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Zhang Huan: The Man with Three Legs

Zhang Huan is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York City. He began his career as a painter and then transitioned to performance art before making a comeback to painting. He is primarily known for his performance work, but also makes photographs and sculpture


Currently based in Shanghai after working out of New York for eight years, Chinese artist Zhang Huan creates art which is both personal and extensively politicised. His art knows no bounds in terms of the means he uses to convey messages of identity, spiritualism, vulnerability, and contravention – ranging from performance to photography, installation, sculpture, and painting. His unique knack reinforces the interconnectivity of the concepts and recurrent motifs running throughout Zhang’s work. Through his eccentric performances such as running the streets of New York wearing a 50 kg beef suit to his impeccable replica of Confucius as a 32-feet-tall realistic sculpture, Zhang Huan doesn’t only find it thrilling to rebel but also believes in doing so for survival. As an artist who refuses to compromise, Zhang Huan talks to Emaho about his works as well as why Chinese art is still at an experimental stage.

Emaho : You converted to Buddhism and clearly Buddha has proliferated through a variety of media within your oeuvre – ‘Three-Legged Buddha’, ‘Berlin Buddha’ and more mostly made of relics of Buddha from temples in Tibet and other parts of South-East Asia. What has been the story behind each?

I believe in Tibetan Buddhism. To me, the Zhodo Tidro Hermitage (Tibetan Sky Burial Space) is an eternal garden, where human spirit and soul finally come to true unification.

I don’t think I am doing series of Buddha works. What I am expressing is human nature and the significance of life, that is to say, Buddha is human and vice versa. So those Buddha sculptures are reflections of the status of mankind while expressed by means of the universal and common image- Buddha.

The inspiration behind Three-legged Buddha comes from Tibet. I collected a lot of fragments of Buddhist sculptures in Tibet. When I saw these fragments in Lhasa, a mysterious power impressed me. They were embedded with historical traces and religion, just like the limbs of a human being. I added a third leg to the fragment of two legs, and half of a human head under the foot of the third leg. While using pieces of copper to make Buddhist images, I like to keep the original characteristics of copper and traces of welding. For me, pieces of copper are like stitched skin after an operation. When Three-legged Buddha was exhibited in London, Norman Rosenthal jokingly asked me, “Do you think Three-legged Buddha represents Eastern culture occupying London?” This was a monster from the East, which didn’t fit into the London environment – he looked as if he might fly off the ground any moment. I saw a professor seriously explaining this monster to his students, but I had no idea what he was saying! There is a bronze statue in the middle of the academy. I was told that it’s the founder of the school holding a brush in his hand. It also looks like a person teaching a monster to dance.Three-legged Buddha is a monster from another world, a soul rushing out from hell. It’s the confrontation of two powers, and a relationship of ruling and being ruled. Mao Zedong once said, “Where there is oppression, there will be rebellion. Where there is authority, there will be subversion.” I hope the Three-legged Buddha from the East will bring good luck to London and the world.

Berlin Buddha    Berlin Buddha © Zhang Huan

Berlin Buddha is a monumental installation which was completed in 2007 on occasion of my solo exhibition in Berlin. The work is made up of two large sculptures that portray two seated Buddhas, one in front of the other. One is composed of incense ash which is collected from temples and the other is the aluminium cast from which was created the ash sculpture.

Berlin Buddha conveys the idea of samsaras– of life starting from birth, senility, illness and death till rebirth. Taking the ash burnt in religious rituals as a medium of artwork is also a kind of inevitable samsara. In my eyes, ash carries the believers’ hope and soul, and the ash artworks convey the collective memory, collective soul and collective blessings of the people in China.

The ash Buddha, which is not supported in any way, was destined to disintegrate as time passes by. It will become bigger or smaller, break off or completely collapse until finally disappear, because it is influenced by site, environment, time and air vibration. The work keeps moving unforeseeably and uncontrollably, which is exactly the reason why I love it. Time is given to us in the form of second, so we need to make good use of each second. I am convinced that numerous souls will fly to the east at the moment of the collapse of Berlin Buddha.

Emaho : What is the basic concept of the 32-feet-tall realistic sculpture of Confucius, Q Confucius No. 2?

Confucius was born in the kingdom of Lu (now is QuFu city) in 551 B.C.  Confucianism, founded by Confucius and interpreted through various dynasties in the past, has been infiltrated in the history of Chinese civilization and has become its foundation.

As a representative of Confucianism of Chinese culture, Confucius’ basic philosophy is that man is an integral part of nature and the conception of harmony. What is harmony? How to realize harmony? Why to raise the concept of harmony? The answer is there are too many disharmonious factors in life. Confucius had a classical saying of people’s life, “Since the age of 15, I have devoted myself to learning. Since 30, I have been well established. Since 40, I have understood many things and have no longer been confused. Since 50, I have known the laws and rules of nature. Since 60, I have been able to understand people’s words without too much thinking. And since 70, I have been able to do what I intend freely without breaking the rules.” The spirit of this saying is not breaking the rules, which means not crossing the line of ethics, law, morality and fate. That’s why the saying “A man of noble character will not fight with his fate” came out. Fate is determined by heaven, which cannot be changed.

Q Confucius No.2 Confucius © Zhang Huan 

I am always in pursuit of the sage realm that at 70, I could follow whatever my heart desired without transgressing the law. Except at the surface, meaning without transgressing the law. Which is you cannot transcend the law, nor the ethical principles or the common conventions of human beings. The deep meaning is that you cannot transcend those standards, and then you do whatever you need to do and do it the best you can.

I always say that in the art world, you must transgress the law. For art, compromising means death, and rebelling means surviving. So in creating art, we must transgress the law to establish a new set of system so as to leave something valuable to the history of art.

Emaho : How did the sculpture ‘Giant’ come about? What was the idea behind using cow skin, steel, wood and polystyrene foam to make it?

The series Giant was initially prepared for the solo exhibition in Shanghai Museum. A giant is not an ordinary human being but is also an ordinary human being. When an ordinary human being reaches greatness, he becomes a giant. If a giant falls but stands up and reaches greatness again, he gets a giant disease. For me, a giant with a giant disease is an ordinary human being. He cannot react to the pressure from the world or face reality, but his wild imagination of creating a new world will sustain him forever. The giant is tired. He needs rest, condolence, love, and cure.

The cow skin came from oxen in the countryside. The cow skin series are the continuous works of my Cow skin Buddhas. The use of cow skins came from my childhood memory when I used to ride on ox backs in the countryside of Henan Province. The rugged leather still retains the natural energy, waiting for rebirth in the cycle.

Giant No.3(460x1000x420cm)巨人3号        Giant © Zhang Huan

Emaho : A lot of your work involves incense ash – in sculptures, installations and paintings. What does ash represent for you, especially in the light of each of your work such as the Ash Jesus sculpture, Xiao Lu ash portrait, etc?

It is my invention to create ash paintings. To me, the ash of incense is not just ash, nor is it just material, but a collective soul, of our collective memories and good wishes. Every year we have several thousand cubic meters of incense ash from more than ten temples around the Jianzhe region moved to the workshop.  No one wishes ill toward others when they go to temples and stand before Buddha, they only pray earnestly for good. Of those devout men and women who go to temples, some are wishing to have a child, some are wishing for the well being of their family members, some are wishing to recover from illness, some are wishing for luck and success in the new year, some are hoping to get through some difficulty, free themselves from poverty, have success in their work and endeavours. Inside the temples is a completely different world of hopes, whereas hospitals are also a world of desperate struggle where we face pain and death.

The figures in my paintings are unique ones, which make different emotional connection to me. I believe each portrait has a soul behind it.

Emaho : Your series ‘Memory Doors’ works on a very interesting concept. Was it a personal inspiration?

Yes, it was a personal inspiration. We often go to several large second-hand stores outside Shanghai to look for treasures. It’s a completely different world from the city – Ming style furniture, western style furniture, Hui style architecture, stone sculptures, museum quality objects and local stuff. It has everything from different parts of the country. From the traditional culture we borrow and learn, and can find all kinds of material here too. What I use are mostly abandoned things, such as door panels and incense ash. Farmers sell the old wooden doors and replace them with metal ones.  These are unpretentious, close to origin materials. They are closely related to my background of growing up in rural China.

It is sort of like the peeling back of skin. I call it Memory Door. I chose images from old magazines and used silk screen print method to enlarge them. My very first impression of the enlarged screen print version compared to the original photo was altered only once. Then I decided which parts to carve. It was actually really hard to decide which parts not to carve because it was so difficult to imagine what it will look like when finished. So I actually really look forward to the end results.

Three Heads Six Arms         Three Heads Six Arms © Zhang Huan

Emaho : ‘Three Heads Six Arms’ is one of your largest sculptures, measuring 800×1,800 x 1,000 cm and weighing 15 tons. Two of the three Buddha heads have been replaced by human heads, including your self-portrait, what does that signify?

The shape of Three Heads Six Arms came from Zhang Huan’s correlation of it with the Chinese mythological character Nezha. Its inspiration came from Tibetan Buddha sculptures. I replaced two of three Buddha heads with human heads. I am the normal human figure.

Three Heads Six Arms reflects the changing realities of Chinese people today. It reflects the attitude of humankind having conquered nature and even reflects deeds of volition and hope.

Emaho : Your sculpture ‘Hehe, Xiexie’ made from mirror-finished stainless steel, is a pair of pandas — one named ‘He He’ (Great Peace) and the other ‘Xie Xie’ (Great Harmony). Similarly in 2002 your act of walking down the streets of New York wearing a suit made of raw meat and handing out white doves to onlookers was an initiative to send out a peace message. Why pandas and meat suit to send out a message on peace and harmony?

Communication! Both works are in the hope that people may liberate their thoughts in the process, from self to anatta and thence to a new level of forgiveness, harmony and generosity.

Harmony is the basic national principle in China, as well as the common dream of the world. People advocate justice and peace while opposing wars hope that our globe can be more environment-friendly. The human world can embrace equality, freedom and felicity to a greater extent and a new international order can be built. We should keep sympathy deep inside our heart. Only this way can we enjoy a harmonious world, a harmonious nature and a harmonious age.

My-New-York        My New York © Zhang Huan

My New York was created for the Whitney Biennial in 2002. It was also my first performance after 9/11. Many things look strong and powerful on the surface but in fact are extremely vulnerable. In New York, I saw many male body-builders who spend hours to train themselves, sometimes even beyond what their bodies could take. They use all kinds of vitamins and supplements in order to keep up their strength, but many times they go beyond the limit of their heart. My consultant designed a beef-costume for me. Five tailors spent an entire day and a whole night to sew beef piece by piece onto a diving suit. The beef-costume is very heavy, maybe around fifty kilograms. I had a hard time walking because of its weight. What a bodybuilder achieves only after going through more than ten years of training, I achieved overnight. In this work, I invited immigrants to participate and used doves as well. In the traditional meaning of Buddhism, to return doves to nature is a benevolent act.

Emaho : You were one of the first performance artists in China, how did you start in performance art? Tell us about your controversial performance act with the black horse?

For a long time, I could not feel a connection with two-dimensional materials. I tried different mediums to get the feeling of closeness. Once, I found the bottom half of a plastic mannequin. One of the legs was black and hollowed. I put it on my bike and went home. I put one of my legs in the hollow mannequin leg- I had three legs. I suddenly felt I understood something extraordinary. Three legs! I tried to walk with three legs. The feeling was strange yet exciting. I felt that I found a way of walking and of being, that I could not have achieved before. The manner of my body’s participation completely moved me. This may be said to be the first work that I created with my body. The directness of using my own body made me feel grounded, and I told myself that this would be the only way for me. I need nothing more. Nothing else can move me. I don’t want anything. I only want my own body.

Z.H. (19)

Emaho : Your performances are typically body experiments of endurance and meditation, like in ‘12 Square Meters’ you sat for an hour smeared with honey and fish oil, in a public lavatory in Beijing while flies covered your body, crawling into your nose and ears! And in ‘65 Kilograms’ you hung naked, suspended with chains, from the ceiling beams of your art studio. A bag of your drawn blood and sweat dripped onto a heated pan below, filling the room with its stench. What do you wish to achieve with such experiments of sorts?

My inspiration is from the most trivial things in daily life such as eating, sleeping, working, and those which are always ignored in our ordinary life. I always discover and experience the nature of human from such things. What I want to experience in my artworks are survival, the physical body and the truth.

Those artworks directly reflect our lives in the East Village. This was my life, and no one could experience it but me. In the course of the hour, I tried to forget myself and separate my mind from my flesh, but I was pulled back to reality again and again. Only after the performance did I understand what I experienced.

Emaho : Coming to paintings, in ‘Poppy Fields’ only upon closer inspection does the burst of colour transform from the abstract into figurative. Tiny faces with round eyes and wild Cheshire-grins become evident in close view, a reference to ancient Tibetan dance masks. What was the inspiration for this densely layered, all-over painting presenting a hallucinatory imagery of opium smokers and Chinese Cultural Revolution?

The Poppy Field series illustrate the illusory aspiration of happiness and freedom in life. This eternal illusion will reincarnate permanently in the poppy field.

Three Legged Buddha 2           Three Legged Buddha © Zhang Huan

Emaho : With your move to New York in 1998, you became a standard-bearer for China’s contemporary art awakening and you moved back to Shanghai again in 2005. How has your journey as an artiste been in New York and China, both spiritually and practically?

I went to New York in 1998 and came back to China in 2005.The hormones in my body changed, but my DNA remained the same.

Living in New York was a dream come true when I was young. I spent eight years living in another part of the earth and travelled to many countries during that period. It was for the distance from my native land that I could realize myself, my tradition, the treasure from my ancestors more clearly. To me, New York no longer maintained its sense of mystery, charms and vitality – while things in China were on the contrary at that time. So I went back to China at the end of 2005, and found new inspiration and media for creation at once.

The hormones in my body drove me to another direction of art creation. They led me to the objects, which made me feel moved, which gave rise to my childhood memory, and which aroused my familiarity to the Chinese culture and history. I cherished the incense ash burnt in the temples of Shanghai and the surrounding areas, and the old wooden windows and doors of the old buildings in outskirts of the city. The characteristic tradition of China and my desire in the modernists became the source of my art creation.

Emaho : I believe ‘Blessing’ was to be the title of your first solo exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum in 2006 which was cancelled by officials labelling your work as “offensive”. Although China’s contemporary art scene has boomed in the last few years, these situations remain common. What do you think about the art scene in China?

Art is undergoing constant changes in China. China owes its artistic prosperity to its significant position in the international community and the overall growth of national strength. People’s intense interest in the economy and culture in China brings about more attention to Chinese contemporary art. Nevertheless, in lieu of possessing a full-fledged system, Chinese art is still in the experimental period. Thus it will take time for Chinese contemporary art to pave an appropriate path for its own development. I believe all depends on time, space and location.

Zhang_Huan,_family_tree                     Family Tree © Zhang Huan  

Emaho : Tell us about your latest series of work, to be shown in spring 2014, where you are creating textured paintings about “physical birth, senility, illness, and death” using medicinal Chinese herbs, otherwise used to treat illnesses?

People inevitably have some disease. Chinese medicinal herbs are critical for people to keep healthy and to recover from diseases. If we suffer from mental diseases, medicines are even more important to us. People have different symptoms in different ages. We should prescribe medicines special for diseases. From the angle of Physical birth, senility, illness, and death, human beings and the earth will all eventually disappear and we can do nothing about it. Since we have the chance to live in it, we must devote our hearts and souls to the undertakings we cherish. I want to give many prescriptions with Chinese herbs to the world to cure its mental disease.


Art & Culture Interviewed by Raksha Bihani



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