ZHANG HUAN12 Square Meters,1994, Documentation of a 40-minute performance. Courtesy the artist.

Khvay Samnang on Zhang Huan

Cambodia China USA
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

My first encounter with Zhang Huan’s work occurred in Cambodia in 2008 thanks to independent curator Zoe Butt. I was with my artist collective, Stiev Selapak / Art Rebels, and she introduced Zhang’s and other Chinese artists’ work to us. Back then, my English language skills were not advanced enough for me to do more research on him, but I was particularly impressed by his performance piece from 1994, titled 12 Square Meters, where he sat naked and drenched in fish oil and honey, in a filthy public toilet in Beijing’s East Village artist community. He sat on the toilet, almost immobile, for an hour. Over time, his body became covered with flies.

When I look at the photographic documentation of the performance, it seems like a form of sculpture to me. The artist is sitting very still and doesn’t move, even when the flies land on him. Sometimes I wonder why Zhang performed this kind of torture on himself. What kind of issues did he face? Why did he decide to do this? When I look closely at his body in the photo, it seems there are many meanings— issues in society, the environment and human rights—behind it that I can’t quite describe. The image is certainly powerful.

In 2011, I watched a video of Zhang’s performance of My New York (2002) outside the Whitney Museum and in other locations in New York. For this work, he collaborated with many people, including a female singer, whose strong, operatic voice augmented his performance. He combines three symbols: migrant workers, doves and bodybuilding. He reveals his New York through concerns of identity, through the Buddhist tradition of setting live animals free (to accumulate positive karma), and through humans’ animalistic instincts and machine-like behaviors.

Even though it is short and simple, the work is symbolic and speaks to global society. For the duration of the performance, Zhang wore a variety of raw meats on his body, instantly remodeling his physique into one of immense power, in both the physical and the spiritual sense—with so many dead animals hanging off him, he became king of them all. He looked like a bodybuilder who takes drugs and pushes oneself beyond the limits of their training on a long-term basis, until their heart cannot possibly bear such enormous stress. A typical bodybuilder builds up strength over the course of decades, transforming themselves from something fragile into a powerful figure. Zhang, however, became a champion bodybuilder overnight.

I was interested in the way that he allowed the audience to engage with him in public. I was moved to read a statement about the work from his website, where he said, “Something may appear to be formidable, but I will question whether or not it truly is so powerful.”

I have known many artists and Zhang is one I regard highly. My multidisciplinary practice spans performance, photography, video, installation and sculpture, and my research practice is focused on navigating space, strategy and time. I always follow the news to observe and watch for sources of problems. This fuels inspiration for my practice; later on, I will usually travel to that specific place to investigate these issues and to find solutions or to devise strategies for how to untangle these challenges through my work. Wherever there are problems or wherever there is going to be a problem, I will surely follow. I am particularly interested in Zhang because of how he uses his body to perform in his own specific space and time to describe what is happening in societies and the environment in China and the United States.

The last work I wish to talk about is To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997). Zhang again collaborated with different people for this work. A group stood randomly inside the pond with him and he asked one boy to sit on his neck. When I was watching this video, I was reminded again of the slogan: “When there’s oppression, there’s resistance.”

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