A serial provocateur, probing the fundamentals of life.
Zhang’s conceptual, multidisciplinary artworks explore a weighty series of subjects spanning politics, history, religion, and humanity. During the last 3 decades he has exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and in 2020 became the first living Chinese artist to have a solo show at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In the 1990s his early performances captured the attention of the contemporary art world. Angel (1993) saw him naked in pools of red paint holding a plastic baby outside the National Art Gallery in Beijing, its provocative format and criticism of China...
Zhang’s conceptual, multidisciplinary artworks explore a weighty series of subjects spanning politics, history, religion, and humanity. During the last 3 decades he has exhibited at some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and in 2020 became the first living Chinese artist to have a solo show at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In the 1990s his early performances captured the attention of the contemporary art world. Angel (1993) saw him naked in pools of red paint holding a plastic baby outside the National Art Gallery in Beijing, its provocative format and criticism of China’s one-child policy resulted in the entire show being shut down. 12 Square Metres (1994) saw Zhang seated on a public toilet, soaked in honey and fish oil while allowing flies to crawl into his orifices. Since, Zhang’s practice has grown to encompass abstract and figurative painting as well as large-scale sculpture and installation. His prolific oeuvre is united by a tireless appetite for probing the philosophies of existence, power and spirituality.
From feathers and cowhides to incense ash from Bhuddist temples, Zhang uses materials that carry the weight of history. For Zhang “ash is the collective memory, collective soul and collective blessings of the people of China.” The ash painting June 15, 1964 (2015) epitomises this notion. 37-metres long, the epic work reinterprets a photograph of Chairman Mao, his government and a crowd of 1,000 supporters who stand in long, horizontal rows. The photograph was taken one year after the artist was born, and thus recalls his experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Selected from government-approved archives, the reference photograph questions the systems through which history is told. The medium - ash - is itself the message, representing both destruction and renewal at personal, historical and ideological scales.
Growing up, Zhang was surrounded by Tibetan Buddhism. Saṃsāra - a fundamental Buddhist notion of the cycle of life, death and rebirth - is particularly important to him and provides the conceptual foundation for his art. Three-Legged Buddha (2007), for instance, is a 28-foot copper and steel sculpture of a disembodied Buddha. In the work it is unclear where the body starts and ends, representing a constant state of collapse and restoration. More recently, in paintings like Love No. 2 (2020), repeated circular marks in red reflect on the global pandemic and the cyclical patterns observable throughout nature and history. Approaching confrontational performance art and meditative abstract painting with the same thought-provoking sensibility, Zhang’s practice stirs deep reflections on life, death and all of the joys and hardships they entail.
Zhang Huan was born in 1965 in Anyang, China, and is now based in Shanghai.
Works featured in collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Asia Museum of Fukuoka, Japan; The Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Saatchi Gallery, London.
In 1994 performance piece 12 Square Meters, Huan coated himself in honey and fish oil to attract swarms of flies as he sat motionless in a public bathroom. Zhang's early career is defined by several such performances testing the limits of discomfort that his body could endure.
Recent Zhang Huan headlines
Zhang Huan: Constantly Transforming, Multi-Disciplinary Artist — RADII
Zhang Huan is a legend of contemporary Chinese art, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to reinvent his own story
Is AI Killing Art? Superstar Artists Zhang Huan and Xu Bing Weigh In —
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In Chinese Photography, Political Anguish Made Physical - The New York Times
In an exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, conceptual Chinese photographers of the tumultuous ’90s use the human body to document their pain.
The trailblazing rebels of contemporary Chinese photography | Dazed
A Window Suddenly Opens is the exhibition showcasing the work of boundary-breaking Chinese image-makers from the last three decades
Hirshhorn’s urgent and edgy survey of contemporary Chinese photography - The Washington Post
‘A Window Suddenly Opens’ showcases 186 photos and related artworks from 1993 to 2022.