in mainland China to his work abroad, present a nearly consistent trend. Shifting from internally focused performance pieces about the individual, distant and isolated [apart] from others, to collaborative group efforts; from individual performance activities to theatrical like exhibitions involving participation by the audience; a shift from experiments where the protagonist took pleasure in the uniqueness o f his private experience to a more open and multi-faceted concept.

This shift can also be seen in his recent creations, a number of pieces he calls “Journals”. He is still an individual in these pieces, either with steaks draped on his body, or with Chinese calligraphy written all over him, with his face covered in soap bubbles and photos of family members stuck in his mouth. However, these are not the work of a person blindly struggling through a process of inner exploration and emotional self-discovery but rather instead a quick snapshot that tries to capture a moment or a record of a kind of state of mind reaching its climax. What they present people is something more to view and admire, consider and imagine. They display a very private and personal face but at the same time they speak a very public language.

His work no longer gives primacy to a mysteriousness that perhaps only Zhang Huan himself could truly know. Instead they explore another sort of mystery, the chance occurance of something mysterious that takes place between participants as well as between the audience and the participants in a performance event.

To put it more strongly, because the cultural identity of the artist is not the same as that of the participants, and the fact that each piece has its own cultural characteristics determined by the differences in nationality and geography of the countries in which they are performed, and the fact that each of these elements carries with it its own set of interesting implications, because of all this you could say that this chance mysteriousness occurs as a result of cultures in collision.

(Translated from the Chinese by Alexa Olesen)