Sunday, October 28, 2007
Sitting here, listening to Elvis Presley croon “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” I am forced to think about the nature of sadness and of memory. Which leads, it seems, to thinking about the work of artist Zhang Huan.
Huan is perhaps most famous for his performance piece, “12 Square Meters” (1994) where the artist, then living next to a garbage dump in Beijing, covered himself in fish oil and honey and sat in a public latrine for an hour as flies crawled over him, into his nose, the corners of his eyes, and into his ears.
I remember seeing an image of the work, shortly after it was made public (ArtForum I think) and it struck me then, and strikes me now. Not least because the image is beautiful in its own way, but also because of the thick thatch of pubic hair visible, lends itself to the disquieting understanding that the flies probably found their way into that most intimate space.
Since then, Huan has steadily been increasing his global presence. And though some of his works have been accused of pandering to a Western audience’s ideas of the East, there is enough mystery to keep collectors and critics looking.
Most recently, the artist has garnered press (if not accolades) for a recent series that at first glance examines Buddhism. But a more prolonged meditation of the work ideologically links it to China’s history as a conquering nation, as well as it’s (more recent) Maoist past, and the ways in which the country is emerging in the 21st Century.
The works are large disembodied heads made of the ash from incense sticks burned at Buddhist monasteries that the artist sweeps up. The heads, with elongated earlobes (traditionally sign of spiritual development and superior status) are not beautiful, often sprouting hairy warts that look rather masticated, and reference, like the welded hands he creates, the broken Buddhist figures he found in Tibet. Tibet, which has its share of China-generated woes.
Simple and direct the sculptures communicate sadness, loss, and displacement in different layers and with varying intensity. Feelings that are surely not the sole provenance of a Chinese artist. They are also profound comments on impermanence...the inevitable decline into decay and then nothingness.
*Of interest: the NY Times reports that Huan recently joined PaceWildenstein’s blue-chip stable.