New York

Zhang Huan

Few serious artists today could call their work “a metaphor for the human condition.” Zhang Huan does—and with a straight face. He also states, “The body is my most basic language,” and claims, “I wanted to measure myself against insurmountable limits.” His recent retrospective, “Altered States”—the Asia Society’s first for a living artist—examined three career periods. In the early nineties, in the art enclave of post-Tiananmen Beijing (dubbed the “East Village” after another once-risky hot spot), Zhang specialized in simple, grueling performances, confronting absurd situations with a stoic physicality.

Often employing volunteers, he created works that presented collective effort as harmonious but pointless. In 1998, Zhang came to New York to participate in the Asia Society’s “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” inaugurating the second phase of his practice. Meditative sacrifice continued, and bystanders were invited to participate in his performances in various ways. But the artist became an outsider, observed by a crowd rather than blending into a fellowship. It is understandable that such a psychological and cultural bargain might pall, and in 2006 Zhang returned to China, converting a Shanghai garment factory into a busy atelier and turning from performance to large-scale sculpture: his work’s third phase.

Zhang’s performances are documented in video and photographs, shown without attendant artifacts. The artist’s first and second periods were linked via a system of symbols centered on themes of fortitude and purification. In these works, the willing body appears inked with Chinese characters, bedecked with meaty bones, or exposed to the elements, imprinting itself into and imprinted by various evocative substances. For To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995, for example, Zhang and a group of “East Villagers” piled themselves on a windy mountaintop while a surveyor measured their combined height to the millimeter. It’s chilly; they’re pressed together naked; the group mixes men and women. Ideals of the mountain as transcendent hermitage are elliptically transgressed, yet honored. In To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997, another irrational act of increase is accomplished by having migrant laborers (all men in their underpants; Zhang among them) step into a lagoon. In 12 Square Meters, 1994, the nude Zhang, smeared with fish oil and honey, sits motionless in a public latrine, inviting flies to feast.

During his American phase, the artist’s role shifted from instigator among equals to isolated protagonist. At the 2002 Whitney Biennial, he donned a bulging superhero suit made of raw meat and induced Madison Avenue passersby to hold and then release white doves (My New York). He invited calligraphers to ink traditional Chinese stories onto his face, until he was masked in black (Family Tree, 2000), or asked volunteers to strip with him, then had them pelt him with bread (My America, 1999). Neither exactly ghost nor scapegoat, his mute and affectless presence incarnates the “glocal” wanderer, or performance-art mendicant.

Back in China, Zhang’s performance practice ceased. The artist instead adopted a workshop model, with an army of young assistants creating monumental sculptures based on Buddhist icons, and enormous prints. A visit to Tibet, where fragments of smashed devotional statues turn up in markets, inspired the gigantic welded-copper hand and foot that anchored the show’s third segment. The ash of incense prayer-offerings collected from Shanghai’s largest temple is molded into two heads, one Buddha-esque, the other a self-portrait. Such pieces would doubtless carry a different charge in China. In New York, they looked merely handsome and well behaved, at least until the visitor watched the accompanying film, which explains the source materials and tracks the new works’ making. Scenes of complex artisanal production, interspersed with comments by painters, printers, welders, the workshop cook, and Zhang’s driver, reemphasize communal exertion and situate the projects in larger contexts of longing, loss, and reclamation—aka things human and conditional.

Frances Richard