Zhang Huan, With the Art in the Flesh

Zhang Huan is a Chinese performance artist, photographer, and sculptor born in 1965 in Anyang City, Henan Province, China. He has positioned himself as one of China’s best known conceptual and performance artists. In his most recent creations, he worked with sculptures and paintings that have great content of references about his native country.

For the construction of his works, whether in the field of photography or sculpture, Zhang usually uses quite unusual materials, both organic and inorganic—including feathers, cowhides, and even an embalmed donkey.

Zhang was born and raised in a central southern Chinese city called Anyang, in a family of farmers. His childhood was not easy, as his family struggled to make ends meet. He said he had a hard time during his school years because he was a very wild child who could not concentrate in class.

Angel was his first performance piece in 1993. Zhang placed a large white canvas on the floor of the exhibition space. He then broke a jar filled with red food coloring and disembodied baby doll parts and covered himself with the contents of the jar before trying to reassemble the doll parts on the canvas. – Photo: 1993 Performance, China National Art Gallery, Beijing, China via zhanghuan.com

Early life and education

He faced the death of several loved ones and family members during his youth. He lived through his entire childhood during the Cultural Revolution in China. His journey on the road to art began with private painting lessons at the age of fourteen.

Zhang then received a place at the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng and studied painting at Henan University. While studying, he was inspired by art figures such as Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt van Rijn. After graduation, he worked for three years at Henan University as a professor in the art department then he left for Beijing.

In 1993 he completed a master’s degree in painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing—after which he worked in a commercial painting company in Beijing where he made copies of Degas’ works, and his work was excellent but he was poorly paid.

In 1994 he made this performance called 12 square meters. In this work, carried out on June 2, 1994, Zhang smeared his naked body with fish oil and honey, and proceeded to sit motionless in a public bathroom for exactly one hour while insects crawled all over his body, even in his mouth and nose. Photo: Zhang Huan – 12 Square Meters, 1994, single channel video via publicdelivery.org

The community of artists of Beijing

During this period, Zhang was extremely poor and decided to move to a declining community of artists, known as Dashanzhuang at the time but later was renamed as East Village (after New York City’s East Village), which was located on the outskirts of Beijing.

It was in this place that Zhang began to use his own body and the bodies of his artist friends to create shows with few resources available for making art. The provocative “living sculptures” and other works of art by British artists Gilbert and George were inspiration to members of The Beijing’s East Village.

The Beijing East Village community was closed down by the police only a year after its conception. But this did not stop these artists from continuing to collaborate. Eventually, they became the first generation of Chinese performance artists to produce works consistently within the country.

In 2001, he produced the work Family Tree. This consists of nine sequential images of Zhang Huan’s face, taken from sunset to sunrise. As the images progress, Zhang’s face and shaved head are gradually covered by calligraphy (written by three calligraphers) until it is completely black. Photo: MOUTARDERIE NATIONALE: THE GILLION CROWET COLLECTION 1123 Zhang Huan FAMILY TREE via sothebys.com

Using his own naked body to produce works

Because of these experiences, Zhang continued to deepen his technique by using his own naked body to produce works in an attempt to criticize and challenge oppressive political regimes; the condition and plight of the expatriate in the new world culture; and censorship in contemporary democracy.

Some of his early performances included very extreme physical challenges. On one occasion he tied himself to a board hanging from the ceiling while a doctor drew blood and threw it on a hot plate. On another occasion, he locked himself inside a metal box that had only a small air hole.

In 2002 he made a performance piece called My New York. Zhang was covered with a white cloth and taken to the courtyard of the Whitney Museum in a palanquin. There he stood up and removed the sheet, revealing that he was wearing a muscular body suit made entirely of raw meat. Photo: CONTEMPORARY ASIAN ART 651 Zhang Huan MY NEW YORK via sothebys.com

Moving to New York

Zhang decided to move to New York in 1998 with his wife Jun Jun, where he began a program of performances and commissions for respected cultural institutions. Their two children were born there, in 2000 and 2003. But after eight years of living in the city, he began to tire of both American culture and the performing arts.

In 2006 he moved back to China to live in Shanghai and left behind performance art because he felt that he was beginning to repeat itself in his work. He opened a studio south of Shanghai where he had a team of over 100 assistants with whom he produced mostly sculptures.

Zhang Huan: Q Confucius – The Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) re-opens in Shanghai on October 15, 2011, after completing Phase II of the historical building’s renovations for presenting contemporary art, with Q Confucius – the largest solo exhibition in China by world-renowned artist Zhang Huan.Photo:Zhang Huan: Q Confucius Rockbund Art Museum via artsy.net

Once back in China, he experienced high levels of fame in his homeland where he now lives with his wife and two children in a simple home. The Pace Gallery in New York has represented Zhang since 2007. He is working on creating sculptures and oil paintings and has given up acting—although the body still occupies a prominent place in his work.

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