Critics’ Picks

Zhang Huan, Survivor, 2008, ash on linen, 98 7/16 x 157 1/2".

Zhang Huan, Survivor, 2008, ash on linen, 98 7/16 x 157 1/2".


Zhang Huan

White Cube | Mason's Yard
25-26 Mason's Yard
September 4–October 3, 2009

Seventy thousand people died when an earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province in May 2008. But one hog—since nicknamed Zhu Gangqiang, or the “Cast-Iron Pig”—managed to stay alive on rainwater and rotten wood for forty-nine days, until his owners found him. Artist Zhang Huan makes Zhu Gangqiang the hero of his new exhibition, attracted to the pig’s story not only because of the animal’s survival but also because Buddhists believe that the time between death and transmigration lasts forty-nine days.

Zhang uses this religious resonance to build a whole life cycle of sorts within the gallery. As viewers enter the building, they’re hit by a barnyard smell, which comes from a pair of spotted piglets charging round a pigpen. Next to the pen, a video, wall text, and a projection tell Zhu Gangqiang’s tale. Downstairs, the show shifts pace, with a series of meticulous paintings made from incense ash collected in Buddhist temples. Half are portraits of Zhu Gangqiang, the other half images of skulls. The two series set up a conversation about life and death, which is brought full circle by the piglets’ squeals that drift down the stairwell. The ash also plays its part here—material at the end of its existence, but transformed into something new.

The paintings are distractingly beautiful, the piglets are ludicrously cute, and the video has the feel of a foreign correspondent’s report. The variety of media has the potential to upset the show’s conceptual thread, but each aspect does just enough to remind viewers that underpinning Zhu Gangqiang’s story is a community’s tragedy and gradual recovery. While it doesn’t quite have the visceral power of the artist’s earlier performances, Zhang’s show is still a worthy commemoration of the will to survive.