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Zhang Juan
Q Confucius No.2, Silicone, Steel, Carbon Fibre and Acrylic ©  Zhang Juan, 2011 | Image source internet

Zhang Juan

I want it to be 70 per cent beautiful, 15 per cent surrealistically beautiful, and the rest so beautiful that nobody can bear it,war photographer’s most fervent wish is for unemployment.

Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan (Born. 1965) is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York City. He began his career as a painter and then transitioned to performance art before making a comeback to painting. He is primarily known for his performance work, but also makes photographs and sculptures.

Zhang Huan was born into a farming family in Anyang City, Henan Province (Southern central China). After private painting lessons at fourteen he was awarded a place at the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng. He received his B.A. in painting from Henan University in 1988. While studying there, he was most engaged and inspired by Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt van Rijn. His graduation piece was a painting with the title Red Cherries (1988), which showed a mother peacefully nursing her baby next to a bowl of cherries. He remained at Henan University as a teacher in the art department for the next three years before moving to Beijing where he changed his name, abandoning the revolutionary connotations of ‘Dongming’. He received his M.A. in painting from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1993, an institution he was attracted to for its emphasis on the European classical tradition.
After graduating, he worked for one month at a commercial painting company in Beijing where he was tasked with making copies of Degas’ works. His reproductions were excellent and earned a great deal of money for his employers. However, he only received a salary of 250RMB, which was far less than weekly expenses, and when he asked his boss for a raise he was yelled at rudely. On the way home, he was so upset that he punched a bus, which he now thinks of as his first conscious act of self-torture and perhaps a precursor to his later performance actions.

Around this time, Zhang felt unsure of what to do next as he didn’t feel as politically-minded as his Chinese painter contemporaries and had hopes of discovering an alternative to painting. He was also extremely poor. He moved to a dirty, run-down artist’s community on the edge of Beijing, formerly known as Dashanzhuang, but renamed the East Village by its artist inhabitants (after New York City’s East Village, which the residents felt had an affinity with their experimental and collaborative aesthetic). He spent this time listening to Nirvana, Cui Jan (Chinese rock and roll) and Buddhist music and feeling increasingly depressed, but also making friends with the other artists who lived in this “glorified garbage dump”. It was here, with little resources available to him to make art, that Zhang began to use his own body, as well as the bodies of his artist friends, to create performances.

From this point onward, Zhang focused on using his (usually naked) body, in an attempt to address and critique various issues, including (as described on his website) “The power of unified action to challenge oppressive political regimes; the status and plight of the expatriate in the new global culture; the persistence of structures of faith in communities undermined by violent conflict; and the place of censorship in contemporary democracy.” Some of his early performances involved extreme physical actions, such as strapping himself to a board hung from the ceiling while a medic siphoned his blood onto a hot plate, or locking himself inside a metal box with only a small slit for air.

In 1998, he visited the United States to carry out a solo performance titled Pilgrimage: Wind and Water in New York at P.S. 1. This was the first time he used overt Chinese imagery and symbolism in his performance work. For the piece, he walked slowly across the museum courtyard as Tibetan music played, until he reached a traditional Chinese bed, but one that held blocks of ice instead of a mattress, and which was surrounded by several live dogs. He then undressed, and lay face-down on the ice for ten minutes. The work was what he considered “glocal”, combining both global and local elements (representing both China and the United States at once).

Despite this complex first impression of the city, Zhang decided to move to New York later that same year with his wife Jun Jun, particularly as many of the works he had been making were only able to be shown outside of China. In New York, he quickly fell into a schedule of performances and commissions from prestigious cultural institutions. Both of his children were born there, in 2000 and 2003. However, after eight years of living in the city, he began to grow tired of both America (in part because he felt that living there put too much distance between him and his Buddhist roots), and of Performance art itself. A fortune-teller told him that the most suitable place for his next move would either be Eastern China or somewhere to the Northeast of his birthplace (Henan province). In 2006 he moved back to China to live in Shanghai.

With his move back to China, he decided to take a step back from Performance art. He opened an enormous studio in Shanghai’s southern Min Hang district, where his team of over 100 assistants produces object-based art, particularly sculpture. He took over the 75-acre building where his studio currently stands after a fire ended the company’s operations. Indeed, once back in China, he experienced high levels of fame in his homeland, where he lives with his wife and two children in a simple home.

Zhang has been represented by Pace Gallery, New York, since 2007. Although now working in sculpture and oil painting rather than performance, the body still features prominently in his works, particularly recreations of the fragmented body parts of Buddhist statues using incense ash from Buddhist temples. Returning to Buddhism has been a critical turning point in both his life and career. In 2009, Zhang also worked as the director and set designer of experimental production of Handel’s 1743 opera Semele, at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. Zhang was intrigued by the ancient Greek comedy’s plot’s relation to Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and karma.

Zhang has boldly rejected the “accepted” art that Chinese authorities expect artists to produce, and has not allowed censorship to deter him from carrying out projects that shock and dismay. Other Chinese artists have embraced this philosophy, as exemplified by the underground OPEN festival of performance in Beijing, whose artists similarly challenge propriety in the way that Zhang and his contemporaries (such as Ai Weiwei and Zhe Yu) have done consistently. Even as recently as 2014, a program about Zhang that aired on the Discovery Channel in Asia was banned in China.

Zhang Huan’s more recent work has consisted of sculptures and paintings that reference the history of his native China, from significant political, intellectual, and religious figures to anonymous portraits and landscape scenes. For his two- and three-dimensional works, Zhang frequently uses both common objects and unusual organic materials, including feathers, cowhides, and for his 2005 sculpture Donkey, a taxidermied donkey. Particularly evocative is Zhang’s use of incense ash, a material that epitomizes both detritus and religious ritual, with which he paints and sculpts works that are as olfactory as they are visual.

Published on March 9, 2021
See All Image of the Day | 365 days, 365 images


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