Rescued Ming-era bricks stacked in piles at Zhang Huan’s studio complex in Shanghai. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Oct 28 2015

Layered Ash: A Visit to Zhang Huan’s Studio in Shanghai

by Michael Young

A gaggle of Zhang Huan’s people receive me when I arrive at the artist’s eight-acre art factory in Xinqiao, a town buried in the southwestern suburbs of Shanghai. There are two publicity people who double as translators and two photographers who record my every move. I feel a little uncomfortable as their cameras constantly click. The studio curator is also hovering attentively close.

The studio site is immense—a conglomerate of cathedral-like spaces that was once a hydraulic factory until Zhang took over in 2008, three years after his return to China after living in New York for two decades. With the help of his 180 or so studio workers, Zhang breathed new life into the 1960s buildings, turning the estate into an art factory on an industrial scale.  

ZHANG HUAN‘s Q Confucius No. 2 (2011) in the artist’s studion in Shanghai. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

A cow-hide sulpture from ZHANG HUAN’s “Hero” series (2009) at his studio in Shanghai. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Several of the studio’s conjoined spaces are of aircraft-hangar proportions. They are hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter; during the latter, Zhang himself retreats to a cozy, densely heated niche in a space that is more office than studio, equipped with a large boardroom table and a constantly gurgling coffee machine.

Zhang has put on some weight since we last met earlier in the year, when he was in Sydney for the installation of his 5.3-meter-tall Sydney Buddha ash sculpture at Carriageworks—a condition that he attributes to having stopped smoking. The day before our meeting he had turned 50, but he looks a decade younger. He is lean and fit and is wearing his signature high-neck mountain jacket and cap.

We walk through the complex together. There are waterways with black swans; a vegetable garden that supplies the workplace’s canteen; a cage of monkeys squabbling over food; old railway engines draped in heavy tarpaulins; rescued temple structures; piles of gray Ming dynasty bricks also salvaged from the countryside; a sculpture from the cow-skin-based “Hero” series isolated in its own vast space; the Q Confucius No 2 sculpture (2011); the Smoking Buddha (2007) in a space as long as a soccer field; exhibition rooms with fragile looking ash paintings, depicting Braille script with surfaces so delicate they would disintegrate if touched; and oil paintings where thick glutinous globs of paint cling perilously to the canvas surfaces.  

But there is one particular workshop that stops me in my tracks. Its windows and doors are covered in heavy drapes and its interior is spotless, but a soft light filters through from the building’s clerestory windows. Nothing seems to stir. I do not see one speck of dust. The space is virtually empty but for one wall, where a monumental ash painting of breathtaking proportions hangs. At just over 37 meters long, and over two meters high, this is Zhang’s largest and most ambitious ash painting to date, and I am the first outsider allowed to see it. The heard of studio workers gather around me to point out various features of the work, which is based on a black-and-white photograph of Chairman Mao from June 15, 1964, in which he is surrounded by leaders of his government and 1,000 loyal supporters. Zhang has used historic photographs several times before in his ash paintings, and it is a trope that allows him to explore the themes of history and memory and how either can alter or taint the perception of the other.

At the end of this month, on October 30, June 15, 1964 will go on show at New York’s Pace Gallery where, because of its vast size, the work will be hung in two sections. Each section will meet at a corner of the room, in an L-shaped hang.

This new painting took three years to make, with as many as ten assistants working on it daily. In it, Chairman Mao sits center stage, with his hands planted confidently on his knees, wearing a white shirt that seems to glow. Deng Xiaoping is somewhere there, too, along with Zhou Enlai and each of their wives. One of Zhang’s assistants delights in pointing out Jiang Qing, Mao’s last wife, and how the figure ended up in prison where she eventually committed suicide in 1991. “Many ended up in prison,” Zhang says, in reference to the downfall of Mao’s regime, with a note of sagacity in his voice.

Everyday Zhang had watched over the painting’s progress, and the day before my visit, on his birthday, he had just put the finishing touches to the work’s surface. “He applies a lot of the ash himself. Every moment, everyday Mr. Zhang is here [at the studio],” I am told by his entourage.

The 18-panel work was made by laying it flat on the floor, priming the canvas with preparatory glue and then applying the ash, which is sourced from Buddhist temples in the Shanghai region. “The temples know now what I am looking for. When they have enough ash they contact me. and we send a truck and make a donation [in return],” Zhang says.

The ash is then separated by six dedicated workers who work in a room cloudy with dust from the material. Ash flakes of similar size and color are grouped together, resulting in pale gray dust gathered in piles. It is a slow and painstaking process where the materiality of the delicate substance could dissipate into nothingness at any minute.

Zhang started his ash painting series after returning to China from New York. The fragile and ephemeral nature of the material had coalesced with his Buddhist views on the temporality of existence, which, in turn, inspired the works.

Given the laborious nature of making such an immense ash painting, I am skeptical about Zhang’s physical input in his latest work. I question him on the matter. “It is not just about applying the ash to the surface,” he replies. “I introduce several important factors to this work: firstly the inspiration and then how to convert the photograph into an ash painting. This took a long time to think about. The project of making this painting is just like a battle when a general gives orders to soldiers. In battles, apart from giving orders at critical moments, the general himself also needs to fight. My role is to control the rhythm and quality and to control the soldiers,” he adds.

Detail of ZHANG HUAN’s new 37-meter ash painting, entitled June 15, 1964 (2015). Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

ZHANG HUAN’s new 37-meter ash painting, entitled June 15, 1964 (2015). Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Zhang Huan in his Shanghai studio. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

I press him on the significance of the works length. Why is it 37 meters long? “My studio wall is 37 meters long. If I had a 100-meter wall the painting would be 100 meters long,” he explains.

I gaze at the immensity of this work, overwhelmed by its Zen-like calmness and also disturbed by the fact that the photograph that it is based on was taken two years after Mao’s Great Famine had led to the deaths of millions of Chinese peasants. Soon after, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), a decade that witnessed the Communist party destroy the country’s cultural legacy.

All this, however, seems of little account to Zhang. Instead, I recall a previous conversation where Zhang had espoused the virtues of the current “Chinese Dream”: “We have the ‘Chinese dream’ […]  The revival of our culture, our history, our civilization, our nation, our art, of everything. Our Chairman [Xi] Jinping says, the day we will realize our ‘Chinese dream’ will be in 2049—100 years after the founding of the Communist party [in China]. We believe this.” This may be too idealistic for a Westerner to comprehend, but I do not doubt Zhang’s artistic credibility.

“Maybe as I get old I will give up the art and go to the temple and become a monk. A studio in a cave would be an amazing place,” Zhang muses. Provided that the cave has the proportions of an underground cathedral, I can’t help but think.

“Zhang Huan: Let There Be Light” is on view at Pace Gallery, New York, until December 5, 2015.