Zhang Huan: Altered States A “One-Man” Show at The Asia Society


Zhang Huan, intriguing Chinese artist with a growing reputation, provokes and delights during 2008 Asia Society show.

Zhang Huan: Altered States
A “One-Man” Show at The Asia Society
New York, New York
(September 6, 2007 through January 20, 2008)

Born in 1965 in a remote village in Henan, China, Zhang Huan—an intriguing Chinese artist with a growing reputation—now divides his time between Shanghai and New York, and bridges many of the same contradictions in his art as he has in his life.  Most blatantly, he likes to get naked in public, despite traditional Chinese prudery and the taboos still associated with the penis, even in the West where female nudes remain less controversial subjects of portraiture.  In Huan’s current solo show—on view at The Asia Society in Manhattan until January 20, 2008—he repeatedly takes off his clothes for videotaped “performance art,” which Huan has staged for many different audiences, starting in Beijing in the early 1990’s.  As Huan’s career expanded abroad, he conceived, directed, and starred in a series of increasingly disturbing performances in various international venues, ranging from Tokyo in 1996 to Rome in 2005.

However, Huan’s conceptual nude theater involves more than simple exhibitionism.  Evading Chinese government censorship, on the one hand, and what he diagnoses as Western cultural narcissism, on the other, Huan brews a volatile potion of equal parts religion, politics, economics, Chinese and Western iconography and art history, and the current fads of the global art scene.  Implicitly, Huan sees his art as a spiritual emetic for our 21st century malaise.  “We live in a sick time,” Huan contends in the essay he provides for the catalogue to his show at the Asia Society.  Indeed, Huan believes that: “Everyone is ‘sick,’ but at the same time we realize that we are also ‘patients’.”[1]

This quasi-psychiatric metaphor underlies several of Huan’s videotaped “happenings,” five of which run in a continuous loop on a flat-screen, Samsung television in the hallway outside the exhibition’s two main halls.  In 12 Square Meters, one of his earliest pieces, Huan walks naked into a filthy men’s urinal in an impoverished Beijing suburb and sits for an hour on a stool in the midst of what a fellow artist and friend, in another catalogue essay, describes as an overpowering stench.  Huan has smeared himself with a mixture of honey and fish oil.  This goo attracts hundreds of the flies already living on the abundant human waste, and they land on Huan’s glistening, naked body to feed.  At the end of an hour (the video, itself, mercifully lasts only a few minutes), Huan rises, exits the urinal and then, as he writes in his essay: “I walked… into a nearby pond that was polluted with garbage… until water covered my head and hoards of flies struggled on the water to save their lives”[2].

In the final scene of My America (Hard to Acclimatize), for instance, staged at the Seattle Art Museum in 1999, Huan sits naked at the center of what might be a temple, prison, or mental hospital.  A shouting crowd of sixty volunteers—co-religionists, angry inmates, or fellow patients—stand naked on a two-tiered scaffold surrounding Huan and hurl lumps of bread at him.  (With characteristically grim efficiency, this scenario simultaneously evokes a tribal stoning, a perverse anti-communion with a desecrated Eucharist, an inquisitorial auto da fe, and the collective persecutions inflicted on non-conformists during China’s Cultural Revolution.)  In two other performance pieces described in the accompanying catalogue, but not exhibited at The Asia Society, Huan exploits explicit medical imagery—abortion and simulated blood in Angel (Beijing: 1993); and his own blood, surgical equipment, and actual doctors in 65 Kilograms, (Beijing: 1994).

In My New York (New York, 2002), one of Huan’s most ghoulish provocations, he literalizes his obsession with our diseased existence.  This performance, enhanced by a spooky, ululating Tibetan cantor, took place at the Whitney Museum, and starts with a cadre of men carrying what might be a body or a cult object on a bier draped in a white cloth.  Eventually, the white cloth (a minimalist, conceptual version of the dragons used for Chinese New Year celebrations) is pulled off to reveal Huan, himself.  Lying prone on a plank of wood, Huan is dressed in a suit stitched from various cuts of raw red meat.  Still held aloft, Huan stands up, and the audience realizes his meat suit is anatomically correct.  In other words, he has arranged the beef loin and flank steaks to simulate the actual musculature of a hypertrophic, steroidal human bodybuilder.  This sight provokes a palpable, cannibalistic shiver.  As Huan comments: “It [was] my first performance after 9/11.  Many things looked strong but were extremely fragile.  In New York, I saw men exercise beyond what their hearts could handle and take all kinds of vitamins and supplements to pump up their bodies.”[3] Huan’s bearers eventually lower him to the ground, whereupon he walks into the street and hands out white doves to passersby while encouraging them to release the birds in a Buddhistic act of mercy.

In another paradox, Huan—who adopts a po-faced, Buster Keaton-like impassivity during his videotaped performances and photographic self-portraits—is nonetheless a slim, striking, telegenic, and media-savvy artist who professes to “…despise the performing quality of [his] works.”[4] His professed distaste is doubly ironic since Huan has clearly learned from masters of publicity and self-advertisement such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman.  (He’s even well-known enough, for instance, that waiters in a Chinese restaurant in Greenwich Village have seen his photographs.)

Ironically, he also uses his solo show to announce­—during a 40-minute videotape playing continuously in a small, ad-hoc theater—his Prospero-like renunciation of performance magic.  Ostensibly about the end of his performing career, this masterful performance justifies Huan’s return to sculpture and his Chinese roots.  Huan keeps his clothes on during this video, however.  Indeed, his more socially conventional attire signals a new role.  Huan has now become the boss of the “Zhang Huan Studios” in Shanghai, a factory employing a large staff of young craftsmen and engineers who assist Huan in creating and manufacturing prints, wood-carvings, painted panels, and large statuary made from steel, bronze, wire mesh, cement, trash, and other socially resonant flotsam and jetsam.

We follow Huan as he instructs wood-carvers how to execute his Memory Door series (some examples appear in his show), which involves reproducing propaganda scenes from the Cultural Revolution via enlarged black-and-white photographs pasted onto antique doors.  Huan selects portions of these photographs for his workers to strip away.  His wood-carvers re-carve in bas-relief the previously superimposed imagery—a sort of visual remembrance in wood.   Huan explains that his staff rescue these doors from old buildings demolished to make way for China’s current economic boom.   The camera meditates on Huan’s melancholy face as he recalls the small family Buddhas—hidden from authorities during the Cultural Revolution—whose fragments now appear in local flea markets.  Inspired by these spiritually abandoned members, Huan and his team have produced giant Buddha body parts (hollow, beaten-copper hands, heads, and feet), which lie helplessly on the floor like stranded whales.  These sculptures are the strange and slightly bitter fruit of Huan’s new, entrepreneurial incarnation.

After his adroit metamorphosis into a wealthy businessman and father (his factory video starts with Huan and his two sons being driven to school in the morning), however, the suspicion dawns that his motivation in turning to two- and three-dimensional work might partly be financial.  While his performances were sponsored by the Copenhagen Art Center, The Deitch Project, and Creative Time, such funding pales in contrast to the cash an artist can garner by making numinous, “one-of-a-kind” or “limited edition” objects for sale on the international art market.

Huan’s claim that art factories are a Chinese, rather than a Western tradition, is not entirely accurate, either.  While it’s true that the post-romantic European ideal of the artist often presupposed a lonely, self-destructive, and heroic quest for originality, pre-19th century European art and post-World II American art do not lack precedent for a master managing a studio of apprentices.  Piers Paul Rubens (whom Huang studied for his performance in Ghent entitled Rubens, 2000), for instance, and Andy Warhol are prime examples of atelier or “factory” artists.

Somewhat peevishly, Huan complains that “[a]fter more than a half century of artistic innovation, contemporary art in the West is reaching a dead-end.  It is time that Westerners face their own culture and the multiplicity of culture…  Chinese artists and other ethnic artists lie at the edge of this self-centered western art.”[5] But this is debatable, if we go by the example of his own Western influences and success in Europe and America.  Huan’s performance art clearly depends on Bruce Nauman’s radical and disorienting work of the last thirty years.  Huan’s sculpture (despite a promising grounding in contemporary Chinese sur-realities) has also not yet traveled far beyond the body-obsessed imaginings of the American artists Kiki Smith and Robert Gober, for example.  Moreover, it’s hard to see how an artist—whose show has been underwritten by Morgan Stanley, the PaceWildenstein Gallery, and the National Endowment for the Humanities—can cry poverty, obscurity, or marginalization.

Ultimately, the show’s title, Altered States, seems to refer as much to the changing socio-political relationship between China and America as it does to Zhang Huan’s own aesthetic self-transformations.   His awkward aggression and re-assertion of a bruised Chinese identity seem to reflect a shift in the artistic “balance of payments,” mirroring the rise of Chinese manufacturing and commercial power.  The most compelling room in the show, involving a sculpture entitled Long Ear Ash Head (2007) and two paintings, seems a haunting personal exploration of this potentially dangerous socio-economic conflict.  The head, itself, is twelve-feet tall and truncates sharply just below the nose.  Like a coroner, Huan has further dissected the head laterally into two sections, emphasizing the doubled nature of his identity and allegiances.  Recognizable as a self-portrait, the giant head also recalls an ancient stone Buddha, and its ears—like the earring-stretched lobes of some Buddhas—have expanded so far that they have flopped to the ground and morphed into what look like the back feet of a rabbit.   Over the head’s wire-mesh armature, Huan has poured a mixture of glue, incense ash, and half-burnt incense sticks, which his factory workers collect from local temples, laboriously sift, and prep for his assemblages.  As a result, the head’s stubbly grey integument vibrates with what Huan calls “the wishes and dreams” of a thousand worshippers; exudes a burnt semi-sweet odor; and radiates the powerful anti-nimbus of a pagan idol.

Using the same ash medium, Huan has painted two fluttering flags (spoof-tributes to Jasper Johns’ famous American flag series) and hung them on either side of the head: a black-and-white American flag on the left; and an equally bi-chromatic Chinese flag on the right.  Does this self-portrait as a death-haunted Buddha “listening” to two different flags represent Huan’s own predicament, as he negotiates two competing countries and cultures?   Or, does this moving installation suggest, half-consciously, the difficulty of remaining an authentic man of the people (whatever country they belong to) while becoming the “head” of a small, international manufacturing operation?

More broadly, Huan’s work poses the question about whether it’s even possible, now, to be a “Chinese” or an “American” artist per se; whether two flags, drained of patriotic color, are really distinct; or whether nationality, style, and tradition have become as hard to identify as the origins of a computer designed in Silicon Valley but manufactured in China, Korea, and Indonesia.  In the end, what counts is that we “…talk about art as art,”[6] as Huan suggests.  One “wish and dream” for Huan’s future work, in fact, would be that he relinquish his nationalist anxieties in favor of the international paradoxes and local, personal contradictions that energize his art.


[1] Zhang Huang: Altered States; Exhibition Catalogue (ZHASEC): p. 74.

[2] ZHASEC: p. 58.

[3] ZHASEC: p. 92.

[4] ZHASEC: p. 59.

[5] ZHASEC: p. 74-5.

[6] ZHASEC: pl 75.

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About Malcolm Farley

Writer, Photographer, Poet, Imagineer
This entry was posted in Art Reviews, Prose and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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