Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan (Chinese: 張洹; born 1965) 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.[1] He is primarily known for his performance work, but also makes photographs and sculpture.

Zhang Huan
Anyang, Henan Province, China
EducationHe Nan University, Kai Feng
China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing
Known forSculpture, Photography, Performance art
MovementContemporary art


He received his B.A. from Henan University in Kaifeng (1988) and his M.A. from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (1993).


Zhang Huan began his work as part of a small artistic community, known as the Beijing East Village,[2] located on the margins of the city. The group of friends from art school pioneered this particular brand of performance in China and Zhang was often reprimanded by officials for the perceived inappropriateness of his actions.[3]

Zhang's performances always involve his body in one way or another, usually naked, occasionally involving masochistic actions. For example, an exhibited photography showed him as "a naked man, his head half-shaved, sitting in a prison-like space. His skin was wet and covered with flies. His face looked blank but tough, as if he were trying to meditate his way through pain."[2]

In a group performance called "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond," he asked 40 migrant laborers to stand in a pond so that their physical presence would raise the water level. In another piece titled "To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain," he and nine other artists climbed a mountain near Beijing, stripped and lay down on top of one another to create a second, mini-peak."[2]

Zhang involves the body in his sculptures as well. He makes giant copper hands and feet, magnified versions of fragments of broken Buddhist figures that he found in Tibet.[2]

By using quasi-religious ritual, he seeks to discover the point at which the spiritual can manifest via the corporeal. He uses simple repetitive gestures, usually regarded as meaningless work-for-work’s-sake chores. Buddhism, with its temple music, sculptures and philosophy are a prevalent theme in Zhang Huan’s work.

His sculpture "Long Ear Ash Head", for example, consists of a massive head made of incense ash and steel. It fuses the artist's image with the lengthened earlobes representing happiness and good fortune in the Buddhist religion.[4]

He continued to explore Buddhism with sculpture "Sydney Buddha", an exhibition where two Buddha sculptures were positioned facing each other: "One, a headless metal statue. The other, a crumbling sculpture made from over 20 tonnes of incense ash, which was collected from Buddhist temples in Shanghai and across China’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces." [5]

Of "Sydney Buddha", the artist said: “The piece conveys the collective memory, soul, thoughts and prayers, and collapse of mankind. It implies a collective ineffectiveness, arising from taking action when none should be taken, upsetting the natural order of things."[5]

He has exhibited at shows including the 2002 Whitney Biennial and Rituals at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

Zhang Huan’s Performance Art

In the nearly 40 different performance art pieces that Zhang Huan performs, he addresses a variety of issues. “The power of unified action to challenge oppressive political regimes; the status and plight of the expatriate in the new global culture; the persistence of structures of faith in communities undermined by violent conflict; and the place of censorship in contemporary democracy.”

12 Square Meters

Zhang Huan grew up with the experience of living in a crowded village area. He did not have much space for himself, which impressed the idea of China's overpopulation on him at young age. In 1994, Zhang Huan was in a small village in China and needed to use a restroom after lunch. He found a public restroom just off the street and went on in. Because of a lot of rain the village had been receiving, the restroom wasn't cleaned recently due to “weather precautions”. As Huan entered the restroom he found that it reeked with awful smells and flies were everywhere in the room. This experience reminded him of his childhood and the small crowded, unclean restrooms he used when he was growing up. “Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. I felt as if my body was being devoured by the flies.” This experience served as inspiration for the piece: 12 Square Meters. “Zhang Huan spread on his body a visceral liquid of fish and honey to attract the flies in the public restroom in the village. He sat on the toilet, almost immobile for an hour.” In a matter of minutes, flies covered his body seeking the treat he slathered on himself.


One of Zhang Huan's first performance art pieces dates back to 1993 at the National Art Gallery located in Beijing, China. Huan placed a giant white canvas on the floor of the exhibition space, then stepped out of the exhibition area and had a jar of red liquid (supposed to represent blood) and mangled doll parts poured over him. Afterwards, Huan picked up the doll pieces and walked back to the exhibition space and onto the canvas, where he then tried to reassemble the doll back together on the canvas. “This work, a startling and visceral commentary on the Chinese government mandate of abortions for women conceiving more than the legal limit of one child, led to a quick closure of the exhibition and serious censure of the artist.”


Foam is one of Zhang Huan's non-performance pieces, of which he has not done many. The piece consists of 15 photographs of his face where he is covered in what appears to be sea foam. In his mouth is his wife's family.

Family Tree

Family Tree consists of nine sequential images of Zhang Huan's face. The photographs are taken in a chronological order, from dusk to dawn. This performance piece is supposed to be a representation of Huan's lineage. During the work, Huan would have three calligraphers write a combination of names known to Zhang Huan, personal stories, learned tales and random thoughts. The calligraphers worked on his face, adding more and more during the chronological period. Eventually, his face was covered by so much calligraphy, it was hard to make out what was actually written.


Peace is another non-performance art work that Zhang Huan did in order to create a symbolic self-portrait of himself. Again, in order to pay respect to his ancestors, Huan had the bell inscribed with names from eight generations of his ancestors. The bell itself is Tibetan inspired by small bells used in ritual practices. In order to ring the bell, Huan had a real-life cast made of himself, and hung just a few feet from the bell. The cast version of himself is supposed to represent the compassion that is the necessary counterpart for wisdom. The actual act of ring the bell is supposed to represent the “artistic struggle with the circumstances of and inheritance from family is both necessarily violent and richly generative.[6]

Selected solo exhibitions

  • 1988 Henan University, Kaifeng
  • 1999 Max Protetch Gallery, New York
  • 2000 Cotthem Gallery, Barcelona
  • 2001 Galerie Albert Benamou, Paris
  • 2002 Kunstverein in Hamburg
  • 2003 Bochum Museum, Bochum
  • 2004 Norton Museum of Art, Florida
  • 2005 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
  • 2006 Sherman Galleries, Sydney
  • 2007 Haunch of Venison, London
  • 2008 Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai
  • 2009 Haunch of Venison, Zürich
  • 2011 Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
  • 2012 Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
  • 2013 Palazzo Vecchio, Forte di Belvedere, Firenze
  • 2014 Pace London, Spring Poppy Fields


  1. Peppiatt, Michael, Peterson, Jane A., Art Plural: Voices of Contemporary Art, Gatehouse, http://artpluralgallery.com/catalogue/doc_artists/a85/AP-Book-Release.pdf
  2. Cotter, Holland (2007-09-07). "Chinese Art, in One Man's Translation". New York Times.com / Art & Design / Art Review.
  3. Chan, Shing-Kwan (January 2018). "Public Displays of Affliction: On Zhang Huan's 12m2". Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. 17 (1): 101.
  4. Luna Shyr (December 3, 2007), In the Studio: Zhang Huan, Art+Auction, retrieved 2008-04-22
  5. Kane, Dominique. "Last Chance to See the Sydney Buddha".
  6. "Zhang Huan: Becoming the Body". Archived from the original on 2012-10-26. Retrieved 2012-05-02.

Further reading

  • Shing-Kwan Chan, "Public Displays of Affliction: On Zhang Huan’s 12m2", Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Volume 17, Number 1, January/February 2018, https://yishu-online.com/browse-articles/?932
  • Elena Geuna, Zhang Huan: Ashman, 24 ORE Cultura, Milan 2010, ISBN 978-88-7179-642-0
  • Yilmaz Dziewior, RoseLee Goldberg and Robert Storr, Zhang Huan, Phaidon Press, London, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7148-4924-9
  • Melissa Chiu, Kong Bu, Eleanor Heartney and Vishakha Desai, Zhang Huan: Altered States, Charta, Milan, 2007 ISBN 978-88-8158-641-7
  • Mark Gisbourne, Zhang Huan: Drawings, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2007 ISBN 978-3-8296-0308-9
  • Michele Robecchi, Conversations with Photographers: Zhang Huan, La Fabrica, Madrid, 2005, ISBN 978-8-4964-6624-1


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