Selected works by Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan


Mixed Media

320 x 220 x 80 cm

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
Ash Head No.1


Mixed Media and ash

228 x 227 x 244 cm

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.

Zhang Huan
Insects No.2


Oil on canvas

250 x 360 cm

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.

Zhang Huan
Young Mother


Incense ash on linen

250 x 400 cm

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.

Zhang Huan
Seeds (and detail)


Incense ash, charcoal and resin on canvas

250 x 400 cm

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.


By Michele Robecchi

Michele Robecchi: Let's start from the beginning. What do you remember about An Yang, where you were born?

Zhang Huan: After I was born, I moved to the country with my paternal grandmother and my three brothers and lived there for about eight years. It was in important experience as it allowed me to grow up with nature and develop a direct relationship with it, with no inhibitions. I only went back to An Yang later and it was a pretty radical move, as it's a fairly big city, about five million people. I moved to Beijing a lot later.

MR: After moving to the capital, did you ever return to the rural area where you were raised?

ZH: Yes, although not very frequently in the last ten years. I have only returned once.

MR: Has the place where you were educated during those first years changed a lot?

ZH: Not too much. My village is very far from the coast. Transportation is slow and the inhabitants have an old economy mindset. They continue to live in fairly unpleasant conditions. Perhaps you've heard of China's "AIDS villages". I think it all began in Henan. I don't know whether you can imagine what it is to live in a place where people are obliged to sell their own blood to cover such basic necessities as the purchase of food or clothing. Well, that's what happened there and what, in fact, is still happening.

MR: Do you mean they sell their blood to earn a living?

ZH: Yes.

MR: That's terrifying. Are they really known as "AIDS villages"?

ZH: Yes, that's what they're called: "AIDS villages". In many families only one or two members remain alive. Many children are orphans because that terrible disease, AIDS, has killed their parents.

MR: In your opinion, was dividing your childhood between the uncontaminated nature in the country and the city an advantage for your work?

ZH: In my opinion yes. If I think about it, it was a fairly straight journey. First the Chinese countryside, then An Yang, then Beijing and finally New York. My First years of life were important, because they let me live in nature freely, almost primitively. That sense of freedom and familiarity with nature has never left me. It's inside me.

MR: What impact did the city cause after having lived with nature for so many years?

ZH: The first years spent in the city were pretty dramatic. I was very undisciplined, especially at school and a terrible student. I couldn't concentrate; they were always throwing me out. I couldn't stay shut up in a room, I wanted to be free. So I spent most of my time alone drawing. In a certain way that's how it began.


Sotheby's Contemporary Art Asia, New York, March 31, 2006

Zhang Huan, widely considered to be one of the outstanding Chinese performance artists of the 1990s, moved to the United States in 1998. In the five years prior to his departure, he had gained considerable notoriety in Beijing on account of the provocative nature of his performances, particularly those in which he submitted his own body to tests of physical and mental endurance. While living in the East Village, a celebrated but short-lived artist's community in Beijing, he performed the piece known as Twelve Square Meters in which, covered in fish oil and honey, he sat immobile in a filthy public latrine while flies and other insects settled on his body.

To some extent this was a refection on the living conditions of the great majority of Chinese who had not yet benefited from the rapid development of the economy. More importantly, it was a demonstration of the power of the human mind to rise above situations that most would find unendurable. In Original Sound , 1995, his mouth filled with earthworms, he laid underneath a flyover in Beijing while ten artists observed him and offered their own interpretations.
Potentially life-threatening was 25mm Threading Steel in which he laid flat on the floor beneath a steel-workers table while sparks flew dangerously close to his body.

Other works such as the well-known To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond , which took place on August 15, 1997, involved the participation of other performers. Forty or more participants, recent migrants to Beijing from other parts of China, were invited to walk into the pond in order to raise the water level, an absurd gesture that nonetheless underscores the far reaching effects of even the slightest movement or gesture.

While the move to America and the rapid growth of his international reputation enabled Zhang to work on increasingly ambitious scale ( Hard to Acclimatize/My America , 1999, held at the Seattle Art Museum and My Australia , 2000, held at the National Gallery of Australia) , he still continued to produce works in which he was the sole participant. Peace was produced shortly after his best-known work Family Tree and shares some of the same preoccupations.