The Peculiar World of Chinese Art Star Zhang Huan


If 20th-century Western art was jump-started by a urinal (submitted by Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” to the 1917 Independents exhibition), a founding moment for the new Chinese art took place in a public toilet on the outskirts of Beijing in 1994. There, Zhang Huan—a 29-year-old artist living beside a garbage dump in the city’s eastern suburbs, a ramshackle neighborhood that he and his friends had dubbed “the East Village” in emulation of New York’s bohemian mecca—stepped into a typically squalid latrine on a summer day and felt himself “devoured by flies.”

That’s where he got the inspiration for his performance a few days later, when, smearing his naked body with honey and fish oil, he sat motionless for an hour in a similarly filthy “rest room” while little winged creatures crawled across him and into his eyes and nose. Few people witnessed 12 Square Meters (whose title derived from the latrine’s dimensions) beyond a couple of unwitting neighbors who came in to pee, and some invited cameramen. A Kafkaesque meditation on mortality (with the flies enacting their time-honored role as memento mori), and a stoic assertion of the persistence of an inner life amid fleshly degradations, it was also political art in the deepest sense: firmly rooted in the realities of daily life, and using the most readily available material, including time and the artist’s body.

Born into a farming family in Henan province, Zhang arrived in Beijing in 1991 to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and was soon drawn to the radical artistic fringe. “Zhang Huan: Altered States,” the Asia Society’s spare and evocative mid-career survey, traces the changes since those early years, when, as an impoverished dissident working “underground,” he’d have his cohorts engage in futile collective endeavors—lying naked in a stack at a high altitude, for example, in a piece called To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), or wading into the muck To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997). Videotapes and photographs of these (now famous) performances are included in this exhibition. Rooted in ancient Chinese proverbs but infused with existentialist themes, they also subtly undermined a society’s quest for measurable results, its endless Five-Year Plans.

Chinese authorities took note. Zhang often found himself on the run, until— invited to New York for “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” a watershed exhibition organized by Asia Society and P.S. 1 in 1998—he chose to emigrate. Suddenly he found himself “performing” his relationship to China for a Western audience. Before 3,000 spectators in the courtyard of P.S. 1, he proceeded (kowtowing in the manner of a Tibetan supplicant) toward a Ming-style daybed covered with blocks of ice. Half a dozen dogs, tethered to the bed, barked loudly as he undressed and lay face down upon its frozen surface. Would his
body temperature melt the ice, or would the shock and chill of this alien land (a place where dogs acquire near-human
status) kill him?

In fact, for the next eight years, based in New York but performing in museums across the United States and abroad, he mined these contradictions. Exile filled him with an ambivalent longing for home. In Family Tree (2000), for example, he had three Chinese calligraphers write characters—folktales, poems, bits of physiognomic treatises—across his face and shaved head, reducing them to a pair of eyes staring out from a sea of black ink. Documented in photographs, the piece seems to pose the question of whether an individual can ever fully extricate himself from history.

In 2006, now an international art star, Zhang returned to live in China, setting up a factory-style studio with a platoon of assistants in a former textile mill on the outskirts of Shanghai. Imagine Andy Warhol having undergone both Communist re-education and Buddhist boot camp, and you’ll have some sense of the wildly productive, spiritually provocative, pan-proletarian goings-on there.

What’s rolled off the assembly line to Asia Society includes huge, hollow body parts made from beaten copper, based upon fragments of Tibetan Buddhist sculptures and appearing both monumental and oddly fragile. There are also old Chinese doors, imprinted with photographs from the ’60s and ’70s and carved by assistants. And there are sculptures fashioned from the ashes of burnt incense collected from Buddhist temples.

Has the current burgeoning market for contemporary Chinese art played a role in this switch from performance to object-based art? Perhaps, but the works themselves—through their size, strangeness, and evanescent materials—offer some resistance to their commodity status. And nothing equals, for sheer fascination, a video in the final gallery about the factory’s activities, showing the immense copper body parts, for example, surreally parading down a Shanghai street. Think of them as props for performances that haven’t yet been invented.