Byline: Brian Sewell
ZHANG HUAN White Cube, SW1
WHAT little I have so far seen of contemporary Chinese art compels me to condemn almost all of it as bathetic mimicry of Western trends and artists known only indirectly from reports in magazines. Mao's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the cultural impoverishment that was its immediate consequence are now sufficiently distant to have been almost forgotten, but it must be argued that with so much destruction of visual arts that were the ancestral Chinese inheritance - a thousand regional cultures developed over several thousand years - it was inevitable that any new manifestation of painting and sculpture would be grafted onto the lively and profitable roots well-established in the West. When the Saatchi Gallery showed us Chinese echoes of Peter Doig, Ron Mueck, Chuck Close, Walt Disney and their ilk, it was to reveal plain plagiarism and the further enfeebling of the feeble by a hundred artists hardly worth a second glance.
There was, however, one exception - Zhang Huan, an artist widely known by the Serota Tendency as the Chinese Damien Hirst and by its American equivalent as the Chinese Andy Warhol, though I think him a better, wiser and more contemplative artist than either of these Western models and far closer to being the Chinese Joseph Beuys. Beuys was the most thoughtful, sincere, innovative, innocent and visionary of the three most influential Western artists of the 20th century but all these qualities were lost in the work of innumerable hack imitators - until now, two decades or so after his death, Zhang Huan emerges as his only honest heir.
Beuys, who did not set out to provoke, was nevertheless proud to be provocative. His intention was to restore what he thought to be the role of shaman to the artist, generating in himself and his audiences energies that were instinctive and constructive, though as impossible to define or harness as the physical works were impossible to analyse and fully comprehend. In his implausible mysticism he was as mad as William Blake and as remarkable in the symbolical force of his work. Now, with Zhang, we have a third mystical madman to make a great triumvirate of the beneficently bonkers. Zhang Huan was born in 1965 (the same year as Damien Hirst) in Anyang, some 300 miles south of Beijing, and could never have encountered Beuys himself, but at some point in the years 1984-88 when he was studying painting and art history in nearby Kaifeng, he learned of him, and when he moved to New York in 1998, his first major works there were physically, intellectually and wholly in the spirit of Beuys. I understand that he is grudging in acknowledging this debt, but references to his predecessor are too obvious to deny.
Damien Hirst, too, has been a reference for Zhang. When in 1994, naked, smeared with honey and fish oil to attract flies to feed on his body, he performed his 12m2 sitting in an open stall in a Beijing public lavatory while passers-by came in to empty bowels and bladders (the obscure title is the building's ground-plan measurement), Zhang must have been aware of Hirst's fly-breeding contraption, A Thousand Years, constructed four years earlier. The significant difference was that Hirst's was performance art by proxy (the flies the cast) contained within a glass case that defined it instead as a work of art that could be sold, bought and displayed, a thing to be multiplied and modified to suit any number of collectors willing to repeat the cycle of death with the occasional replacement of the cow's head and a handful of maggots; Zhang's work, on the other hand, with its not unrelated message, was performed by the man himself in a theatre that no collector or museum could acquire, and of which the only relics are photographs.
There is about his frequent employment of his own and others' nakedness a wearying familiarity. Nakedness in orderly ranks, the bare bum in a landscape, the unnaturally static nude - all these seem to so denature and unsex in any sensual sense the human body that it becomes nothing but an object uncomfortably out of place, a theme already exploited in the West by too many Western artists of the Abject School. …