Approaching the subject of Shanghai’s rapid urban development with a political lampoon Zhang Huan’s Donkey is a kinetic sculpture featuring a farm animal humping the famous Jin Mao tower, which until recently was the tallest building in China. Emblematic of the monotonous impersonal high-rises that dominate the city’s skyline, Zhang’s shrunken landmark pokes fun at the masculine connotations of skyscrapers: as monumental phallic symbols, visual symbols of power and wealth. Mounted by and bending under the force of a stuffed donkey (of ’hung like a…’ repute), Zhang’s icon of modernisation gets a literal (and very noisy) shafting from the beast of burden ’proletariat’; in China, the word "donkey" is used to call someone an "ass".
Zhang Huan’s works are both highly personal and politicised, dealing with complex issues of identity, spiritualism, vulnerability, and transgression. His practice focuses on no one particular media but rather incorporates a wide variety of tactics – from performance to photography, installation, sculpture, and painting -- utilising each method for its physical and symbolic associations. This unique approach to making reinforces the interconnectivity of the concepts and recurrent motifs running throughout of Zhang’s work, and mirrors an underlying sentiment of shared human experience and bond.
Ash Head No. 1, Young Mother, and Seeds, are constructed from incense ash collected from Shanghai temples; a laboriously involved process of weekly gathering and sorting, isolating the vestiges into the indexical categories of texture and pigmentation which Zhang uses to ’paint’ his images. This medium has multiple significations: it is the actual substance of prayers, the dust of death and rebirth, the allegorical weight of spirits. Emitting an overwhelming scent throughout the gallery space these pieces recycle the hopes and wishes of others, sharing a cathartic ambience of cleansing and purity.
In Ash Head No 1., burnt incense is used to cover a monolithic head, its powdery friable texture duplicitously posing as stone. The totem stands defiantly as a self portrait, antediluvian deity, and reference to the iconoclastic policies of the Cultural Revolution. Embedded within the surface, charred jah sticks replicate the minute details of hair, eyelashes and whiskers, poking from the crumbling skin with haunting suggestions of decomposition and obsolescence. Set on a wheeled support/plinth/altar its strange death-head mysticism is posed with the prescience of an accursed museum relic, no longer in the safe confines of storage.
In one of Zhang’s best known performance pieces, he covered himself with fish oil and honey and sat statue-still in a public loo in one of the poorest areas of Beijing while his body was completely enveloped by insects, moving only to immersing himself in a river several hours later. Situating his body as a nourishing and abject microcosm, Zhang’s action was a direct response to the abortion and female infanticide resultant from China’s strict family planning laws; the physical extremity of the piece addressed issues of spirituality, the ability for the mind to conquer discomfort, and the purgative enlightenment of suffering.
Zhang’s painting, Insects No. 2, continues these concepts, but in a different form, establishing a self-referential lexicon and harmonious continuity of his practice. Presented as a vast colourfield, the surface of the painting replicates flesh: sickly pink and battered, pocked, scratched, and gauged, a tactile skin both tortured and flawed. The spindly bugs which punctuate the canvas are equally parasitic and autonomous, sequestered and isolated in the afflicted terrain.
Huan’s Young Mother is from a series of work made from incense ash. Huan collected the soot regularly from temples; a laboriously involved process of weekly gathering and sorting, isolating the substance into the indexical categories of texture and pigmentation which he used to ’‘paint’ his images. This medium has multiple significations: it is the actual substance of prayers, the dust of death and rebirth, the allegorical weight of spirits. Emitting an overwhelming scent throughout the gallery space these pieces recycle the hopes and wishes of others, sharing a cathartic ambience of cleansing and purity. In Young Mother, the ash is used to portray anonymous woman, her humble and demur demeanour is reminiscent of depictions of the Madonna.
Huan’s Seeds pictures an everyday scene of collective farming, the kind of proletariat image championed in the Maoist era. Executed on mammoth scale, the power of this work is immense, transforming propaganda to near religious experience. Replicated with photographic detail, the painting is entirely constructed from incense ash in a process similar to the sand paintings made by Buddhist monks: each individual tone is sprinkled over the canvas to draw out the picture, with density and fading created by the thickness of the dust application. The texture of the charred incense varies from powdery to granular and straw-like, giving a scorched effect of apocalyptic aftermath, hallowed by the effervescent sweet perfume emitted from its surface.