Zhang Huan

▪ 2008

born Jan. 3, 1965, Anyang, Henan province, China

 In 2007 Chinese artist Zhang Huan rode a wave of enormous interest in contemporary Chinese art, becoming the subject of five major solo shows—two in Berlin, and one each in New York City, London, and Madrid. Perhaps best known as a performance artist, Zhang in 2006 more or less gave up his conceptual work in order to focus on making sculptures, installations, paintings, and photographs. These he produced on a massive scale—with the help of about 100 assistants—in his studio, a 7,000-sq-m (75,000-sq-ft) former textile mill on the edge of Shanghai. Under Zhang's direction, his assistants turned out paintings made from varying shades of incense ash acquired from temples, massive sculptures of (mostly) heads covered with incense ash, assemblages that combined woodcarvings with photographs, a variety of prints, and stuffed animals, as well as giant copper hands in mudras and copper feet that recalled Buddhist statues.

      Zhang earned a B.A. (1988) at Henan University, Kaifeng—where he worked as an instructor from 1988 to 1991—and an M.A. (1993) at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Zhang and other young artists formed a collective in a slum of Beijing that came to be known as the East Village. This period was a dramatic time in Chinese history, culminating in 1989 in a series of pro-democracy rallies in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Like many Chinese art students of the time, Zhang was attracted to the avant-garde, but he had limited resources. Perhaps not surprisingly then, his expression took the form of provocative, transgressive performance art that was photographed. For most of his performances, he was nude, and he was often undergoing some painful experience, as in the piece 12 Square Metres (1994) for which he covered himself in fish oil and honey and sat motionless for several hours in a public latrine while insects crawled over him. He also initiated several group performances, such as To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain (1995). In this piece Zhang and nine others gathered on a mountain peak, removed their clothes, and laid atop one another until they achieved a height of one metre. Other characteristic images of art made during this period included Zhang's face and body covered with calligraphy, sometimes to the point of obliterating all skin surface. He was included in the influential New York exhibition “Inside Out” in 1998, and he lived and worked in New York City from 1998 to 2006. By that point he had grown tired of performance art and stated that he had run out of new ideas. He returned to China in 2006 and began to mass-produce works of stunning variety. It was clear that the change of scene had had a galvanizing effect on him.

Kathleen Kuiper

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Universalium. 2010.

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