By Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan - Blessings, Published by PaceWildenstein, 2008
During 2007 and 2008, Zhang Huan created a work entitled Canal Building . It appears to be a huge cement block (5’ 11" x 59’ 1" x 19’ 8"), a minimal sculpture, just tall enough so that you can’t view the top surface. In reality it is made of compacted temple ash. Above it is a scaffolding walkway reachable by stairs on both sides. Looking down from the walkway, the top surface is an ash painting (19’ 8" x 59’ 1") of a landscape with figures digging a canal. Its proportions are reminiscent of a classic Chinese scroll painting. The following remarks refer to this work and his use of temple ash.
Last year I received an invitation from the Shanghai Museum to exhibit my work. All the staff and people in my studio were ecstatic, because after all I was born in China and, until now, I’ve never had a solo exhibition there. This was my first opportunity and I really cherished it. I wanted to somehow harness the energy of my lifetime and try to create something that isn’t really there, something that cannot be bought, something that is not marketable. I wanted to create something totally original that really represents who I am as an artist. I have been using the incense ash as a medium for the past two years. I’ve been making cubes, small ones or large ones, using compacted ash, and I thought about how I could use this as a medium to create something that’s never been seen before. It led to the creation of Canal Building . Originally, I was thinking about filling the entire inside of the rectangle with ash, but even if we collected all of the incense ash from the metropolitan area of Shanghai, we still wouldn’t have had enough to fill the whole space within, so what we had to do is actually use an armature to make a frame to support the ash. One solid block of ash would really have fulfilled my need as an artist.
I use ash to express and combine all the dreams, aspirations, all the spiritual longings, all the ideas that people have somehow infused into incense ash. When I see people going to the temple and praying, they have all their life’s wishes and prayers going along with this particular material—burned incense offerings. I really wanted to combine it and use it as the foundation of this particular piece. It’s the collective spirit and collective thinking, and collective wishes of the people in China
The idea came to me because for most people in China , incense ash is part of their daily life in all the rituals that we do, including the Chinese New Year. We have to go to the gravesites of our ancestors and burn incense and ask our grandparents to come home with us and share the meal together, so ash is already there in our daily life. And for the first thirty years of my life, even though this was part of my life, I never gave it a thought. It was there but I didn’t see it. After eight years abroad, when I returned, it really caught my eye and I was very, very touched. I think the experience I had working and growing up in a foreign land somehow really gave me a different perspective, and different feelings. You have that distance to look back and see the things that you took for granted. After eight years in New York , I went back to China , and at a temple I saw many people that were burning incense. Some would be on their knees, praying and touching the Buddha’s feet. I was thinking, are they sick, or is the society sick, why are they doing this? Praying for hours on end talking to themselves and burning incense. It made me very curious and I wanted to find out more. These devotees have many different reasons for being there. They could be people praying to God to give them offspring, or people who are ill, or whose parents are ill, praying to God in order for them to improve their health. Or they are people who want to advance their positions in their jobs, in their businesses, want to get rich. So they’re using incense as a way to somehow convey their hopes and dreams and the faith they have with this particular material that they’re holding in their hands. Incense that burns and turns to ash.
On the subjects of the paintings.
I’m using this spiritual means to transcend history. It’s an embodiment of the spirit, to create a more concise and precise overview of history. Some are set in this historic context, in the time of Mao. He said that there are three major mountains that have to be removed: one is the old China , another one is the rich capitalists, and the third one is the American empire, the imperialist empire, and so these pieces are born out of that indicative historical context. The context is that in order for the people to have a better future, they have to remove these three obstacles. In essence it was idealistic—not mine but never the less idealistic. But at the time I never thought about it in the larger context than the saying of Mao.
I have a library of photographs from the 1920s and 1930s to the 1980s. These are pictures that I found when I purchased some picture books and photo books on the streets, and those are my own collection. But the pictures from the 50s to the 80s, which I’m currently using, are actually images from the official propagandist publications distributed by the government once a month. When I look back at these pictures, I think that they are sort of from my parents’ generation but also from my generation. These are some very important images in human history, because to me they are so real, but at the same time they are false, the juxtaposition of real and false at the same time. Some of the images in those old pictures would be from my training for the military. But these are actually staged pictures, outdoors and professionally lit, with the directors calling shots of how to position yourself; these were being choreographed and carefully worked out. I noticed that the female characters that you see in these pictures are usually depicted to look very healthy and strong, with sort of chubby faces because the rumor was that people thought that the people in China were starving. So they wanted to show an image that proved that they were actually well fed. These are some of my childhood memories.
Between 1993 and 2005, Zhang Huan’s principal work was performance art documented by photography.
If you know my previous work, the performance art, the pieces are a collaboration between myself, volunteers, and other artists. So now, to utilize other artists and people to be part of my painting, is just something very natural. I’m limited with one brain, two hands, and if I can combine millions of hands together, millions of minds together and at the same time be selective, I can create better work.
The big difference for an artist like me, with a large studio, is that this is not a factory. A factory has a streamlined production line, but in my studio, every single tiny detail of the artwork I create I actually personally supervise and it has to go through me first. A factory can just mass produce without paying attention to any of the objects that you’re producing, but for me the one thing about an artist is that you never produce something that’s exactly the same. When I begin to repeat myself, then I will stop and no longer call myself an artist.
In 2006, Zhang Huan created a series entitled Memory Doors . He collected old doors from country houses on which he pasted photographs. He selected areas in the photographs that would be carved away into bas-reliefs interacting with the remaining portions of the photographs.
At the climax of the Cultural Revolution I was still very young; I was born in 1965, so I was a little boy then. And I could see that people stopped working and all they did was parade on the streets with flags in their hands, waving the flags everywhere. So almost like a hobby, I started collecting those flags, just because I thought it was interesting. And when I was in school, no matter where you went, whether this was work or school, there was always a space for you to put up character posters. So when you’d look at these places or the walls covered with those big character posters, on the surface it looks very much like a forum for democratic and free expressions. But in fact, it’s a place designated by the directors of the central government, and it’s mostly about the agenda, or the propaganda that they were trying to sell during the period of the Cultural Revolution.
I think China is very different from other countries; it is a country that is big on movements. It likes the fact that it only has the collectives; everyone’s contributing to one thing, to accomplish one particular task. So every five or ten years, you have a different movement, and everyone will put everything down and devote themselves to that one particular movement.
In 1958, there was a whole movement of trying to somehow have the production of the steel mills match the production of the British Empire , but also surpass the American Empire. In order for us to achieve that, collectively every family contributed their own utensils and all the household products to be part of the steel production. Therefore those numbers were false. Yes we might have the production from the steel mill, but people didn’t have a place to sit down, or what to cook with, or a table to cook on. So it was a big problem at the time. It’s very, very unique in Chinese culture. This collective mentality could sometimes be a strain. During the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping went to Shanghai and talked to the mayor of Shanghai and said the development in Shanghai is still too slow, not fast enough, and in just one instant overnight, you had this huge boom resulting in the development of Shanghai .
Getting back to the Memory Doors , I found these in Shanxi Province because most of the people down there are taking their doors down to change into iron gates, and sturdier doors. And also they’re tearing down the old houses, and therefore the doors became available. The tradition of the doors like this is that on top of the door you would usually paste or put on something. It could be an image of the god of wealth, and the god of love, and it’s just to bring good luck and good fortune or to somehow protect you from the evil spirits. So this is part of the Chinese tradition. And this is very, very important for Chinese people; as poor as you might be, you still need to manage to pay someone to write those tributes, so that you can put them by the doors, so people can see them. This is something that’s crucial to the respect of every family.
The old pictures that I collected and I used for my pieces are in three different themes. One would be the military theme, one the day labor theme, and one the daily life. For me, in the memory door pieces I want to utilize these images of memories. I decide which part I want to keep and which one to take out, I can then create these two different spaces, or different dimensions that function between reality and fiction. And it is the job of the viewer to decide which is reality and which is fiction. So I want to show this juxtaposition of the real and false. Both are false but two falses can make it true.
In China , the tradition of carving has about 500, 600 years of history. For me to put pictures on the wooden frame door, and to carve out certain sections is something I have never seen before in our history, and to use the incense ash to do artwork, this is also something I’ve never seen before. When I talk about my experience as an artist, I really don’t think I would say that I’m an intelligent person. I think the key to my success is to just do it without thinking to much. I don’t reason, I just do it.
Giant No. 3 is a colossal figure covered in animal skins.
The idea of the body is the common thread throughout my artwork, something to do with the body, something to do with the skin. That’s what you see on the surface, as a language. And behind that surface is this sense of sadness, sense of incongruence, of frustration and despair.
I really want to keep my work away from minimalism or conceptual art, because I want to do something very different, to dramatize it, to tell a different story about it, to contextualize it very differently, and make it part of daily life. It’s not something so far removed from reality; it’s a different type of social realism.
At this same time, I am always looking for new mediums and new material to work with. When I drink a bottle of water, after I finish half of it, I’ve already found my next bottle of water. One phrase to sum up my whole life is that I’m a blind cat running into a dead mouse. It’s luck, just luck.