Stripped Down

China’s Foremost Ordeal Artist Emerges in America

All his pieces, he says, are about futility. It's like the effort to raise the pond. Human effort can only take you so far.

In '94 or '95, Zhang got access to a book called Conversations With Experimental Artists and first heard of Chris Burden and Shoot, the 1971 piece in which Burden had himself shot. Soon after, Ai Weiwei, an established artist who encouraged Zhang's performance work, brought him documentation about Tehching Hsieh, an artist well-known here in the early '80s for his arduous year-long performances: one year spent in a cage without communicating, for example. According to Zhang, Hsieh's work in particular gave Chinese artists a new understanding of what performance art could be.

But working in Beijing, says Zhang, he always felt like a criminal. After he did the blood-dripping piece, he left the city for a month, because the police were looking for him. On his return, he was beaten up in a bar by plainclothesmen. He still has the scars.

Zhang with detail from My America: “Here, no matter how poor I am, I can put my art on my wall.”
photo: Robin Holland
Zhang with detail from My America: “Here, no matter how poor I am, I can put my art on my wall.”

My America is a sort of compressed ritual for the naked, incorporating tai chi moves, prostrations from Tibetan Buddhist practice, running, crawling, and the lotus position. It ends with Zhang seated on a stool while the 56 naked others stand on three tiers of scaffolding and pelt him with bread. A woman approaches and breaks an egg on his head. He says he was making a basic inquiry: Bread is the staff of life—but is it the reason we're living? A critique of materialism? He says he's just expressing himself as an immigrant.

But sometimes Zhang feels that he has less freedom here, just because now he's part of the art world. He misses the anarchy of his old life. And he finds New York stressful, too often an atmosphere of latent violence. He saw his first gun a couple of days after moving here. So one night recently, he and his wife discussed going back. But, he told her, "I can't go back. Here, no matter how poor I am, I can put my art on my wall, I don't have to hide my videotapes. I still have an identity."

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