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.

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