Zhang Huan is one of the most important artists of his generation in China. From 1993 to 2005, he created compelling performance works that confronted authority and tested his endurance; since then, he has explored printmaking, painting and illustration, installation, and sculpture. Artkrush editor Paul Laster recently sat down with Zhang at his retrospective exhibition Altered States, at New York's Asia Society and Museum, to discuss his concepts of performance art and his sudden turn toward working in a variety of other media.
AK: Why did you choose to use your body as a vehicle for your art?
ZH: Unlike other mediums, the body is capable of direct feeling; it's sentient. Before I used my body in my work, my work lacked a certain vital consciousness. When I finished a performance using my body, I was always gratified by that immediate experience.
AK: What went through your mind during your performance piece 12 Square Meters, when you sat in a public toilet for one hour, covered in honey and fish oil?
ZH: During the performance, I wanted to transcend the environment. Flies were buzzing around my head and landing on my body, but I tried to forget the discomfort. Afterwards, I actually felt very calm.
AK: In a 2005 interview with THEME magazine, you talked about the inviability of performance art in China, joking that "2,000 performance artists means 1,998 more homeless people." What was your own early experience like, being a poor artist living in a rundown area of Beijing?
ZH: I didn't really feel poor. Although I often borrowed money from friends, I was never destitute. I was wealthy in so many other ways.
AK: What provoked you to name the area that you lived in "Beijing East Village"?
ZH: I didn't know too much about the East Village in New York, but I knew it was a place for artists to hang out and that it had a great artistic spirit. That's why I called the area of Beijing, where I lived with other artists, the East Village. I wanted to invoke that spirit. In reality, New York's East Village was quite different from the East Village of Beijing, which was a rural wasteland. It was farmland. For many artists, it was like going to live in the cultural backwaters, but it was natural for me it reminded me of my childhood in the country.
AK: Punk was a big part of New York's East Village scene in the late '70s and early '80s. Did you consider yourself punk?
ZH: Punk definitely had an influence on the development of my work. When I was living in Beijing East Village, I listened to the music of Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, and other rock musicians. I considered myself punk. I liked the sound and the ethos.
AK: You mention Nirvana. Did you like Kurt Cobain's music?
ZH: I did, but I didn't understand it. It's similar to Westerners who like calligraphy. If you show it to them upside down, they still like it.
AK: Two of your seminal collaborative works, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, perform metaphors for shan shui (mountain/water) landscape painting. How do you view your interpretation of this classic genre?
ZH: They were kind of a re-creation of my childhood experiences, when I often went to the ponds, to the mountains, to climb trees. It's just the people that are different in these works. Rather than my childhood friends accompanying me, it was artists and farmers.
AK: In Pilgrimage Wind and Water in New York, you lay on a Chinese daybed covered with blocks of ice, which your body was unable to melt to join itself with the bed representing your ancestors. In a case like that, does it matter if a performance succeeds or fails?
ZH: My emphasis is on the experience and on the process. I have no anticipation of the end result.
AK: You've used live animals and the meat and bones of dead animals in numerous works. What symbolic role do animals play in your work?
ZH: They have different significances. The dogs tied to the bed in Pilgrimage commented on their important role in American family life, and the different breeds represented America being a melting pot of different ethnicities.
AK: In many of the performances after 2001, you used doves or others birds, which are released as symbols of peace. Do you think art can actually influence politics, or are these symbols simply defining your hopes and beliefs?
ZH: The bird could be seen as a dove, which is a symbol of peace, or as an eagle, which eats its live prey. In Seeds of Hamburg, doves picked birdseed from my body, which can be interpreted as both a communal feast and a predatory hunt.
AK: Window is one of your strangest and most intriguing performance works. Why would you want to conjoin with a donkey?
ZH: It's one's dream, one's hope. The relationship between the donkey and me is very close. Window is one of my favorite works. On the other hand, the word "donkey" has a very negative meaning in Chinese. If we say that you are a donkey, it means that you are stupid or impolite.
AK: Your last performance, My Boston, also took a different twist by going back to a remembrance of your youth and your inability to focus in school. If you were a bad student, what motivated you to succeed in life?
ZH: I visited Boston a few times, and the intellectual environment there made me feel inferior. It was similar to when I went to Rome, where the site for my performance My Rome was so magnificent, so beautiful, that I was overwhelmed.
In my life, the most important thing has been pursuing my interests, which lead me to cultivate the necessary skills. As long as I like something, I can do well. I'm playing what I like playing.
AK: After so many years of performance and its documentation, why have you decided to solely focus your energy on making objects?
ZH: Performance art can be physically and psychologically exhausting. I often lost weight from the stress of trying to plan a performance, and at times, I didn't even know what I was going to do when I arrived on-site for an event. I've run out of ideas for performance, so I've stopped for now. If I have good ideas again, I'll return to performance art.
AK: Has your work in other media grown out of your performances?
ZH: My current work is mainly drawn from my living experiences. At the same time, I think a good artist has to be illogical and mess around. Only then can one produce good art.
AK: Several of your early individual and collaborative works have been claimed as the work of photographers and performers that assisted you. Do you think they were being good communists or bad capitalists? In other words, did they feel a social attachment to your ideas or a monetary one?
ZH: At that time, there were no contracts with my associates. When I was lucky enough to be picked up by the American market, they wanted to capitalize on the work. Art has a personal stamp on it. There may not be a contract defining who made it, but people who know art can sense whose art it is.
AK: Has that affected your working in an old factory with a hundred workers now?
ZH: My studio has developed naturally. I have new ideas, which require new means of production. Now, my workers have contracts, whether it's an intern or a photographer.
AK: After having achieved international success, is there anything you miss from your early days in Beijing East Village?
ZH: I miss those simpler times. Simplicity is the highest form of art. Some European artists look at the photos of 12 Square Meters and say, "That was your best."
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