Zhang Huan is one of today’s most acclaimed artists but he will always be known for a 1994 performance piece called 12 sq. metres, in which he sat naked, drenched in fish oil and honey, in a filthy public toilet in Beijing’s East Village artists community. Flies swarmed over the artist for an hour while friends captured the event on video. It sounds gruesome but to Zhang it was a way of drawing attention to the ruinous state of public sanitation in the Chinese capital. He felt as serene as a Buddhist monk meditating on a prayer mat, with his expanding consciousness allowing him to monitor the tiniest movements of the flies. He noted their preference for fish oil.
For Zhang this notorious work was not an act of sensationalism. “In 12 sq. metres there was nothing I wanted to prove or fight against,” he told me last week, in an interview conducted by email. “It simply reflected my living conditions at the time, which were common to all ordinary people.”
Twenty years on, Zhang has come a very long way from “ordinary people”. His studio outside of Shanghai is a former factory in which he employs around a hundred staff, many of them skilled artisans who help realise his ambitious artistic fantasies. The studio turns out a continuous stream of work in a variety of media.
Zhang was born in Henan Province in 1965 where he spent his first 8 years living in the country with his maternal grandmother and his brothers. From childhood, he was only interested in art, in which he would have a typical Soviet-style education. It was not until the early 1990s when he had moved to Beijing that he began to attract attention with a series of daring performances.
After being included in Inside Out, a landmark survey of new Chinese art, held in the United States (and later, in Canberra), he was able to relocate to New York, where he would live from 1997 to 2005. It was a dream for any Chinese artist at the time, but Zhang found that life in America made him more acutely aware of his Chinese traditions. He turned his sense of dislocation into a subject, titling one of his works Hard to Acclimatise (1999). His breakthrough piece, also in 1999, was My America, a performance that employed 60 naked American volunteers of different ethnic origins.
In 2000 Zhang would stage a performance called My Australia, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, featuring 50 naked volunteers and a flock of sheep. Such spectacular events put the artist on the international exhibition circuit. He travelled the world making works in different countries until he gradually found that New York “had lost its mystery, charm and vitality.”
“When I went back to China at the end of 2005 I found new inspiration at once,” he recalls. “I discovered the ash from the incense burnt in temples in Shanghai, and the wooden windows and doors of old buildings on the outskirts of the city.”
Zhang has become famous for his use of this incense ash, which is transformed into large-scale paintings and sculptures. His assistants collect the ash in trucks, sort and grade it. The different textures are used to create images that refer to modern Chinese history, and occasionally compacted into a large-scale effigy of a seated Buddha, such as the one that will be shown at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival.
The ash has a spiritual significance for Zhang, who sees it as carrying the hopes and the prayers of those believers who originally burnt the incense. “In my eyes,” he says, “these ash artworks convey the collective memory, collective soul and collective blessings of the Chinese people.”
Sydney Buddha is a larger version of an earlier work, Berlin Buddha (2007), now in the collection of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. In both pieces an aluminium mould is used to cast a seated Buddha from ash. When the mould is removed it sits facing the sculpture, a mirror of positive and negative forms. Over the course of the exhibition the ash Buddha will gradually disintegrate.
The scale of the new work is imposing, with the Sydney Buddha being five metres high. Zhang hopes this towering sculpture might initiate a dialogue between different beliefs and cultures, for although he is sceptical about the existence of God, the artist is a firm believer in Buddhist philosophy. He’d like audiences to take their lead from the Buddha – “to abandon brutality and distracting thoughts, and treat everything kindly.”
Although he is willing “to equate divinity with humanity”, Zhang believes we live in an era characterised by “loneliness, anxiety and hopelessness”, in which there seems to be little capacity for positive evolution despite the wealth and prosperity that we see on all sides.
This is almost a personal issue for Zhang, whose extraordinary success means that he has become one of the artworld’s jet-setting celebrities. He has had to reconcile the anti-materialism of his Buddhist beliefs with his role as the owner of an art factory that turns out multi-million dollar commodities for museums and private collectors.
“Buddhism encourages its adherents to get rid of the spiritual conditions of the greater ego,” he says. “Buddhists love all beings. They are happy to see artists eat better food.”
“As for team creation,” he continues, “it’s about managing the division of labour. The role I play in my team is like being the abbot of a temple, or the commander-in-chief of an army. I’m the one who develops the principle and the route. I decide what we do; when we start and finish. My team members produce the works but I am the one who vitalises them – the one who instills the soul into the art.”
Unlike some of his peers who live like pop stars, Zhang is modest in his habits and appearance. His chief pleasure comes from the work itself, which remains true to a few basic themes no matter how grandiose the scale or price tag. He is full of ideas that drive his creations in different directions. Among his latest projects he has worked as director for Handel’s opera, Semele, which will be staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next March. “Recently I’ve been invited by a Chinese company,” he says, “to create its first global experience store, which will resemble a museum.”
Despite the diversity of these enterprises Zhang lists his constant, unchanging preoccupations as human memory and happiness; birth and death, faith and belief. He aims to draw attention to the “brutish nature” of human existence, and to make people more conscious of themselves and their environments. This basic “DNA” may be traced from his early performance pieces to the monumental paintings and sculptures. “My artworks can be considered all of a piece,” he says. “Only the manifestations are different.”
Zhang Huan’s personality has elements of both the activist and the fatalist. He feels that for an artist, “the important task is to raise questions about society and art. One should aim to create an artwork that represents the spirit of our times.” On the other hand he believes that life is a tragic-comedy, with whatever happens in the future being decided by the Heart Sutra. He may be a self-professed agnostic, but he likes the expression: “Man proposes, God disposes.”
Zhang’s ideal for the Carriageworks Buddha is that it will bring sudden Enlightenment to the people of Sydney. “Amitabha!”