Arthena recently had the pleasure of interviewing Zhang Huan, the internationally distinguished performance artist, painter, photographer and sculptor. Based in Shanghai and New York, the artist has held recent solo exhibitions in Paris, London, New York and Florence, and his works have been acquired by top museums, galleries and public organizations around the world. Zhang Huan's works are recognized for their complexity and depth, and for their ability to simultaneously capture intimate elements of personal identity while encompassing both cultural and political commentary.
Family Tree, 2000
"I invited 3 calligraphers to write texts on my face from early morning until night. I told them what they should write and to always keep a serious attitude when writing the texts even when my face turns to dark. My face followed the daylight till it slowly darkened. I cannot tell who I am. My identity has disappeared.
This work speaks about a family story, a spirit of family. In the middle of my forehead, the text means 'Move the Mountain by Fool (Yu Kong Yi Shan)'. This traditional Chinese story is known by all common people, it is about determination and challenge. If you really want to do something, then it could really happen. Other texts are about human fate, like a kind of divination. Your eyes, nose, mouth, ears, cheekbone, and moles indicate your future, wealth, sex, disease, etc. I always feel that some mysterious fate surrounds human life which you can do nothing about, you can do nothing to control it, it just happened."
Arthena: How did you get involved with art?
Zhang Huan: Art is my faith and my life. The first teacher is Mr. Gu Xijiu, my middle school art teacher.
A: Where do you derive your inspiration from?
ZH: It is related to the cultural background and my living conditions. My inspiration is from the most trivial things in daily life such as eating, sleeping, working, and those which are always ignored in our ordinary life. What I want to experience in my artworks are survival, the physical body and the truth. My root is in China, and so is the root of my inspiration.
I am a devout Buddhist at home. The ultimate purpose for Tibetan Buddhism is to resolve the problem of life and death. People in Tibet make a pilgrimage every day just for the sake of having a better rebirth. I cherish a genuine love for Tibetan religion and culture, believing that there is rebirth and paying more attention to the living conditions of humanities in this life. Influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, such subjects as fate, desire and death are usually adopted in my artworks
Spring Poppy Fields No. 33, oil on linen, 250 x 400cm, 2014
"Poppy field embodies eternal illusions. This kind of magic will reincarnate endlessly in the 'Poppy Field'. Likewise, 'Spring Poppy Field' shares similar concept, premature life and spirit sprout in spring."
A: Please tell us about your training in painting at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and how you transitioned to creating performance art.
ZH: When I was in college, I liked the French artist Millet very much. I also studied Rembrandt, although I learned only a few things because of the limited resources. What I learned in the art department in college was not very different from what I learned at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Both schools taught Russia-style painting and emphasized the texture and spatial quality of a painted object. Before I went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, teachers there seemed worthy of respect and out of reach. Later, that curious feeling slowly faded. I read new books and saw new things. One book that influenced me a great deal was a small book written by Zhao Wuji, which was based on his lectures at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, people in art circles all made copies of the book. I learned two things from this book. First, Zhao says that every part of a painting should be different from its other parts. We need to activate every part to let it breathe and to give it life. Second, you don't paint a thing because you want to paint that particular thing; you paint for your own heart, to express yourself. These two ideas completely changed my understanding of Su-style painting and broadened my thoughts. Before, I painted what a teacher asked me to paint. The teacher would spend two hours arranging lighting and positioning a model, but when the teacher stepped out of the studio, we would ask the model to lie on the floor. Later, I would paint only a hand or a foot as I chose. I even made sketches that looked like nothing at all. When the teachers at the art institute saw my work, they said that I didn't need model any longer and could go home.
For a long time, I could not feel a connection with two-dimensional materials. I tried different mediums to get the feeling of closeness. Once, I found the bottom half of a plastic mannequin. One of the legs was black and hollowed. I put it on my bike and went home. I put one of my legs in one of the hollow mannequin legs-I had three legs. I suddenly felt I understood something extraordinary. Three legs! I tried to walk with three legs. The feeling was strange yet exciting. I felt that I found a way of walking-of being-that I could not have achieved before. The manner of my body's participation completely moved me. This may be said to be the first work that I created with my body. The directness of using my own body made me feel grounded, and I told myself that this would be the only way for me. I need nothing more. Nothing else can move me. I don't want anything. I only want my own body.
Sea No. 18, ash on linen, 150 x 280cm, 2012
"Lao Zi (a philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period, founder of Daoism) said: 'The highest excellence is like that of water. Water benefits all things and does not compete with them, but water is content with the places that all men disdain. It is this that makes water so near to the spirit of Daoism.' It means that the top class of virtue is like water, which benefits all without any demands for return while it has no conflicts and disagreement with them. This is the classic view on water in the history of Chinese ancient philosophy and also it is propounding philosophy theory that had been influencing Chinese politics, economy and culture from the past till now. In the Seascape ash paintings, Zhang has his own interpretation of water, that is, everything starts from water and will end with it. It will repeat itself in endless cycles."
A: What was it like being a pioneer in the field of performance art in China?
ZH: There was nothing that I wanted to prove or fight against. Actually it reflected my living condition at that time, which was a common condition of all the ordinary people. It looks like everything is determined by fate. What is important for artists is to make choices based on their own standards, to make interesting and familiar things according to their own surroundings, to discover the seemingly meaningless in ordinary life, and to walk into art in their own way.
For an artist, the important task is to raise questions to the society and art. The value of contemporary art is creating artworks which may represent the spirit of the era.
A: What is your state of mind when you are performing?
ZH: It makes me feel dependable to use the body as a media of art creation. I was physically involved in the artwork because I realized that the body was the most direct way to contact the society as well as a prove of one's personal identity.Also the specific person is the most important character throughout the artwork.The need of my heart drives the body to perform in the required status and bear the significance in order to fulfill my intention.In this regard, the physical body is the carrier of my inner heart.
In the course of the performance hours, I tried to forget myself and separate my mind from my flesh, but I was pulled back to reality again and again. Only after the performance did I understand what I experienced.
"In 2009, as director and stage art director of Semele, I am very excited to be able to take an ancestral family temple with over 450 years of history and use it on the stage of a 300 year-old European opera house. My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of 'Semele.' While at the same time allowing Western guests who enter the opera house to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings. Love and hate, life and death are topics that will forever hang over the human race. The fact that the roots of pain introduced thousands of years ago in a Western opera, reappear in the East in the fate of a single peasant family in the countryside of China can make us continually ponder the redemptive qualities of humanity.
At the 2010 Shanghai Biennale, I decided to display the installation of semele as version of art museum, because I want to try to restore the original scene and let audience gain experience and thinking from the scenery."
A: We would love to hear about your emphasis on the body and spirituality, whether in performance art in which often features nudity, or sculptures of Buddhist figures.
ZH: I merely use the nature of Buddha to express the nature of human and the meaning of life. "Buddha is human and vice versa." So the sculptures are focusing on the situation of human beings and they are expressed in Buddha's figure, which are a common and universal shape of Buddha.
Hopefully the viewers may become a part of the art and set free their feelings sufficiently when they confront with the very works. Different people may have his own understanding derived from his life experience and outlook on life.
A: How does the social and political climate in China impact your artistic expression?
ZH: My art is not influenced by policies either in Beijing or New York, current or before. My biggest enemy is myself.
A: What are you currently working on?
ZH: I am working on oil paintings now. The creation of concrete ash paintings has ended with a huge historic work. I am doing some experiments on brand new art with ash ingredient, and people can see them when the works are finished.
Three Legged Buddha, steel and cooper
"The figure of 'Three Legged Buddha' symbolizes the courage of constantly challenging the self, the higher level of enlightenment that comes about after conquering the self.
The inspiration of Three-legged Buddha comes from Tibet. I collected a lot of fragments of Buddhist sculptures in Tibet. When I saw these fragments in Lhasa, a mysterious power impressed me. They are embedded with historical traces and religion, just like the limbs of a human being. I added a third leg to the fragment of two legs, and half of a human head under the foot of the third leg. I sketched the idea on a piece of paper, and asked assistants to make a model of it. The copper workshop then made it into the size and effect I wanted to achieve. When using pieces of copper to make Buddhist images, I like to keep the original characteristics of copper and traces of welding. For me, pieces of copper are like stitched skin after an operation."