Why is Zhang Huan important?
Zhang Huang1 is one of the greatest and perhaps most popular controversial artists in contemporary China. He first started making a name for himself in the mid-1990s thanks to his performances, many of which have frequently been regarded as too punishing. Case in point, some of his more popular performances featured him naked and covered in insects.
Zhang Huan – My New York, 2002, Whitney Biennial, New York
Zhang Huan (张洹) is one of China’s best known conceptual and performance artists. In his sculptures and paintings he references the history of his home country. As such, his pieces contain components of political, religious and intellectual messages as well as anonymous portraits and landscapes scenes. Most of his works have mainly been used to promote Chinese culture and to spread a message with the intention of sanitizing the city. In particular, the issue of toilets is very dear to him and it has helped him create one of his most famous performance pieces.
Zhang Huan – 12 Square Meters, 1994, single channel video, 3min 2sec, documentation of a 40-minute performance
Zhang Huan is no stranger to controversy. Having attended school at a time when China was undergoing a dramatic time in its history, Zhang learned a lot from the years of protests and demonstrations that would be staged in front of the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As an avid fan of Avant-garde art, Zhang did not really have adequate resources at his disposal that would allow him to execute his artistic vision. As such, and not surprisingly, Zhang decided to change the way he expressed himself by adopting a more provocative and transgressive form of performance art, which was later photographed and documented.
Zhang Huan – 12 Square Meters, 1994, documentation of a 40-minute performance
Zhang Huan – Sydney Buddha, left: Aluminium Buddha, 370x290x260cm, right: Ash Buddha, 350x480x290cm, Carriageworks, Sydney, Australia, 2015
Zhang Huan’s Ash Buddha
Zhang Huan, born in 1965, started out his career as a painter and then moved to performance art and then resorted back to painting. He is also a sculptor and photographer, but his main focus is being a performance artist. Throughout his career, he has made extensive use of ash and even built a few sculptures with it. Zhang says that he considers ash to be symbolic as it represents the hopes and prayers of those who usually burn the incense. To him, the ash sculptures represent a collective blessing, memory and soul of the Chinese people. The ash is collected from various temples in Shanghai, a time-consuming process that involves many hands.