Pace Gallery has taken up space at Chesa Büsin in the Swiss town of Suoz this summer for a retrospective of works by Chinese artist Zhang Huan. Known for his especially visceral brand of performance art and his equally meticulous and exacting documentations, this exhibition primarily focuses on some of Zhang’s lesser known paintings, photography and works on paper.
Huan’s work primarily focuses on phenomenological transcendence, pushing the human body to its physical limits through Buddhist-inspired meditation and acts of fragility. Installed at the center of the exhibition are two photographs from the ½ (meat) and ½ (meat + text) series. Naked before an innocuous backdrop, Huan stares into the camera with an expression of calm defiance. Not exactly dead-pan, the viewer gets the sense the artist has managed to remove himself from his own presence in the image. Adorned with animal carcasses and intricate Chinese calligraphy, Huan is interested in an intellectual violence that embraces the sublime.
Another work from this period, a chromogenic color print from 12 Square Meters, again documents the artist mid-performance. This time, Zhang is positioned in profile, squarely avoiding the camera’s gaze in concentration. 12 Square Meters was a public performance held at a public latrine in Beijing, June of 1994, when the artist covered himself in fish sauce and honey, sitting for an hour in filth as flies swarmed around him.
Having retired from this part of his practice in 2005, the 49-year old artist has moved to more subtle, meditative style of work. Of particular note is the Ash series, a collection of paintings done with ashes inspired by congregants of the Longhua Temple in Shanghai, which practices “re-births” into calm tableaus of naturalism. In any of the works, Pine Treet No. 2, Free Tiger Returns to Mountains, Sea No. 2 or even the more explicit East Wind No. 2 and 6there is still a sense of movement and etherial temporality within these immobile moments. Conversely, the Spring Poppy Field series, last exhibited at Pace’s London venue this past spring, draw their inspiration from traditional Tibetan death masks. From afar these paintings resemble a Georges Seurat with a more vibrant palette, but a closer inspection yields a lurid face in each one of the thousands of the poppies crammed into the frame.
Small Three-Legged Buddha is the only sculpture in the show, although as the other pieces suggest, there is something sculptural to Huan’s work as a whole. The figure, a copper form with six casted editions, is a reconstitution of the Chinese landscape from ancient to modern times, just as much as it is about the samsāra, or “cyclic existence” of Buddhist philosophy.
Zhang’s work is frequently occupied with the ritual and the ceremonial processes of art-making. Zhang Huan: Chesa Büsin is fittingly a quiet show, even with its the inclusions of the artist’s more notorious works. As his technical skill continues to expand to other mediums, Huan retains the unwavering wisdom of his youth.
— M. Lax
Zhang Huan at Pace [Exhibition Site]