Zhang Huan

張 洹

Sculptor, Installations, Painter, *1965 Anyang, Hunan, studios in Shanghai and New York

If not otherwise indicated all photos are from
Zhan Huan's Website

Zhang Huan among his Ash Heads, 2007
photo Ryan Pyle

After Zhang was born his parents had to leave him and his three brothers with their paternal grandmother in a remote village in Henan. His illiterate parents had probably been sent to a re-education camp. For the first eight years he grew up unspervised, a wild kid. It was one of China's AID villages, and there were many orphans whose parents had died. Later he went to school in Anyang. “The first years spent in the city [Anyang ] were pretty dramatic. I was very undisciplined, especially at school and a terrible student. I couldn't concentrate; they were always throwing me out. I couldn't stay shut up in a room, I wanted to be free. So I spent most of my time alone drawing.”
From an Interview with Michele Robecchi, 2005

Between1984 and 88 he attended Henan University in Kaifeng and graduated wih a BA in conventional painting. He must have been good at it, because he was acepted 1991-93 at prestigious CAFA in Beijing, where he received an MA.

In Beijing he collaborated for while with Liu Zheng and the ambivalent performance artist Ma Liuming. In 1993 they were among the first artists in China to take performance art as their medium after the June 4th Incident of 1989, but they were not permitted to show their work in public spaces. Zhang Huan eloped: “I left China in 1996. First I went to Munich and then to France. The first work I did abroad was in Tokyo (1997). A year later he arrived in New York.

“Pilgrimage-Wind and Water”, Performance at PS.1, New York City, winter 1998.
He hired the dogs as part of the tableaux from the old ladies watching the show

Zhang Huan made his New York City debut in 1998 during the Asia Society's "Inside Out, New Chinese Art" exhibition at PS.1. Zhang immigrated to the United States, fathered a son, and has steadily achieved international art stardom. With several solo gallery shows and a part in a plethora of group shows throughout the United States and Europe, Zhang could not have imagined a more different turn of events. He returned to China a famous artist seven years later.

Rubens or the Revenge of the Daughters of Leukippos

Rubens”, gilded cast bronze, 2001, 208 x 93 x 91 cm

One of the earliest large sculptures by Zhang, an ambitious piece showing Peter Paul Rubens being clawed by the raped “Daughters of Leukippos” (1618) – a decade-long obsession of Zhang – first cast for Luhring Augustine, New York 2000 – followed by several editions thereafter.

Stage Design for Händels Opera “Semele”, 2010

In the West Zhang Huan became famous as a performance artist. One of the projects was his choreography for Händel's opera “Semele”. Rejected by the Shanghai authorities, it opened in Brussels, 2010.

Buddhism Inspired Sculptures

When Zhang returned to Beijing in 2005 a dramatic change happened: he turned into one of the most imaginative sculptors of this century – many with Buddhist themes. The mystery is cleared up by two interviews with Michele Robecchi, 2005, and with Pernilla Holmes, 2008, both reprinted on Zhang's website.

Zhang told Ms. Robecchi:

I was not born a Buddhist although Buddhism is common where I grew up. I became one. Despite the Cultural Revolution, in many parts of China and especially in the country, religious rites are still celebrated regularly in homes. They were only forbidden in public places. Anyway, I've only recently become a Buddhist. Now I listen to Tibetan music more and more often. I have a quieter view of things.... In 2005 was in Tibet for three weeks. I'd like to do some work in that area. I don't exclude going back there, maybe even permanently, in three or five years. I've found out that my work has strong ties with Tibet.”

His first Buddhism inspired sculptures “Peace Bell”, where the bronze knocker is himself, and “Iron Wheel”, which shows him strapped ot the axle of the Wheel of the Dharma.

Peace Bell, 2001
Cast Bronze Bell and gilded Body
335x336x244 cm

Donkey-Jin Mao Tower, 2005
steel, taxidermied donkey motorized, 323x220x80 cm

Iron Wheel, 2005
Iron, bronze body
200x312x197 cm

The Donkey on Jin Mao Tower is a sarcastic political lampoon on the richness of Shanghai. A kinetic sculpture featuring a farm animal humping the famous tower, which until recently was the tallest building in China. Mounted by and bending under the force of a stuffed donkey (of 'hung like a…' repute), Zhang's icon of modernisation gets a literal (and very noisy) shafting from the beast of burden, the 'proletariat' of China.

Found Buddha Pieces Revived

Buddha's Hand, 2006
copper, 450x670x140 cm

Buddha's Legs, 2006
copper, 460x700x194 cm

On his travels in Tibet and China Zhang had collected and purchased random pieces of Buddhist sculptures trashed during the Cultural Revolution. He learned the Tibetan technique of constructing large sculptures from preformed copper sheets welded into the desired shape. - And much enlarged Zhang resurrected the random body parts of the Buddha.

Ash Heads

Ash Head No1, 2007
Ash, Steel and Wood
228x244x227 cm

Cowhide Buddha, 2007
250x197x40 cm

Ash Head No6, 2007
Ash, Steel and Wood
73x51x58 cm

Zhang's Ash Heads, a ingeneous invention of his, are made from incense ash collected from Shanghai's temples; a laborious process of weekly gathering and sorting, isolating the vestiges into categories of texture and pigmentation which Zhang used to 'paint' his images. This medium has multiple significances: it is the actual substance of prayers, the dust of death and rebirth, the allegorical weight of spirits. Emitting an overwhelming scent throughout the gallery space these pieces recycle the hopes and wishes of others, sharing a cathartic ambience of cleansing and purity.

The Berlin Buddhas

Setting up the Mold

Filling the Mold with Ash

Removing the Mold

In 2007 Zhang set up two Buddhas at the 'Haunch of Venison' Gallery in Berlin, one from reinforced aluminum, the other an aluminum mold which was then filled with incense ash. The head and face had to be supported by scaffolding. After a few days the sculpture crumbled as planned.

Finished Ash Budha, 2007
350x480x290 cm
An ash painting on the wall 2007

The crumbling Ash Buddha

Large Public Sculptures

Three-Legged Buddha, London, 2007
860 x 1280 x 690 cm

Two Heads-Six Arms Buddha, San Francisco 2008-2010
800 x 1800 x 1000 cm

Encouraged by his mastery of using the Tibetan copper technique, Zhang made two very large sculptures on commission for London and San Francisco.

Cowhide Giants

Giant No1, 2008
Cowskin, Steel, Wood and Polystyrene Foam
420 x 900 x 420 cm

Giant No1, 2008
Cowskin, Steel, Wood and Polystyrene Foam

After expanding the size of Tibetan copper Buddhas and reaching the limits of his ash heads Zhang explored a less formal way of creating large sculptures by dressing them up in cowhide; maybe his most creative and amiable pieces: wooly Giants and Heros, with no apparent sarcasm.

Giant No3, 2008
Cowskin, Steel, Wood and Polystyrene Foam
460 x 1000 x 420 cm

Hero No1, 2009
Cowskin, Steel, Wood and Polystyrene Foam
490 x 980 x 640 cm

In the last two years he returned to more mundane, modern techniques, like silicone and carbon-fibre hair for an imposing Confucius and a modest-sized inoxydable stainless Buddha – of immeasure-able survivability in your garden.

Buddha Head, 2011
Long Island, NY
copper, steel, 172 x 227 x 177 cm

Q-Confucius No2, 2011
Silicone, Steel, Carbon Fibre, and Acrylic, 380 x 980 x 660 cm

Buddha of the Immeasurable Life, 2012
mirror-polished stainless steel,
132 x 125 x 122 cm

I am certain that Zhang's imagination is not exhausted yet and wait for his next sculptural innovation.

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