Whenever someone tells me I’m intense, I think of conceptual artist Marina Abromovic, and one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years, Zhang Huan. I discovered the latter quite by accident, having already made my tour of Chelsea, and heading down 10th Avenue to the village I passed by Max Lang, a gallery I had never been to.
The above image called out to me as I passed, and I think it’s difficult to argue with its power. For Huan, the image itself is evidence of the performance. His work over the years has included covering himself in honey and sitting in an overused, unsanitary bathroom near his studio as flies covered his body, prostrating himself across a wide swath of concrete, lying on a bed of ice as you see below, and so on. Clearly he’s more performance artist than photographer, but he’s also a poet, crafting and reenacting representative imagery and movements that provoke and startle. Images such as “To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond,” for example, which featured a line of men in a pond, or “My Boston,” which documents the artists under a massive weight of texts, “Family Tree,” in which calligraphers drew all over his body. Recent work features large scale sculptures that have, to this viewers mind, more emotional impact than ten David Altmejds…
He’s everywhere now–Saatchi’s in London, a recent stint at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Men’s Vogue is offering a slideshow of his work. He’s no less intense. Though Huan’s intensity comes from lived experience and carefully crafted artistic practice. Here is a quote from a piece in the Telegraph:
The most notorious of these is his 12 Meters Square (1994), for which he covered himself in honey and fish remains and sat for one hour in a filthy public lavatory in Beijing, while people continued to use the facility, and flies amassed on his flesh.
“I lived and worked in a tiny studio, five blocks from that toilet,” he says. “Nobody had their own – everyone had to use the same one. It was so dirty and there were so many flies. For that performance I only thought of how to forget real life – to leave my body and transcend it.”
The social protest of Zhang’s work has brought him into conflict with the government. His 1993 performance protesting against the outlawing of abortion in China led to a group show at Beijing’s National Museum being closed down, and the artist receiving a hefty fine.
Artistic expression became the subject of particular scrutiny and suppression following events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. So when Zhang was invited to make a performance at New York’s PS1 Gallery in 1998, he and his wife got on a plane to the USA, with virtually no money, and stayed “in a tiny room with a shared bathroom and kitchen, in a bad part of Brooklyn”.
By the time they returned to China, eight years later, they were millionaires.
“In China, people thought I should be in a mental hospital,” says Zhang, smiling. “In New York, they understood what I was doing as art.”