By Mark Gisbourne
Zhang Huan, Published by Gallery Volker Diehl, Germany, 2006

Zhang Huan: Palimpsest "Writing on the Body"

Unquestionably the visible and invisible aspects of the performance artist Zhang Huan are written upon and within his body. In this respect the temporal nature of the human body (his naked body) as both corporal shell and container of consciousness, is the instigator and instrument of its own ends. However, at the same time, nothing is more politically, socially, economically, or culturally challenged than the free expression of the human body as an autonomous entity. For while we are all inclined to say ‘this is my body’ the container of ‘my consciousness’, the body is nonetheless historically hemmed in and determined by many culture-based and structural suppositions of distinction and dissonance. Though it is clearly self-evident we all inhabit a body, this possession is continually contested by the cultural archetypes of human representation. The representative body is therefore to a large extent the product of an ideal abstraction – the imagined body. It is the body of someone that is ineluctably defined against the body that we all possess, but in terms of physical and material functions (physiology), or in alterity-based terms of categorical ethnicity and specificity (having particular social and cultural characteristics). Thus bodies are at the same time a site of shared similitude and difference, and in consequence a paradox is created whereby a sense of identity is fragmented into an enormously diverse array of sub-divisional particularities. Put simply in physical terms bodies are principally the same, but in social and cultural terms they are infinitely differentiated beyond that which constitutes mere ethnicity.

To understand the use of the (or, a) body as an instrument in this pluralized or multi-polar context is to comprehend the nature and work of Zhang Huan , and it is what fundamentally separates him and his art from an acting performance in a theatre or elsewhere. All actors play a part, not matter how much they may be able to embody it, get lost in it, or incorporate their own identity into the role-play, they remain in pursuit of a characterisation; though the distinction of what defines our understanding of characterisation is continually open to debate in terms of theatre’s development. However, the actor is never the equivalent sum of what he/she portrays, if they were life could be simply substituted for theatre. But conversely the performance artist Zhang Huan is defined by the actual sum of what he enacts through his performances and orchestrations, and the video and photographic documentation of his work, as aesthetic as it undoubtedly is, becomes the material residue of a totally involved bodily enactment. Yet to argue this suggests that engaging with the video and photographic materials that flow from his performances is to experience them as an aftermath, but then it should be said that viewers for the most part are rarely present at the processes of an art work’s making. A performance artist is exceptional in that the phenomena of the work is realized through its performance (the performance is the work), and that the “ … artists who began to use their bodies as the material of visual art repeatedly expressed their goal to bring art practice closer to life in order to increase the experiential immediacy of their work..” This does not mean that certain aspects of theatricality will not appear at times in Zhang Huan ’s performances, videos, and photographs, but that if it takes place it flows from the performance itself and not from the role that is being played or acted out.

The current exhibition of Zhang Huan ’s photographs stem from selected performances from 1997-2006 , in which the artist has continued to plumb the psycho-physiological experience of performance and the methods through which it can be conceptually placed. In his work Skin (1997) , the focus was upon the tactile and sensory investigation of the outer organ of the body. A set of twenty front-facing bust format images, which through a series of right and left-handed gestures exposes the pliant and membranous nature of the head and face and its skin covering. Less an issue of physiognomy and typology, Zhang Huan provides through serialization a natural outcome and experience of the five senses. Intentional, or otherwise, the Skin series creates a feeling for the pliant sensitivity of the head and facial surface, its remit of gestures and its potential expressions not un-reminiscent of the expression-based pattern books of an earlier age. Conversely, Zhang Huan ’s shorter six-set series called Chickenpox (2000) focuses on the face and head as a mask to be covered and screened. Closer in photographic focus than skin the eyes stare out from the image surface while unctuous liquid flows down the face, or has a base ground applied as if it were a black cake make-up. Another contemporary nine-image work called Family Tree (2000) , was where Chinese characters were written on his face slowly obliterating the recognizable surface of the facial skin. What is discernible in Chickenpox and Family Tree is an intended sense of lost legibility, and the works have to be understood in respect to Zhang Huan ’s newly experienced exile from China that began in 1999 . The use of screening effects created by isolation and displaced identity is clearly intended to be mirrored in these works. It is significant that the three series are performance-based concept photographs (a term used by the artist), and obviously made with an advanced sense of the reproductive medium in mind. Through these conceptualizations, Zhang Huan was trying to come to terms not merely with a sense of identity dislocation and linguistic alienation, but with a completely new value system that he was experiencing in New York . In short a materialist-individualist and less family-structured urban culture that required the artist to be in a continual state of redefinition. This is why I spoke of performance at the beginning of my essay, as being written both upon and within the body of the artist.

The nine-set series called Window (2004) is more directly focused on the recording of an interactive performance itself. A mule or ass enchained in a courtyard next to a window, the back wall and presentation of Zhang Huan ’s interaction with the animal is reminiscent of a classical frieze narrative. Zhang Huan ’s physical engagement with the animal is priapic, erotic, and comedic at the same time. Indeed, and though probably not intended, the images immediately evoke associations with the famous narrative of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass , variations of which are common to both Eastern and Western culture. However, what is primarily evident is how Zhang Huan exposes the forlorn affinities between animal and man. The images pass from establishing a relationship through the squatting and half-clad Zhang Huan is juxtaposition to the mule, to a presentation of the artist’s nakedness to the animal, to being mounted by the animal (an allegorical sodomisation), allusions to bestial reversal, and their subsequent embrace and rapport. More witty than erotic the work obviously recalls Beuys’s earlier performances with a dead hare and his meeting with a coyote. The difference being the explicit physical interaction that Zhang Huan makes with the animal. The choice of the animal is also surely not without significance, unlike the free ranging coyote whose existence is ecologically under threat, the mule is a domesticated beast of burden common to China ’s still largely agricultural economy. Unlike the coyote who within the caged gallery space was free to roam around, the mule is initially chained suggesting the master (human) and servant (beast) relationship. The political contents, perhaps, being an idea of empathy and liberation, provoking a sense of the burdensome existence shared by the animal and the rural masses of China . This said, the actions of the performance though sequential should not be read as if it were a literal storytelling, but rather as the development of a relational structure between Zhang Huan and the animal.

Place specific performance (all performances are in a sense site specific) is a particular feature of Zhang Huan ’s work. In earlier performances such as My Australia (2000) , Pilgrimage to Santiago (2001) , and Seeds of Hamburg (2002) , the works exposed what has been called ‘symbolic detoxifications’. The feeling of emotional and intellectual imprisonment is an omnipresent feature of his performance work. In Australia it might be expressed through being tied to eucalyptus trees, or embracing sheep. While in Santiago da Compostela, in the square in front of the Cathedral, he swung in a giant thurible containing bones, which have an obvious reference to the cult of relics and the reliquaries of Catholicism. In Hamburg it was an aviary with his honey smeared and gold-leafed body covered with sunflower seeds, into which twenty-eight doves were released. Again, perhaps, making a particular reference to Joseph Beuys, Whose earlier action had involved smearing his face with honey 9 . In all these performances his body (along with those of the other participants) was completely naked, but nakedness for Zhang Huan has little or nothing to do with any voyeuristic content. In fact the naked body is intended to be read as a cultural intermediary in its most natural state. In the series My Boston (2005) currently exhibited, the emphasis of the performance is placed on books and the mountains of information presently published. The close proximity of Boston to numerous academic institutions, including Harvard, MIT, and countless others, suggests a critique of the excessive intellectualism that seems paradoxically at odds with the current aggression expressed by a democratic country that is supposedly committed to learning and self-knowledge. Zhang Huan is naked with his head passing through a book worn as a yoke (the reference to an Ox’s yoke self-evident), then crushed within a mountainous pile of books, with ironically a golden retriever looking on. The performance concludes with him sitting atop the book mountain – seemingly yoked to knowledge but somehow lost in it. The photographic format is a sort of complimentary panoramic, appropriate to the subject matter but revealing that the supposed knowledge is ultimately meaningless. The use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ in each instance is clearly intended to express the opposite (it is not his culture), but simultaneously exposes his possessive ‘my’ in the reading of the culture expressed through the performance. In each instance we are confronting the interpretive comprehension of a translated space, something further emphasized in My Boston Flag Series (2005) . Zhang Huan , again naked, drags a stringed or threaded series of books behind him towards a flagpole carrying the Stars and Stripes. He then proceeds to climb the flagpole dragging the enormous weight of knowledge behind him. The vertical photographic format has been used to suggest the heroic undertaking of the task..

While all of Zhang Huan ’s performances are video-ed, and often presented as such, they are for the most part a photographic installation in this instance. Yet to the artist the boundary between the time-based medium and a photographic presentation is not canonical, since they all emerge as an extension from his performance-based work. However, in his most recent work, while still retaining the naked body as metaphor, an increased tendency towards collage and integrated elements has emerged. In a large series entitled Soft Hard Kung Fu (2005) , there is fusion between the graphic line and the naked body of performance. In what appears as proverb-like narrative illustrations, a whole series of poses and postures related to Kung Fu are undertaken. Humorous in some respects he parts a bamboo curtain, butts a wall, vaults a vault, lifts heavy objects, punches sandbags, kicks a tree, takes up a kung Fu pose towards a setting (or rising) sun, and creates a self-reflexive parody of Kung Fu. However, whether this is a parody of Western perceptions of the martial art, or simply an internal critique of the pseudo-history of Kung Fu remains unclear. In the case Dragonfly (2006) , it is a series of images where the focus turns to montage as the artist enters the watery domain of the colorful insect (odonata-anisoptera) called in Chinese chyng ting . While the notions of emotional transposition, recalls in certain ways the series window , in this event the visual scale and relations are differentiated, Whether the traditional Chinese association of the dragonfly are intended (summer, instability, weakness – vulnerability) is not made clear. The dragonfly is often associated with metamorphosis (in its earlier water – based existence they are called ‘nymphs’), and Zhang Huan is quite literally transposing himself into the sphere of water. Water had been used earlier in his work To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997) , though in that instance it was in pursuit of symbolic water displacement highlighting a somewhat polluted pond in Beijing . In Dragonfly the focus has shifted to immersion. The use of phenomenological – elementalism runs through–out his work, and is something indicative of Eastern visual and cultural histories in general. The four symbolic elements (earth, air, fire and water) have a profound and long history in Chinese symbolism, as do the four cardinal points and the four winds, and are often translated into popular cultural terms through comics and children’s stories. The Chinese-ness of Zhang Huan ’s art is hard to assess, Since he will often pursue universal and multi-cultural symbolism fusing it with his Chinese heritage.

I began my essay with a disquisition that emphasized the body and its limited status of autonomy, and would seem to have digressed from that in my subsequent descriptive contents of his works. From the outset I wished to stress how the actions and enactments of Zhang Huan are physically embedded, and how he applies leverage (the body was once seen in the West in hydraulic terms) to the creation of arbitrary suppositions and stereotypes. That he does this from a specifically cultural point of view is inevitable, but more than that it serves the artist by exposing what he considers to be a world increasingly oppressed by a global cultural imprisonment. Whether it is the pursuit of materialist gain or intellectual superiority, the diagnostic remains much the same. Therefore his work is less a mere plaintive cry for difference, but rather a desire to a see a world that embraces a polymorphic understanding a human difference and what it must fully mean. In this respect the universal human body (in this case his body – Zhang Huan ’s body) is nothing other than engaging with what is for him the primary means at his disposal. The years of his performance prohibition in China made the artist aware that the body cannot be taken from you, and in this sense it proffers a certain example of an immediate and felt existential reality, “… this is not to say that the physical condition of an individual dictates or limits the corporal representations he or she may make, but that the corporal sign cannot be considered wholly independent of the body which fashions it.”