Zhang Huan (born 1965) is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai, whose provocative performance art and sculpture seeks to both honour and reject elements of his national history. He created “angst-ridden performance pieces that brimmed with pain and a meditative masochism,” (Sebag-Montefiore, 2015) defying cultural norms of the conservative Chinese context which often led to a reprimanding by officials for the perceived inappropriateness of his actions.
Zhang’s first major performance titled Angel (1993), responded to China’s one child policy, ‘questioning the strength of a citizen’s ‘free’ agency’ (Gould, 2016). This work involved Zhang lying naked covered in red liquid and dismembered children’s dolls. His piece was so shocking that the gallery closed early, however this highlighted the deep limitations and anxieties within the traditionalist Chinese outlook.
In one of his most iconic performances, Zhang covered himself with fish oil and honey and sat still in a public toilet in one of the poorest areas of Beijing. He remained unmoving for several hours while his body was enveloped by insects. This work relates to his poor and underprivileged youth living on the streets. Consequently, he exclaimed that if he were to become a mayor of a Chinese town, he would “first change the public toilets” (Zhang Huan in Sebag-Montefiore, 2015). However, this performance had darker undertones, the physical extremity reflecting on the mind’s ability to conquer discomfort, tying into the practise of Chinese women voluntarily aborting their female children.
A personal favourite work is Zhang’s ‘Ash Heads’, which are large sculptural pieces constructed from incense and ash collected in Shanghai temples. This laborious process involved weekly visits to gather and sort ash, determining different pigments and textures to create depth in the artwork. This poignant medium is symbolic of the devout traditions it oversaw, paying tribute to death, rebirth and spirituality. The artwork is intensified by the ever-present scent of worship which pervades the gallery space. Contrasting to his previous works about suffering, ‘Ash Heads’ is an appreciation and reminder of the purity within Chinese religion, suggesting that it is still appreciated by the younger generation today.
Therefore, through Zhang’s provocative artwork we can perceive values and perspectives of the of positives and negatives within embedded cultural values and traditions.
Gallery, S. 2016, Zhang Huan – Artist’s Profile – The Saatchi Gallery, Saatchigallery.com. viewed 11 November 2016, <http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/zhang_huan.htm>.
Gould, R. 2016, Chinese Artist Zhang Huan’s Contemporary Reality Is Steeped In Tradition, The Culture Trip. viewed 11 November 2016, <https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/chinese-artist-zhang-huans-contemporary-reality-is-steeped-in-tradition/>.
Sebag-Montefiore, C. 2016, Sydney Buddha artist Zhang Huan on Chinese dreams and toilets, the Guardian. viewed 11 November 2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/09/sydney-buddha-artist-zhang-huan-interview>.