Zhang Huan: Asia Society
Richard, Frances, Artforum International
Few serious artists today could call their work "a metaphor for the human condition." Zhang Huan does--and with a straight face. He also states, "The body is my most basic language," and claims, "I wanted to measure myself against insurmountable limits." His recent retrospective, "Altered States"--the Asia Society's first for a living artist--examined three career periods. In the early nineties, in the art enclave of post-Tiananmen Beijing (dubbed the "East Village" after another once-risky hot spot), Zhang specialized in simple, grueling performances, confronting absurd situations with a stoic physicality. Often employing volunteers, he created works that presented collective effort as harmonious but pointless. In 1998, Zhang came to New York to participate in the Asia Society's "Inside Out: New Chinese Art," inaugurating the second phase of his practice. Meditative sacrifice continued, and bystanders were invited to participate in his performances in various ways. But the artist became an outsider, observed by a crowd rather than blending into a fellowship. It is understandable that such a psychological and cultural bargain might pall, and in 2006 Zhang returned to China, converting a Shanghai garment factory into a busy atelier and turning from performance to large-scale sculpture: his work's third phase.
Zhang's performances are documented in video and photographs, shown without attendant artifacts. The artist's first and second periods were linked via a system of symbols centered on themes of fortitude and purification. In these works, the willing body appears inked with Chinese characters, bedecked with meaty bones, or exposed to the elements, imprinting itself into and imprinted by various evocative substances. For To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995, for example, Zhang and a group of "East Villagers" piled themselves on a windy mountaintop while a surveyor measured their combined height to the millimeter. It's chilly; they're pressed together naked; the group mixes men and women. Ideals of the mountain as transcendent hermitage are elliptically transgressed, yet honored. …