Zhang Huan Chinese, b. 1965
Zhang Huan, born in 1965 in the He Nan Province of China, is a highly regarded and provocative multidisciplinary contemporary artist working in performance, installation, photography, painting and mixed media. Huan’s works have become widely known as bold and thought-provoking acts of social commentary, or at times protests, on the harsh complexities of human life, politically, emotionally and spiritually. Zhang first gained recognition in the 1990s due to his daring and experimental performances pieces. He became internationally recognised building his reputation and portfolio when he moved to New York in 1998 and consequently performed in cities across the globe. The artist returned to China in 2005 and settled in Shanghai. His return to China marked the emergence of his mixed media paintings and sculptures.
Zhang’s employment of his body in his work to engage with themes of existentialism and social inequality is encapsulated in his statement: "My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles have ended up in physical conflicts --- I felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence. This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society, and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language." An example of a radical performance work where Zhang used his body to highlight social and economic issues such as the squalid living conditions in the Beijing East Village, a poor suburb of eastern Beijing, is 12 Square Meters of 1994. Zhang sat naked and covered in fish oil and honey on a metal stool in the centre of a public latrine (the 12-metre room). In the height of summer, the artist was photographed while flies were attracted to and covered his body. At the end of the piece he drown himself and the flies in a nearby pond, and emerged as new man.
Zhang’s more recent ash paintings document the artist deep curiosity of human nature yet they represent spiritual nourishment. He stated that the material moved him greatly when visiting a temple to burn incense: “these ash remains speak of the fulfilment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings”. The paintings are thus conceptually innovative and innately spiritually engaging.
The artist’s work is internationally sought after and held in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, among others. Zhang continues to live and work between both Beijing and New York, recently creating a series on the tragic and emotional losses from COVID-19.