A buddha sculpture in progress by ZHANG HUAN. Installation view at the artist’s studio in Shanghai, 2007. Photo by Tom Uglow. Courtesy Zhang Huan Studio, Shanghai.

Thinking Big

Zhang Huan

USA China

With his 1998 move to New York, Zhang Huan became a standard-bearer for China’s contemporary art awakening. China’s past and present realities reverberated through images that were—for a Western audience hungry for insight—abstract yet legible, conceptually nuanced yet physically compelling. Zhang’s reputation for enduring the abject —as in his celebrated performance in a squalid public toilet, 12m2 (1994)—had preceded him to the US. By the time he performed naked on a bed of ice at PS1 Contemporary Art Center for the exhibition “New Chinese Art: Inside Out” and staged a perverse, multi-faith bread-throwing séance with 56 naked Americans (My America, Deitch Projects, New York, 2000), his name had become synonymous with Chinese performance art. But Zhang’s recent return to China and his pursuit of new formal directions yield fresh perspectives on some timeless ideas that haunt his work.

Zhang studied painting at Henan University, but his 1993 move to the Beijing East Village commune saw him abandon traditional media in favor of experimentation with his own body. While he made his mark with these performances, Zhang has nothing against producing objects. In fact, he has often engaged in direct confrontations with the concrete, physical world. 3006m3: 65kg (1997) marked a futile attempt, using an elaborate rigging system, to pull down Tokyo’s Watari-Um Museum using only his own body mass. Actions such as Raising the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997), in which Zhang and 40 migrant workers stood chest-deep in a pond, were temporary interruptions of nature’s status quo.

The artist turned to sculpture in 2000, and by 2005, had all but stopped creative performances. “The ideas [for performances] had run out. Outside China, I was like a tourist, I was travelling so much. I’d lost the mystery.” With his 2005 relocation to Shanghai, he says, his “memory was reborn.” But despite this reconnection with his native culture, Zhang is circumspect about China’s mercurial art market. He keeps a low profile here, one that belies his prodigious productivity and the queue of Western museums and dealers at his door. His expansive studio complex in Shanghai’s southern Minhong district is a maelstrom of creative energy, operating on an industrial scale. Zhang employs around 100 workers and craftspeople, six days a week, in three warehouses (one housing a semi-operational abattoir).

The printing studio employs 10 full-time staff. Since June 2006, they have been expanding and transferring old photographs onto enormous antique house doors, brought from Shanxi province complete with iron straps and fittings. The source imagery is social realist, spanning the iconographic tropes through which labor was glorified under communism, from fishermen and farmhands to scientists.

Next door in the carving workshop a dozen artisans chip away, preparing each panel for printing. It would almost be misleading to call the prints “works on paper.” The paper itself—special nine-ply xuan stock from Anhui province—has a sculptural presence, and each print requires strenuous teamwork. The industrial scale of Zhang’s operations invites comparisons with Renaissance masters or the hands-off art businessmen of the 1980s, like Jeff Koons or Mark Kostabi. Zhang admits his role is more like that of a film director, but his involvement is constant, crossing every level of production.

All this is a great leap from Zhang’s body-centered beginnings. His art has become more object-oriented and collectible. Yet the continuities outnumber the apparent departures. One example is the preponderance of animals. A new series of large-scale paintings teems with insects, rendered in painstaking detail. His life-sized stuffed Donkey (2005)—a beast popularly associated in China with genital endowment—mounts a replica of Shanghai’s Jinmao Tower, arch-icon of the vertiginous development boom transforming the city. In one warehouse, a young taxidermied bull is suspended six feet off the ground chewing earnestly at a timber post, while below stand a herd of reconstituted, mutant bovines, including headless Siamese twins, one even resembling the two-headed “Pushmi-pullyu” creature from the Dr. Doolittle children’s stories.

Another constant is faith. For Peace 1 (2001), the artist cast a written genealogy of his ancestral village on the surface of a giant bell. The bell’s freestanding knocker was a swinging bronze statue of the artist. This personal spin on Buddhist symbology returns in colossal new Buddha sculptures, mostly busts modelled on the artist’s face. One 12-foot bust is encrusted with the ash of incense burnt at temples. Smoking joss sticks jut out from its surface, baby dolls emerge from the crust and crawl around, the hulking thing smoulders constantly, like a living volcanic landscape. Another big Buddha head, wrought from copper, lies face-up on the studio floor, suffocated by a whole cowskin, hooves dangling from its brow-like jewelry. Once set, the skin will form a separate work.

The whole compound smoulders; the air is thick with ash, collected weekly from some 20 temples around Shanghai. In an adjoining warehouse (the studio’s “soul”) it sits in still combusting piles, waiting to be sifted and sorted into palettes of varying hues and grades, from superfine dust to large flakes of incinerated paper, the remains of paper offerings for the dead. From here it is applied to large canvases prepared with sumptuous, impasto grounds. These gray scale “ash paintings” aspire to the material density of an Anselm Kiefer, though the artist cites diverse inspirations from Rembrandt to Giacometti and the enveloping linear abstraction of American artist Terry Winters. Like the prints, they are remediations of photographs, in step with a wider imperative among China’s contemporary artists to revisit their country’s social history, exploring how images work in the construction and the decomposition of collective memory. Family portraits, a village official standing in a marsh, a burning US flag, the symbolic and the banal consigned to a desiccated topography that mimics—but also reverses—the peeling and fading of history.

Zhang Huan’s new works perform a kind of archaeology in reverse. Like reliquaries, they open dialogues with the past; but like hopes and prayers they also address the future.