Zhang Huan

Chinese art provocateur Zhang Huan probes the fundamentals of life with his invigorating practice.

Zhang’s conceptual, multidisciplinary artwork explores 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.

Highlights
  • In the Ashes of History, solo show at State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2020
  • Evoking Tradition, solo show at Storm King Art Center, New York, 2014
  • Q Confucius, solo show at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, 2011
  • Hope Tunnel, solo show at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2010
  • Three-Legged Buddha solo show at Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2007–08
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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.

1/2 (Text), Zhang Huan, 1998. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery.
“As an artist, first and foremost, one has to have something to say.”

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.

June 15, 1964 (2014) by Zhang Huan
June 15, 1964, Zhang Huan, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery.
June 15, 1964 (2014) by Zhang Huan
Installation view of Let There be Light at Pace Gallery, Zhang Huan, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery.

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.

Three-Legged Buddha, Zhang Huan, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Storm King Art Center.
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Sydney Buddha, Zhang Huan, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

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. 

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Love No. 2, Zhang Huan, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery.
“It’s about the spirit of conquering the unconquerable. I want to make work so people can be moved by a sense of the possible.”
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