By Daniel Kunitz
Zhang Huan - Blessings, Published by PaceWildenstein, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-930743-89-2

The Circle of Zhang Huan’s "Blessings," Embodied

Something began to coalesce for the Chinese artist Zhang Huan around the turn of the millennium. In 2000 he made his first acknowledged sculpture, Rubens , which grew out of a performance piece of the same title. Life-sized and with a gold patina, the sculpture was a bronze cast of Zhang’s nude body, to which some twenty cast hands had been attached, touching the artist. The artist’s figure copies the posture of the famous Chinese terracotta warriors, standing rigid with fists forming open circles, while each of the attached hands assumes its own pose: a banker’s hand counts money, another, says Zhang, “makes the ‘fuck you’ sign.” This hand might be taken as a reminder of the artist’s punk-spirited youth in Beijing ’s East Village . That he chose to make this first sculptural work a type of self–portrait was characteristic of Zhang’s interests; he had used his body, usually nude, in the numerous performances for which he had come to be known over the course of the previous seven years. And that focus on the body—on himself—remained a trait of his rebelliousness, the punk individualism set against the group think of the Cultural Revolution. It’s an attitude alluded to by Richard Vine in an essay on Zhang’s 2007 retrospective at Asia Society in New York: “almost every one of the show’s 20 works features Zhang’s own compelling likeness—a fact at odds with the dearth of self-portraiture in his nation’s earlier art and contrary to stereotypical notions of self-effacing ‘Chineseness.’” And while China is not a homogeneous culture, Zhang’s work has consistently reflected its many facets; he is very much a Chinese artist, yet one who freely mines many cultural veins, both Eastern and Western. He has, for instance, spoken about his love of both Kurt Cobain’s music as well as Tibetan Buddhist temple music, though he understood the words of neither.

The performance of Rubens took place in Ghent, hometown of the painter, with whom Zhang has said he felt “a special connection,” and it is particularly interesting because it seems to foreshadow later developments in his life—not just his sculptural work, but his studio practice as well. Over the course of an hour, sixty people dressed in 17th-century clothing enacted scenes inspired by The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus , based on Zhang’s “impressions of Rubens and his many assistants.” The work ended with the artist writing out a poem by Li Shang Yin, from the Tang Dynasty: “Sunset is so beautiful, but it is close to dusk.” In an interview, Zhang has remarked on the poem, “It’s about getting older, about beautiful things ending.”

He didn’t stop creating performances until 2005, and what one might call the third, or mature, phase of his work didn’t begin until he moved from New York back to China in 2006, when he established a large studio and began creating the sorts of sculptures, ash paintings, and Memory Doors presented in this exhibition. But Rubens marked a turning point in another way: with that first sculpture, he “concretized the performance,” he has written. And while his later object-based work—his paintings and sculptures—might seem remote from the performance-art pieces, the two modes are in fact interconnected. Indeed much of his recent object-based work can be understood, at least partly, as embodied, or concretized, performance.

Consider Giant No. 1 , an enormous sculpture, more than thirteen feet high, of a cowhide-covered colossus upon whom a small Zhang figure climbs. It turns out the sculpture relates to My Rome , Zhang’s 2005 performance at the Capitoline Museum . For that piece, the artist, clad only in a white sarong, climbed up and lay down on the huge, bearded and tendril-tressed marble river god, from the 2nd century CE, in the Marforio fountain. Zhang’s actions in the performance inform the imagery rather than the content of Giant No. 1 —it is not, in other words, a direct concretization, though it does obliquely explore some of the same terrain. The procedures in all Zhang’s performances evolved out of such quotidian actions as eating, sleeping, and using the toilet; photographs of My Rome , for example, capture the artist kissing the statue, embracing it, climbing on it, and reclining next to it. Being performances, however, they tend to situate such actions within a theatrical or dramatic context; they establish a mise-en-scène: when he was pelted with bread in My America (Hard to Acclimatize) , to take one particularly clear example, it occurred while he sat amidst a sort of three-sided stage made up of triple tiers of nude men and women. A sculpture like Giant No. 1 also partakes of this dynamic, expressing basic actions or facts within a dramatic context: it addresses birth and death, as well as survival (clothing) through the cow hides that cover the figure, while its monumental size magnifies these basic themes to the level of spectacle.

The concretized performance of a work like Rubens seems to be an expression of Zhang’s broader interest in mixing or unifying artistic modes. If, for instance, employing real bodies and everyday actions in a performance art piece blurs the distinction between art and life, Zhang’s Memory Doors , begun in 2006, extend the metaphor of the blurred distinction by mixing photography and sculpture. In these works, historical black-and-white photographs depicting pre-capitalist Chinese scenes—workers unloading grain from a truck, a cannon standing in a field, butchers in a slaughterhouse, the flensing of a whale—are enlarged and affixed to large wooden household doors culled in Shanxi Province. Areas of the photographs are then carved into, creating low reliefs of the photographic images. “When I was a child I lived on a farm,” Zhang has said. “These doors remind me of my life and reflect my life experiences.” One finds indications of those experiences even in the wrinkled and bubbled surfaces of the photographs—they are left imperfectly applied in order to recall the notices slapped on the doors of the homes of people condemned during the Cultural Revolution.

The juxtaposed positive and negative sections of the doors enact a clash of illusions—photographs of “reality” bang up against artful sculpture made from real, or functional, objects. What should we call real, they seem to ask: the convincingly carved gun and tendrils of smoke in Cannon or the soldiers photographed fighting alongside? At the same time, the Memory Doors cause us to question the distinction between artistic modes: should we call them paintings or sculptures or photographs?

Or, perhaps, embodied performances? For there are several dimensions of performance one can discover in these works. One might point to the way the daily actions of life were performed for the camera, which are then ultimately transformed into three-dimensional representations. But to fully grasp all the aspects of performance in the Memory Doors , as in all of his object-based work, one needs to consider Zhang’s studio practice.

After moving to Shanghai two years ago, Zhang established a multi-site studio of some 75,000 square feet with as many as a hundred assistants. No surprise, then, that people began likening it to a factory, with a “production line” rivaling that of “Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.” Yet artists such as Hirst or Koons suppress evidence of the “hand” in their work in favor of their brand ; they aim at replicating the uniformity of mass production. One could argue, however, that such comparisons to the rather soulless, quasi-corporate fabrication plants of his Western counterparts miss key aspects of Zhang’s studio practice. That similar charges were levied against him long before he had an object-producing studio, back to the time of his performance work—“some artists think that I am only an organizer, which I believe is unfair” —suggest that both these and the later characterizations might have more to do with current assumptions than observed facts. Perhaps we might find a more apt parallel in the practice of his admired Peter Paul Rubens, who also operated a studio with numerous assistants. Here is the art historian Hans Vlieghe situating Rubens’s studio practice in a tradition stretching back through the Renaissance to the late Middle Ages:

Rubens could never have produced the immense body of work that bears his name without the help of a properly organized studio. . . . The Italian Renaissance had stressed the difference between disegno , the actual intellectual constituent of the artistic creative process which belongs fully to the responsibility of the master, and the execution which up to a certain point was the work of trained assistants. . . . Rubens considered a composition painted by his assistants to his own design, and finally touched up by himself, as ‘ originale da mia mano .’”

Like Rubens, Zhang touches and works on every piece that leaves his studio. He employs numerous assistants in order to realize the extraordinary fecundity of his ideas, of his disegno . When, in a video about his practice he says, “My brain is my studio,” he is indeed referring to his role in creating the intellectual content—the design—of his works.

But there is another, arguably unique aspect of Zhang’s studio practice, which connects it to performance—and that is its collaborative nature. Although, as in a Renaissance studio, Zhang works with highly skilled assistants, his is a far more cooperative facility than those of the distant past. His workers, for example, have considerable latitude in deciding what parts of the photographs on the Memory Doors to carve out. Thus the all-too-real collector in Paying the Grain Tax is seen in a photograph, though his hand, depicted in relief, reaches into the sculpted realm; and the nearby grain, rendered so accurately one seems to feel the wind brushing across it, allows the carvers to show off their considerable abilities.

Still, the collaborative and performance-based nature of Zhang’s studio practice is not all limited to the Memory Doors : it is at least as richly evident in the ash paintings as well. To highlight this dimension of his studio practice, one of Zhang’s assistants will be present in the gallery during the exhibition, at work on an ash painting. But before discussing the performance of the painting, we should look at the medium, subject matter, and style of these pictures.

The ash comes from incense burned in Buddhist temples in the Shanghai metropolitan area—incense is lit during prayer rituals, and the ash produced represents a literal manifestation of the dreams and wishes of the temple-goers. One might say that for Zhang, the ash paintings also signify a sort of collaboration with his countrymen: “How many millions of peoples’ dreams are completed in this light ash . . . ,” he marvels. As with the simple actions of Zhang’s performances, the ash is part of the basic daily life of people in China , and as in the performances, the ash paintings situate these humble facts of daily life within a theatrical or dramatized context. In fact, the most recent of them are based on propaganda photos, scenes that were staged and directed and then distributed to the populace. And when translated into the paintings, that staged, photographic look might be described appropriately as cinematic. The spotlighting, which illuminates the face and helmet of the Pilot , for example, produces a dramatic, and distinctly filmic—indeed almost noir —play of shadows in the picture. Its tight framing, giving the pilot a close-up, also has a filmic quality. By contrast, another ash painting, Going to Work , utilizes a soft-focus, high-angle shot to sentimentalize the camaraderie of the group heading out to their labors. And look carefully at a canvas such as Battlefield , which also employs a cinematic, dramatically lit mise-en scène, in this case showing tank warfare, and you’ll see bits of stick and other detritus from the ash pile—a reminder at once of the “real” world and the world of the spirit from which the ashen material comes.

It is, however, in the extraordinary Canal Building that all the embodied performative elements and mixed modes discussed above come together. A 59 x 19-foot monolith of compacted ash that appears to be cement, nearly six feet high, supporting a history painting in ash of the construction of a canal—a symbol, one could say, of the building of China with the dreams of its populace as its material. The epic tale here, with its “cast” of hundreds, unfolds along an extensive horizontal vector, like a cinematic reel or a traditional Chinese scroll. Simultaneously a massive, minimalist sculpture and a painting, the work will also entail a sort of performance demonstrating the artist’s collaborative studio relationships: an assistant will be present in the exhibition, working on the piece.

In a recent interview conducted by Arne Glimcher,11 Zhang describes the work as representing “who I am as an artist.” It is indeed a unification of who he is and has been as an artist; a unification of artistic modes; a concretization—in painting and sculpture—of a lifetime’s performance. And one senses in it a circle being completed, the rebel punk artist who began with a performance in a toilet, and who needed to leave his country in order to find his history, has come back: the prodigal son has returned home.