Zhang Huan’s “Ashman” first retrospective exhibition in Europe – interview


The first European retrospective exhibition on Zhang Huan, titled “Ashman, was recently presented at PAC – Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea of Milan, from 7 July to 12 September this year. Art Radar interviewed the artist and the curator, Elena Geuna to find out more about the works, the exhibition, Zhang Huan’s practice across various medium, and the significance of staging it in a European context.

The exhibition was hosted by the Councillorship for Culture of Milan, which has dedicated the year 2010 to China. Zhang Huan has close ties with Italy, having held several solo exhibitions here. In addition, 2010 has been a significant year for Zhang Huan, with his works presented at Expo 2010 Shanghai and rising international interest in the artist.

Installation view, Zhan Huan, Ashman PAC Milan. Image courtesy of Studio Geuna.

Zhang Huan, "Ashman", installation view, 2010, PAC Milan. Image courtesy of Studio Geuna.

The exhibition traced the entire artistic research of this master, gathering together 24 of his works and highlighting the versatility of the artist. Works on display ranged from his performances in the early 1990s, gigantic public sculptures, cowskin sculptures, oil paintings and his “Memory Doors” series to his recent ash paintings and sculptures. Milan City Councillor for Culture Mr Massimiliano Finazzer Flory says:

The use of different techniques and materials translate into important themes such as memory, nostalgia, nature and the body.

According to Elena Geuna,

Ash was chosen as the theme of the exhibition because “the artist employs it both as a medium and as a relic of Buddhist religious practice. The ash is witness of dreams, hopes, prayers, desires and suffering. The incense ash was burnt in several Buddhist temples near Shanghai. It has been collected, sieved and selected in accordance with their texture and tonality.

Berlin Buddha was a fascinating installation in the exhibition. The giant Buddha made with ash placed in front of its aluminium mould gradually fell apart according to the conditions of the environment all around it: the small shakes of the ground, light breezes, the simple passing by of visitors.

Berlin Buddah 2007 Ash, iron and aluminium, Courtesy of Studio Geuna

Zhang Huan, 'Berlin Buddah', 2007, ash, iron and aluminum. Image courtesy of Studio Geuna.

Elena Geuna on curating the show

In terms of curating the show, did you consider which works would best suit European audience’s tastes? Could you give us some examples?

My constant curatorial research is to present the artist in his whole entity, selecting the artworks that better identify the essence of his art.

What was the consideration for showing photos of Zhang Huan’s performance in his early career?

The exhibition began with Zhang Huan’s recent works and concluded with his performances from the Nineties, tracing an ideal path in his whole artistic creation. Zhang Huan started his career as a performer, “working” on his body as a primary language for expressing his own identity. Even from the very beginning, his work has been marked by autobiographical references, influenced by the context, and by Chinese culture and practices.

Elena Geuna on Berlin Buddha

Is the process of Berlin Buddha breaking down completely controlled by chance? Why so?

Berlin Buddha is related to the cycle of life – birth, ageing, death and reincarnation. At the opening of the exhibition, together with a few of his close friends, Zhang Huan removed the support which held the ash head of the Buddha. This performing act marked this sculpture with the inexorable passage of time, which can be controlled by no one. The Buddha began to slowly decompose itself, progressively falling down and losing its recognisable shape. It then returned to its original state: pure ash.

What kind of reaction did viewers have towards this piece?

The impressive and monumental dimension of this work had a profound impact on the viewers. This sculpture is fascinating. The visible transformation of the ash Buddha, which symbolises the frailty of life, expresses the richness of the human experience by bringing immortality to the sculpture. As a contemporary interpretation of the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the work embodies opposite forces, the life and the death, the full and the empty, the ephemeral and eternal.

Installation view Zhan Huan Ashman PAC Milan, Courtesy of Studio Geuna

Zhang Huan, "Ashman" installation view, PAC Milan. Image courtesy of Studio Geuna.

Zhang Huan on Berlin Buddha

How was the Berlin Buddha idea conceived? The process of how the ash breaks up is dominated by chance solely? Can you share more ideas behind the piece?

The Berlin Buddha 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. As time passes, and humidity in the air changes, the ash crumbles to the ground naturally, I believe that in the moment that the Berlin Buddha collapses, innumerable groups of souls will be flying back to the east.

Zhang Huan on medium

In your career, you have shifted freely among performance, photography, sculpture, video and (oil and ash) painting, and most recently opera set design. What drives you in making all these decisions?

The medium I choose depends on what I want to convey: I listen to my heart and do whatever I feel I want to, whatever I feel I should. An artist’s creations are all playing on one theme or another, so the choice of medium is a matter of his inner feelings, and his views on life.

I feel that one key part of an artist’s career is extending the branches of art, while another is leaving the tree entirely, and expanding art itself. Although I feel that I haven’t done well in either area, I personally prefer the second. I like to get away from traditional art, and push beyond its boundaries to blur the concept of what is art. By doing so, I hope to redefine art. Right now I am trying my hands on other things, such as movies, the stage, children’s picture books, online games, multimedia, construction, landscape design and so forth.

Buddah Hand 2007 Copper, Courtesy of Studio Geuna

Zhang Huan, 'Buddah Hand', 2007, copper. Image courtesy of Studio Geuna.

Can you share with us your fascination with using ash from temples? And how does this practice reflect your personal experience and beliefs?

To me, incense ash is neither “just ash” nor “just a material”. It represents the collective souls, memories and prayers of the faithful. The prayers offered are all devout and beautiful. Those faithful people go to temples praying for a child, for peace in their homes, for recovering from illness, for prosperity in the coming year, for success at work, and so on. Temples are a separate world of hope, just as hospitals are a world where we come face to face with the struggle of pain and death.

Four years ago, I brought incense ash from the Jing’An temple in Shanghai back to my studio. My feelings at the time were hard to put into words. My co-workers and I knelt down (in reverence) before the ash. Incense ash can lead to one’s rebirth, or one’s destruction! The power of the ash has kept me up at night, and filled me with sadness. I have been working together with the innumerable souls in the incense ash. Using this incense ash to create paintings crystallises the prayers, memories, and souls within.

Zhang Huan on communication of his art and cross-cultural experience

Having lived in two distinct cultures for many years, what does the New York experience mean for you? What does returning to China mean for you?

Eight years went by in a flash while I lived abroad. The “uprooted” experience of living abroad forced me to confront what it is really like for a Chinese to be away from his home, a stranger in a strange land.

When I returned to China in 2006, I felt a great release, and a great security. I could decide on my next work in an instant, and I became much more free and confident in my works, a feeling I never had when abroad. At the same time, I had a newly found understanding of China.

My works reflect the common aspects of my current life, and everything here is familiar. The materials I use are mostly things others have … thrown away, for example, the doors used in “Memory Doors” (series) and the incense ash. This is mainly because of my background of growing up and living in the Chinese countryside as a child.

Some believe that most art has to be understood in a specific cultural context, so what have you done to try to tackle this challenge when presenting your works to a Western audience?

The value of contemporary art is its ability to expose life’s problems. Only problems can lead us to think deeply, and to change. Art is created for all mankind, and contemporary art is no exception. Many of our current problems actually came right from this era, and their universality transcends national borders.

Is it important for you that Chinese contemporary art is truly understood by a wider audience? First domestically, then in the West too? In your opinion, what are some of the most important or urgent tasks to be done to facilitate this?

I hope that people appreciating contemporary art will continue to grow, and [that] they [will] communicate with each other more and more. Contemporary art has a duty to point out social problems. So if a piece of art is created simply to be appreciated, or collected, or to introduce a novel artistic method into history, I think it is lacking.

Contemporary art should strive to take a critical perspective. Artists are members of society, so they have a day-to-day profession, just as others do, but the nature of their work is different. I think that artists should continue to … explore those areas that may not be directly related to art, in order to enrich their art works. If art is to continue to develop, there are two choices: one is to remain on the tree and wait for the branches to grow; the other is to plant a new sapling in the ground.


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