Zhang Huan

The provocative artist's new show at the re-furbished Rockbund

Zhang Huan, who made his name with provocative, personal performance pieces, has turned social critic in his new exhibition. To help get his message across, Sam Gaskin learns that he's enlisted the help of a robo-Confucius

Zhang Huan left Beijing in 1998 as an outsider. Having made astonishing art for eight years he was still impoverished and felt harassed by the authorities. When he was invited to contribute to a group show in Tokyo in 1997 he used medical tubes, traditional Chinese carriage wheels and his own 65kg frame in an attempt to pull down the museum. He later wrote that ‘museums represent culture and authority. For my entire life, I have wanted to pull them down, although maybe I would eventually be pulled into them.’ This month, Zhang is showing at the reopening of Rockbund, China’s most ambitious and well-resourced art museum.

Zhang’s early works were brave and difficult. After covering himself in fish juice and honey he squatted naked in one of Beijing’s public toilets for an hour as thousands of flies crawled over him (12 Square Metres, 1994). He suspended himself from the ceiling while 250ccs of his own blood dripped onto an electric hot plate, intensifying its stench (65 Kilograms, 1994). He also asked a machinist to cut screws so that hot sparks spilled over his body (25mm Threading Steel, 1995). Yet the artist who began by aggressively confronting chaos and discomfort says his upcoming show is concerned with ‘how to make the world more harmonious’.

The works in the show, Q Confucius, include a giant bust of Confucius, an installation featuring a Confucius figure and a painting of ‘Confucius and his Students’. Zhang’s interest in the philosopher is indicative of his work’s new social emphasis, but in his role as reformer he hasn’t lost his sense of spectacle. The bust is mechanical and made of silicon, the installation includes monkeys and a robo-Confucius, and the painting is rendered in incense ash recovered from temples. Millions of ants and termites are also involved. ‘I still hope that I can pull museums down,’ Zhang says. ‘I’m trying to break the boundaries of the museum space.’

Zhang grew up poor in Henan province. White bread was an annual treat and he didn’t try cow’s milk until he was 20 years old. He moved to Beijing in 1991 where he created art expressing his daily hardships, as well as beautiful meditations on the urgency and smallness of human endeavours. One such work was To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain, in which ten people, arranged in a metre-high pile, lay on top of a mountain. Another, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond involved more than 40 migrant workers standing in a small lake.
‘I was under great pressure just to survive when I was in Beijing striving to create art,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make any difference in my career during those eight years, so I decided to change my environment.’ Zhang moved to New York where he began by making pieces like My America (1999). He asked dozens of people to throw bread at him after the shame of being offered -- and accepting -- food he needed to give to his pregnant wife. He’d been just as impoverished in China, but he says he was always seen as an artist, never a beggar.

By the early 2000s, Zhang’s financial situation was much improved. He exhibited exclusively outside of China and created work that often expressed his feelings of alienation. At the time, he wrote that ‘artists like Xu Bing and Cai Guoqiang took classical Chinese culture out to battle in the international art arena. My principle is that I don’t borrow an ancient dialect to speak. I use a body to speak. The body is my most basic language.’

In 2005, however, Zhang returned to his motherland and abandoned his art’s mother tongue.He set up a studio in a former textile factory outside Shanghai and, with the help of over 100 employees, began producing large-scale sculptures and paintings. He says the about-face was triggered by his return to China.

‘In my past life wandering abroad,I deeply experienced the situation as a Chinese person living in a foreign country. As soon as I stood in my motherland again, I felt a truth and familiarity that I had never known before. This feeling is natural, in my blood, because the land underfoot belongs to my country. It’s our land. Soon I found new material and inspiration.’

Zhang, who has been a Buddhist since 2005, created massive copper Buddhas with odd combinations of arms, legs and heads inspired by fragments of Buddha statues that survived the Cultural Revolution. He also worked on numerous incense ash paintings and sculptures, some of which will be shown at Rockbund.

Zhang was surprised to discover that the ash from temples had previously been dumped at sea or buried, like waste. He chose to recycle it, sorting it into different tones and applying it to canvases with glue. ‘For me, incense ash is not ash, nor is it any kind of material. It’s a collective soul, memory and prayer. Devotees go to temples to pray for a child, family safety, the recovery of a patient, an auspicious future, help overcoming difficulties, a successful career and so on.’

Zhang’s willingness to bear the weight of all these hopes and fears suggests an affinity with another figure that features in the exhibition, Jesus. Other pieces in the show suggest we need salvation from our inherent destructiveness.

'The relationship between termites and wood is the same as the relationship between human beings and the earth,’ Zhang says. ‘The relationship between monkeys and my mechanical Confucius symbolises the two sides of human beings: animal instinct and civilised rationality.’ By comparing people to termites and monkeys, Zhang’s social pieces sound pessimistic, and they risk failing to attain the immediacy, and even the honesty, of more personally motivated work. Yet he sees his foray into social criticism as an inevitable progression.

‘For thousands of years, Chinese intellects wished to “cultivate themselves so as to organise their families and then harmonise the whole country”. In the beginning, a man should focus on himself, and finally on the entire world. All is destined and natural.’

He also rejects the implication that his normative notions about society are somehow impersonal. ‘I am concerned with things that have happened or are happening because I am honest to myself and also to my art works. I can’t close my eyes and pretend that I don’t see them. I wish to illustrate the problems I have seen and felt, and show concern for people through my works and exhibitions. This is one of the responsibilities of an artist.’

Zhang’s willingness to take on such responsibilities is part of a truce he’s made with both China and its art establishment. ‘So far, I haven’t been pulled down by the museum,’ he says, ‘but neither has the museum been pulled down by me.’

Q Confucius is at the Rockbund Art Museum from Saturday 15 October. For more info see our event details here