Zhang Huan Mind Over Matter And Self Control – Review

Zhang Huan (White Cube Bermondsey) is an interesting artist, with an impressively diverse range of art to his name.  The artist was born in 1965, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, pursuant to which whole tracts of Chinese culture were obliterated – somewhat unusually by China’s own people rather than by a foreign colonial power, as was more common at the time. 

Raised in a tiny rural village, Zhang eventually moved to Beijing to study art at the preeminent Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Beginning in 1993, Zhang embarked upon a number of performances, many in the nude, for which he is most well known.  He relocated to the United States for awhile (where he lived in self-imposed exile for almost eight years), where he cemented his reputation as a powerful voice on the international art scene.
With a meditative stoicism that undoubtedly owes much to China’s Buddhist legacy, Zhang gained notoriety for subjecting his body to a series of inhuman feats – which included lying face down on a bed of ice, suspending his body from the ceiling of his studio, and sitting in a sweltering, stinking public lavatory covered by flies.  The artist’s mind-over-matter self-control, which formed the subject matter of his performances, served not only as a testament to the trials and tribulations of the human condition, but also staged a powerful critique of the callousness of certain Chinese government policies which had reduced the quality of life for so many of her citizens.

While in America, Zhang became increasingly disenchanted with life in the West – as is borne out by performances such as the aptly titled My America (Hard to Acclimatize).  The work was conceived out an incident that occurred shortly after Zhang arrived in New York, Zhang – when he mistaken on the street for a homeless immigrant and offered a handout of bread.  The artist’s response to this baffling slight was to concoct a ritual in which 60 naked volunteers stood on a three-tier scaffold and hurled chunks of bread at him as he sat in a chair.

Since returning to China in 2005, Zhang largely abandoned performance in favour of making objects that relate directly to Chinese history.  Whilst not as compelling as his earlier work, Zhang’s foray into picture-making and sculpture continues to be conceptually relevant.  Zhang’s new style of producing pseudo artifacts includes old doors carved with scenes taken from Zhang’s youth and large sculptures of the head, hands and limbs of the Buddha, and – of course – ash-incense paintings of the type featured in ‘The Mountain is Still a Mountain’ at the White Cube in Bermondsey.  The work on show features a series of paintings, cast in black, white and infinite shades of grey in between, built up through layered daubs of incense ash collected from Buddhist temples, and which recalls the pure tones-of-grey aestheticism of traditional Chinese ink painting.

The title for the exhibition refers to the ancient teachings of an old Buddhist master, which describes the process of awakening to ultimate reality as follows:

The mountain is a mountain and water is water.
The mountain is not a mountain and water is not water.
The mountain is still a mountain and water is still water.

This quote suggests is that all people initially accept the chaos of the everyday as their reality.  However, those who seek to attain enlightenment gradually come to see that all these apparent objects (which symbolise the sources of desire and suffering), are an illusion. Upon obtaining nirvana, we eventually see that the particulars of this world are indeed real, as mental constructs if not as material objects, but exist only as aspects of a transcendent spiritual unity — compared to which they are, in effect, nothing.  It is this process of unwrapping layers of meaning that serves as a central theme for ‘The Mountain is Still a Mountain’.

The 23 paintings on show into two categories: the generic and the precisely historical.  Those of the first type, feature situations that are common in contemporary society, and are readily accessible to everyone,  regardless of socio-cultural background.  Works such as Our Parents, consist of a group portrait of two adults and their three children – a family setting with which most can identify.  However, at another level, to give birth to such a large number of offspring would highly unusual in contemporary China, with its population control policy of one child per family.

The second category of historical paintings is more challenging, especially for Western viewers and for younger generations of Chinese people who have not had any first hand experience of the Cultural Revolution.  This is because the subject matter requires a rather detailed historical knowledge of China in order to be decoded.  For example, 1959 National Day depicts Tiananmen Square on the tenth anniversary of Mao Zedong’s declaration of the People’s Republic there on 1 October 1949, following 23 years of sporadic civil war.  Whilst a Western viewer may be able to identify the Square, the less obvious reference to the official establishment of communist China may be lost on someone not well versed in Chinese history.

Words: Carla Raffinetti, © Artlyst. Photo: © White Cube, 2012  *** 3 stars

Zhang Huan: The Mountain is Still a Muntain – White Cube (Bermondsey), 44 – 152 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3TQ, 26 July – 26 August 2012