Huan Family

Zhang Huan (Chinese, born 1965)

Family Tree (detail), 2000 (printed 2003)
Nine chromogenic prints on paper, 48 x 38 in. each
Museum Purchase

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.

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
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Menil Collection, Houston

1. Zhang Huan in Accessed September 13, 2009.
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.