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September 2009, Zhang Huan @ White Cube


Zhang Huan, Zhu Gangqiang No.11, 2009, Ash on linen, 39 3/8 x 59 1/16 in. (100 x 150 cm) © the artist
 
Zhang Huan: Ashes to Ashes at White Cube
25-26 Mason's Yard
London, SWIY 6BU 
4 September through 3 October, 2009 

Zhang Huan’s popularity has surely reached new heights this year. Some critics claim that he now is amongst the most meaningful artists of his generation. More recently his artistic practice shifted from the performative feats of psychological and physical endurance that characterised his previous productions to a seemingly more traditional output involving sculptures and paintings. However, here too Zhang Huan’s original and subversive nature shines through brightly. Zhang's notoriety stems from his central role in the experimentation of Beijing's East Village artist group in the early 1990's. Then, Zhang’s body became a medium and site where a conflict between an existentialist quest and the local social reality of a fast developing China could be staged. Tension, unbearable tension, is what the performative world of Zhang involved then. Most notably in 1994, a performance titled 12 Square Meters, saw Zhang sitting naked in a public toilet whilst being covered in fish oil and honey.
 
Rong Rong, the photographer who immortalised Zhang in a series of iconic black and white shots of the action project recalls what happened after the one hour spent in the toilet as follows: “After Zhang had finished, he stepped into a small pond behind the toilet. Lots of dead flies floated on the water, moving slightly with the smooth circular waves around Zhang's straight body. He called the whole thing 12 Square Meters, which is of course the size of the public loo. He said that the squalid condition of the toilet and the army of flies in it gave him the inspiration. Some local villagers voiced their concerns by calling what we did pornographic. The village, the location of the public toilet and the site of Zhang's performance, stands for the East Village, (Dong Cun) a garbage-filled district in the east side of Beijing. Mainly because it provided some of the cheapest housing in the city, it had become home to budding performance and action artists by 1993”.

Many are the elements that made Zhang Huan’s actions and performances so abrasively relevant to eastern and western culture. However, his art exists in somewhat of a mediatic grey area where exhibitionism, existentialism, deliberate shock factor and deep social engagement collide. Packaged together, all these elements have over the past few years attracted good levels of media attention especially because of a few clashes with local authorities. Most notably, in his 2002 contribution to the Whitney Biennial, his performance titled My New York involved wearing a suit made of fresh cuts of meat stitched together. He then walked down Fifth Avenue, releasing white doves from a cage, a Buddhist gesture of compassion. One striking element here is that the suite was made from meat fashioned in the likeness of well-built muscles, effectively a human body made of animal flesh. More subtly that in other of his performances the masochistic/endurance feature was here present in the form of weight, as the suit indeed was particularly heavy to carry. The work is charged with the presence of rich signifiers, the flesh, the doves, and not lastly, the presence of an artist from Beijing in New York. Perhaps, some have hinted, the work could be read as a metaphor of America’s role in the contemporary socio-political world-scene. Taking place a few months after September the 11th, the performance effectively juxtaposed the physical strength suggested by his “bodybuilding meat-suit” and the white doves, an international symbol of peace.
 

Zhang Huan, My New York #4, 2002, © the artist
 
Zhang Huan’s exhibition at White Cube in London is titled Zhu Gangqiang and it is entirely dedicated to the pig. In May 2008, an earthquake reaching 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the Sichuan Province of China, killing more than 60,000 people. Amidst the tragedy, there was a pig that lived, trapped, for 49 days after the quake, surviving on rainwater, rotten wood and a small amount of foraged feed. His survival was hailed as a miracle and he was given the name ‘Zhu Gangqiang’ (‘Cast – Iron – Pig’). According to Buddhist scriptures, 49 days is the amount of time that a soul remains on earth between death and transmigration. This pig’s fortitude resonated with Zhang Huan, who drew broad parallels with his own narrative as both outsider and survivor, while the drive to persevere and retain hope, even under extreme pressure, recalls the spirit of Zhang in his early performance art.
Upon entering the exhibiting space, a rather musky ‘smell of nature’ overwhelms the visitor. It is somewhat of a bittersweet mixture, however a rather pleasant and an unexpected one in central London. The whole of the upper floor is taken up by a vast enclosure set up to resemble some sort of farming environment. Straws cover the floor and rather tropical looking plants have been placed at the back to cover the gallery’s white wall. In the middle of the enclosure stands a wooden shelter-like structure whilst a live pig pokes its head out of it. This is a living translation of the calligram that in Chinese stands for “house” which pictures a pig in the shelter.
 
It is only a matter of seconds before some loud grunts reveal the presence of another pig foraging amongst the plants at the back. A farm-style fence divides us from them, however the pigs seem rather curious and eager to establish a contact with visitor. They run up to the fence, stick their noses through it and look at you in the eyes.
 
A text recalling the story of Zhu Gangqiang is reproduced to the side of the enclosure and tells us that the pig breed in question is a cross between two other different ones, the combination of which made Zhu Gangqiang so death-defying. Zhang wanted two pigs from this breed to be presented in the London show, however, import restrictions meant that two English pigs had to be used as ‘stand in’ instead— Oxford Sandy & Black Gilts were brought specially from Dorset – whilst the real Zhu Gangqiang appears via a satellite-link projected on to the back wall of the gallery. In the gallery space, we also find a screen on which a documentary shows the pig’s journey from the ruined countryside to Zhang’s studio and shows us how the pig leads today a happy life.
 

Zhang Huan Installing Zhu Gangqiang at London’s White Cube, 2009, © the artist
 
Downstairs, the mood of the exhibition is completely different. The messy and lively presence of the pigs is here replaced by sleek large black and white paintings of pigs and skulls. These are made with incense ash collected from Buddhist temples and strangely conflate the crude documentaristic style of the photographic reportage or Communist-era social realist painting with a contemporary take of post-impressionist pointillism. From a distance, the paintings display a clarity that dissipates the more you walk closer to them, revealing dusty, gritty and flaky surfaces of grey and black patches as the image fades.
 
Zhang considers ash to be a unique art material, because of its symbolic connections to religion. The interest for the material, leading onto the creation of many “ash paintings” as well as sculptures covered in ash dates back to 2006 when the artist, after living in New York for eight years, moved to Shanghai where he observed the large numbers of Buddhist devotees who prayed to the deity for hours on end and burnt incense as offerings. 
 
The lower-ground gallery at White Cube, is clearly resonant of 1700 vanitas paintings echoing through works of art executed with materials that seemingly belong to the poor realm of materiality but that are simultaneously imbued with sophisticated symbolic meaning. Here, death and life confront each other in the shape of Zhu Gangqiang’s pictured in the paintings hang on the east side wall and those of the skulls place right opposite. The reminder is clear, even the ‘Cast – Iron – Pig’ who defied death for 49 days, will eventually encounter death. The ash used to create these very paintings also functions as a reminder of something that once was burning and that now is not. However, in the knowledge that Zhang Huan’s work relishes on the ambiguous transparencies that his conjured overlapping signifiers produce, can we be entirely sure that this is the main meaning here? And does it matter?
 
For Zhang “all the dreams, aspirations, all the spiritual longings, all the ideas that people have are infused into the ash. It’s the collective spirit and collective thinking, and collection wishes of the people in China.” 

Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.

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