Chinese, born 1965
Family Tree (detail), 2000 (printed 2003) To make Family Tree, a set of nine self-portrait photographs, the Chinese-born, now international artist
Zhang Huan invited three traditional calligraphers to spend a day painting kanji characters
on his face. Asked to maintain a solemn attitude and to keep working even after their
words had become a black mask, the calligraphers gradually obscured his features with
ink. The writing included proverbial stories such as “How Yukong Moved the Mountain,”
a traditional tale that was a favorite of Mao Tse-Tung, and instructions for divining
a person’s fate from his or her facial features.(1) Made two years after he immigrated
to America, this work reflects the artist’s ongoing quest to symbolize--often using
his body as a primary material--his own struggles as well as the challenges others
have faced in a rapidly changing China.
Nine chromogenic prints on paper, 48 x 38 in. each
Born in Henan province and reared in a rural village, Zhang Huan grew up in poverty,
and he saw members of his family suffer and die. Although he was a poor student, Zhang
Huan could draw. He won a place in an art program that trained him in Soviet and European
painting styles. Transferring to the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing
in 1991, he began discovering his distinctive style. One day, he tried using the bottom
half of a broken plastic mannequin to walk with three legs. This bizarre experiment
led him to a key understanding:
I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles often ended up in physical
conflicts. . . . All of these troubles happened to my body. This frequent body contact
made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I
come to know society and society comes to know me.(2)
Zhang Huan abandoned easel painting and began creating performance-based works, a
number of which symbolically addressed social conditions in China. For example, 12
Square Meters (1994), in which the honey- and fish oil-covered artist sat for an hour
in a fly-infested public latrine, and photographs such as To Add One Meter to an Anonymous
Mountain (1995), depicting naked bodies piled on a hilltop, symbolized the subordination
of the individual to the collective. Other works derived from his experiences as a
foreigner. For the hourlong Pilgrimage— Wind and Water in New York (1997), he lay
naked and face down on a block of ice in the courtyard of a Long Island City museum,
surrounded by dogs; he explained that the piece stemmed from his difficulties adjusting
to America, where pets are often received more warmly than new immigrants.
Family Tree dramatizes how Zhang Huan’s interior life has been stamped by the stories
passed on to him by his family, peers, and homeland. His accomplishment has been to
recognize this second skin of conditioning and to slip in and out of it to make art
that is both personal and universal.
--Toby Kamps 1. Zhang Huan in www.zhanghuan.com/ShowWorkContent.asp?id=27&iParentID=18&mid=1.
Accessed September 13, 2009.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Menil Collection, Houston
2. Zhang Huan quoted in Qian Zhijian, "Performing Bodies: Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming,
and Performance Art in China," Art Journal 58, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 63.