This sequence of events adds up to a 40-minute piece of performance art that took place at the Kunstverein gallery in Hamburg, Germany, on November 29, 2002. The performer is Zhang Huan, a 39-year-old Chinese artist who now lives and works in New York City and presents his work throughout the world. The performance is documented in the series of a dozen large-scale color photographs that collectively make up "Zhang Huan: Seeds of Hamburg," now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. (The show is in the museum's new west wing, in the small Mildred and Herbert Lee Gallery.)
A straightforward description doesn't even begin to approximate the impact of this tiny exhibition, which is much more than the sum of its parts. Such a description, in fact, comes perilously close to making Zhang's work sound trivial, the self-important posturings of an artist who has resorted to attention-grabbing stunts.
Zhang, who was born in An Yang City in Henan Province in eastern China, was indeed trained in painting, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. But he ultimately grew frustrated with what he perceived as the limitations of traditional art. Even installation work seemed inadequate, and in 1992, he took up performance art with an emphasis on the human body. The posted introduction to the Norton show includes an explanation, taken from a 1999 interview with Art Journal, that chronicles what is clearly a pivotal transformation for the artist. As such I think it's worth quoting:
"[T]he body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language. My consciousness of the body as such became so strong that it became a pressure I couldn't get rid of. I wanted to grasp this consciousness and get rid of the pressure in my painting, but I found that painting for me lacked the possibilities of expressing the directness that I felt through contact with the body. Furthermore, painting could not make me feel the existence of my body in my work. I realized that any medium beyond my body seemed too remote from myself. Thus, I decided that the only way I could be an artist was by using my body as the basic medium and language of my art."
Such an aesthetic would probably be alien to the point of unthinkable for any artist born earlier than the 20th Century. Art in general may have always accommodated a preoccupation with the self and how to explore and express it, but the notion of the human body -- the vessel of the self -- as an artistic medium is a distinctly modern phenomenon.
Zhang eventually incorporated other people, as well as birds and dogs, into his work, but in the early performances, the body in question was his own, often used as a passive subject onto which various indignities were visited. While he hasn't gone nearly to the extremes of fellow artist Chris Burden, who gained notoriety in the 1970s with performance pieces in which he had himself shot in the arm and nailed to a car, he has ventured into adjacent territory.
For a 1994 piece called 12 Square Meters, for instance, Zhang applied honey and fish oil to his naked body, then sat in a public toilet for an hour while flies, drawn by the sticky, smelly substances, settled on and explored his body. Photographers and videographers he had hired recorded the event. Another work from the same period, 65 KG (the title refers to Zhang's weight), found the artist suspended on chains from the ceiling of a small room filled with mattresses, with what he clinically terms "blood-letting equipment" draining him into a vessel below.
I suspect some of these reputation-shaping works were done at least in part for the shock value they generated. The artist's birth in the mid-1960s coincided roughly with the onset of the Cultural Revolution, that decadelong mass Chinese blood-letting orchestrated by Mao Zedong, and Zhang vividly recalls the events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, when he was a college art teacher in Henan. Like the work of so many artists who grow up against a backdrop of social and political turbulence, Zhang's can be seen as reacting to and commenting on the circumstances of his artistic development.
His efforts did not go unnoticed in China, to put it mildly. Zhang participated in exhibitions that were canceled or closed, and he was fined and arrested as a result of his work. Understandably, he has not returned to his homeland since he first performed in New York in 1998. When asked about his life in the artistic ghetto of Beijing's East Village in the mid-1990s, Zhang once told an interviewer he recalled "when cops burst into my room and forced me to kneel in submission with my arms twisted high behind me... There are too many stories like these. The police were always knocking on our doors in the middle of the night to hassle us."
Perhaps in response to a less repressive environment, Zhang's art seems to have grown progressively more philosophical since his emigration. It also embraces Buddhism in ways the Chinese authorities would no doubt condemn.
Seeds of Change is a representative example, a piece that inspires contemplation rather than shock. It's an unusually rich, resonant work, especially given that, in photographic form, it's far removed -- in space, time, and substance -- from the original live performance.
This show, by the way, marks the first time the photographic record of the performance has been publicly displayed. After the exhibition, the owners of the photos, collectors Dale and Doug Anderson, will donate four to the Norton and four to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; they'll keep the remaining four.
The Norton presentation re-creates something of the original's ambience by including a recording of its musical soundtrack, "Moon Reflection on the Erquan," composed by Hua Yanjun and performed by Wang Guotong on the erhu (a two-stringed instrument played with a bow) with orchestral accompaniment. It's an East-meets-West composition conducive to meditating on the images, which are displayed in sequence on the gallery walls.
And once you get past an inherent strangeness to the work, it begins to yield a wealth of material for reflection. After walking around the space and looking at the photographs individually and up close, I sat on the bench in the middle of the room and considered them collectively. They form a miniature narrative evoking such fundamental concepts as confinement and escape, captivity and freedom, fertility, life and death, rebirth and rejuvenation, and much, much more.
For a clearer idea of what a radical break with the past Zhang's art is, return to the Norton's main building and visit the Gioconda and Joseph King Gallery, where you'll find "In Pursuit of Mists and Clouds: Masterworks of Chinese Painting." This exhibition, organized by the University of California's Berkeley Art Museum and curated by Julia M. White of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, features roughly 90 pieces, by my count; five are displayed flat in glass cases, while the rest, including scrolls, fan paintings, and album leaves, hang on the walls.
In style and subject matter, these paintings from the 12th through the 20th centuries have nothing in common with Zhang's performances. Or do they? Look again. You might be as surprised as I was.