Ashes to Ashes:Ground Control to Major Zhang

Confucius leaps up, smashes down, a sideshow scarecrow in a “Guantanamo-cage.” The monkeys go berserk, screaming, embracing, and fleeing the psychotic-robotic kabuki theater, actors and victims in it. (1) If it is about the environment, Confucianism and society, what the hell is this possessed, epileptic Confucius doing to the monkeys? And what is he doing to us?


Zhang Huan is patrician, aloof and mercurial, first distant, then charming, with a self-deprecating wryness. His eyes sparkle, or perhaps glint; his humor, sharp and dry. There is an air of a tiger aware of hunters. Part performance, one must play along without knowing the rules. Born in 1965 in Henan province, Zhang is younger, just, than all his equally famous contemporaries, who together have come to define contemporary art from China. (2)

He is still best known for his early actionist works of endurance, of masochism, self-abasement and abnegation, provocative certainly but also absurdist, the most famous being “12m2” (1994), in which he enclosed himself in a filthy, sweltering latrine, naked and covered with honey and fish oil, flies crawling over him. The photograph shows him, in profile, expressionless but somehow heroic, against the corruptions that besmirch him, metaphors for altogether filthier social and political corruption. But not passive: he leaves the shack and walks into the neighboring lake, fully immersing himself in its cleansing water.

It is a while though since Zhang Huan has used his body for his practice. In 2006, after eight years in New York, he returned to China, not to Beijing’s East Village where his artist career began but to Shanghai, where he established an art factory on the outskirts of the sprawling city, employing over 100 people. The huge enterprise seemed estranged from the asceticism of other performance artists, such as Marina Abramović, Tehching Hsieh and Vito Acconci (well, even Abramovíc’s “An Artist’s Life Manifesto” dinner-performance in 2011 at MoCA, Los Angeles was Satyriconesque).

Here Zhang developed a new practice with two related but distinct directions: wall-based works and sculptural/installation works. The wall-based works were either his now seemingly ubiquitous ash paintings or “Memory Doors,” tableaux expertly carved into weathered Chinese doors. The installation works have been fewer but no less prominent, usually involving towering theatrical scenes, and in one case a theatrical production of Handel’s opera “Semele” (2009). Often there are giants, a Madonna and Child made of cow hides, a pair of garish stainless steel pandas for Expo 2010 (just cynical or was his heart not in it?), Buddhas and Emperors composed of ash, Confucius sitting in his bath, even Zhang’s own avatar colossus — Zhang Huan’s world is crowded with slumping behemoths, sometimes literally as the ash forms disintegrate. How small we are compared to them, yet compared to us, how fragile too — daunting but enervated. (3) There have been lots of animals too — cows (or at least their hides), pigs, donkeys and monkeys — all relating somehow to Buddhism, the situation and role of the individual in the world.


1. Exhibition, “Zhang Huan: Q Confucius,” at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai.

2. Ai Weiwei (b.1957), Cai Guo-Qiang (b.1957), Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958), Yue Minjun (b.1962) and Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964).

3. The complaint — it is too casual to be criticism — is that the ash technique has become a gimmick, a cash cow, for another of China’s artist giants, just another Deng Xiaoping capitalist. Certainly the works are popular. The extravagant effort required to make them, the precision of their manufacture, their cinematic scale and presence make them very attractive. Just flick through leading style or fashion magazines and sooner or later you will find one of Zhang’s ash paintings staring back at you. For example, “Bellevue von Manhattan” in Architectural Digest (Germany)[no. 134 (November 2012), p. 156] shows Diane von Fürstenberg at home in Manhatten, including Zhang Huan’s portrait of her, which dominates the sitting room. In the portrait Fürstenberg looks frightening, vampiric. Her frizzy hair forms a cave from which her head emerges medusa-like. She wears good luck charm earrings, not recherché but atavistic. Through slightly opened lips we glimpse even lower teeth. This work was originally part of the 2011 Diane Von Furstenberg exhibition “Journey of a Dress,” at the Pace gallery in Beijing’s 798 art zone, coinciding with fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh’s exhibition “The Unknown,” which opened during China Fashion Week at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. Enough said.

Compare also Zhang’s “Fresh Open Buddha Hand” 2007, made of copper, with Dahn Vo’s copper reconstruction of Eiffel’s Statue of Liberty, the individual parts of which have been distributed around the world.

His fame continued to grow, his prices continued to rise, and in the crammed but rapidly expanding universe of China’s blogosphere, Zhang attracted criticism that, deserved or not, reflective or jealous, focused on personality rather than art. Yet in recent years he has had a series of striking installation exhibitions in China and his ash paintings have become a substantial body of work in their own right. Rather than seeing these practices in isolation it is time to gauge Zhang Huan’s recent practice as a whole.

The Mountain is Still a Mountain

This summer Zhang Huan had two major exhibitions of his wall-based works. The first was at the Art Gallery of Ontario and focused on Zhang’s ash paintings and “memory doors.” The second at White Cube gallery in London focused on a series of twenty recent ash works, The Mountain is Still a Mountain. Composed of the sifted ash from incense sticks burnt at Buddhist temples in Shanghai, the ash is laboriously sorted according to the precise shades of grey or black, size and texture, and then meticulously affixed to a surface, such as linen. They recall the colored sand mandala floor-paintings of Tibetan monks, and the revenant prayers of ordinary people living in China’s biggest metropolis — parents, students, office workers, teachers, cooks, policeman, migrant workers…politicians? In a short video prepared by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Zhang describes the role of ash:

When I returned to China from New York, in the temple I saw those good men and good women who burn incense to Buddha, and I began to wonder what kind of magic it was that affects us Chinese. People go there with hope to change their situation, to realize their dreams. Finally, when I saw the burning ashes in the incense burner, I suddenly had an epiphany, I realized that the burning ashes are not what they seem to be, they are our soul, our spirit, they are the memory and desire of a country. Everything we are, everything we believe and want are within these ashes.

Interview with Zhang Huan on the Art Gallery of Ontario show, 2012, Art Gallery of Ontario.

Hopes, desires, fears, emotional DNA, are atomized and recycled to form images of memory, popular and personal, but all historic in scale. People, unknown, ordinary — representatives of millions — stand equal with the great works and personalities, heroes and villains both (absent Mao), of China’s revolutionary and post-revolutionary history.

They are described as paintings, the art of affixing pigment to a surface. Yet this does not adequately reflect the mode of production. Composited by hundreds of hands, these are not simply paintings but epic acts of patience and diligence, blowing up images that might have been no larger than a hand or a large postage stamp to heroic proportions. Their production is a performance of memory. (Also a conceit: the artist in Zhang Huan plays on our addiction to mimetic nostalgia — the sepia sigh, while the showman in him plays on our lachrymose weakness for hug-an-urn cliché).

Although the ash paintings date from 2007, it was in 2008 that Zhang effectively announced his new technique with the installation “Canal Building,” a great slice of layered ash (180 x 1800 x 600 cm), the image on top only properly viewable from a raised platform. Potentially there are many images, the others hidden, Troy-like, below umpteen sedimentary layers. From the beginning then Zhang’s ash paintings were about the archaeology of history and memory. Are they meant to console or indict? It depends on what you find in them – this being an ambivalent platitude, an intellectually relativist fog, or a strategy for saying the otherwise unspeakable, under the hazy cover of the other (party). But this too is reductivist. Ambiguity, after all, should be the seed of responsibility, even culpability, in that one must seek out truth, decide for oneself. To re-member.

Scores of these now seemingly ubiquitous works have been produced since 2007. Frequently returning to the same themes, reincarnations of public and private portraits and propagandistic grands projets, but these are not simple generic scenes; there are patterns in the weave. Before Zhang Huan moved to the Central Academy of Art (CAFA) in Beijing aged 26, he taught Western art history at Zhengzhou College of Education, Henan Province. He lived for eight years in New York and still travels widely. He is acutely aware of the history of images, whether Chinese or Western.

Art History

While he is careful to maintain the photographic light of the source images, compositions often recall classical works from the Western tradition, particularly 17th Century French and Flemish realist painting, such as the Le Nain Brothers and Frans Hals. In “Division Meeting” (2009) note the dramatic use of the central candlelight, the reverential atmosphere and even the headscarf, reminiscent of examples depicted in Flemish painting from Vermeer onwards. In the same year, Zhang painted “The Night Watch,” the title homage to Rembrandt’s of 1642, but with “soldiers” traipsing a field with flaming branches more ominous (so too “Nightraid” (2008) with soldiers wading ashore up to their necks in water, two raising hands in greeting — but it is ash they are up to their necks in, so are they calling for help?)

In the White Cube show there are many examples of echoes from Western art history. “Operating Table” and “Conference Room” (both 2008) bear similarities to nineteenth-century French and American social realism, notably Thomas Eakins, but ominously without the patient or participants — too early or too late? — what has been decided? In the “Flag” series, versions of the Chinese and American flags (Zhang’s two “homes”), inevitably refer to Jasper Johns, “American Flag No. 9” (2010). Zhang’s “Weeping Angels” refer to Yves-Klein’s “Anthropometry Performance” paintings. The giant earthwork landscapes, such as “Grand Canal” (2009), obliquely recall Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, while the horizon-less “Sea No.1” (2011) recalls Gerhard Richter’s abstract-realist ocean paintings.

Zhang also references, even critiques, his fellow artists. Like Ai Weiwei’s acts of iconoclasm, such as “Dropping the Urn” (1995/2009) or “Colored Vases” (2007-2009)— both involving Han Dynasy urns — Zhang’s “Memory Doors” and reclaimed bricks transform antique objects through partial destruction. Like Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan elevates the private history of ordinary families under Communism. Zhang’s “Q Confucius” exhibition played on Cai Guo-Qiang’s automaton artists in “Peasant da Vincis” exhibition that preceded Zhang’s at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum.

He is acutely sensitive to the need to define his and China’s space in (world) art history, and that means distinguishing himself from his comrades. This can lead to charges of egotism, yet the criticality that motivated his visceral early performance pieces, such as 1993’s “Weeping Angels,” at the China National Art Gallery, which involved the symbolic abortion of broken baby-dolls and copious blood, remains.

The intention is not to pay slavish respect to the canon of art history. Rather Zhang’s paintings present the conflict between memory and history — in China, a real conflict. We see “Rui Yuan,” (2010) in military uniform, another military figure. But this was the childhood nickname of General Chiang Kai-Shek. The anachronistic reference recalls the time before Chiang was a nationalist leader, a national hero, and then a defeated reactionary, who later became an exiled revanchist and autocratic enemy. The work is about the time before memory is formed, more precisely the memory before that memory. Really, to speak of generic or historical themes in Zhang Huan’s ash paintings is to engage in a false dichotomy, because the historical is generic and the generic is historical — ordinary people, heroes, leaders together. As much is inferred by the ambiguous “Kite Call,” a nostalgic seaside scene, not out of place in countless minor Impressionist paintings of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, except that it also presents a propagandistic image of propagandistic slogans.


The unusually etiolated “My Literary Teacher” (2008) is tonally nostalgic but shadowed by the rejection of accepted social norms of authority and instruction: during the Cultural Revolution many schoolteachers were attacked, humiliated, defenestrated, even killed.

The more expressionistic “Graduation” (2011) begs the questions “from what?” and “to what?” — two anonymous fates. Similarly, in “Sworn Sisters” (2011), two apparently genetic sisters are categorized as “sworn sisters” but against what? For what purpose is such a bond necessary? (4) “36 Years Old,” shows a man in the 1920s. It presages the Japanese invasion, the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. What then was he like in the 1970s, when we would have been 86 years old?


4. Here Zhang Huan is also critiquing the saccharine and anodyne realism that pervades the Chinese auction rooms: it’s just a black and white portrait, a document — no swooning jeunes filles in pristine ethnic costume hard at work with happy, happy smiles. Further, simply showing two sisters references China’s one-child policy and the disturbingly disproportionate number of boys versus girls, due to abortion and post-natal murder of “uneconomic” girls.

And if these subjects can seem too sickly sweet — sometimes they clearly are (e.g. “Night” (2007), a nostalgic view of a couple under a Chinese parasol watching something, possibly at an outdoor cinema) — then we must ask to what purpose, because it is not possible to just sit forever in mindless reverie with epic tableaux of ash — even “Night” — that recall some of the harshest periods in China’s long history. And this is the point. Zhang Huan is not interested in telling us about what he may or may not recall, but what we do, that is, his fellow Chinese. The series of “Memory Doors” are just another way of presenting this conundrum (also the contrast, such as the numerous intricately carved scenes on old doors proudly presenting technical wonders, like a line of radio telescopes, “Memory Door Series (Afar),” 2009). These works also speak  to Buddhist mysticism and socio-cultural pride, albeit with the deliberately awkward anachronism of employing wood and silk-screen to do so).

China has developed massively in the intervening two decades (beyond the Id-jungle of the blogosphere), but as people become more critical, public critique remains barely tolerated. The authorities have become more sensitive to (their) image management, and even the notion of criticism, perniciously tied to the shameful history of the Cultural Revolution, is feared. And as we have seen with Ai Weiwei, the more prominent the public figure, there is a greater expectation of compliance, with the Party, with assumed proprieties. How then to utter the unspeakable? Zhang Huan’s art is full of quiet outrage, the anger of being coopted by history — survivor’s guilt and generational compromise. It is unwavering, even if the artist himself must dance to mark his space, albeit with a certain protection afforded by his fame, for what that is worth. It is also an act of memory. One of the most fundamental acts of individual freedom is not to forget, and one of the most fundamental individual responsibilities is not to allow others to.

Sichuan Earthquake

When “Grand Canal” was first shown at the Shanghai Art Museum as part of Zhang’s “Dawn of Time” exhibition, it seemed an odd inclusion in an otherwise installation-heavy display. In retrospect this giant gash of a painting, surely refers to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — which killed over 60,000 people — as much as the folly of these vast projects of the Great Leap Forward (1958-59). (5) The earthquake caused a social rupture in China as much as a geological one. The Internet, mobile telephony, and a bigger, even freer, press meant images of the devastation were quickly broadcast around the country and independent volunteer networks were established.

Zhang responded to the loss of life in numerous works, in one case problematically. He travelled to the earthquake zone and assisted victims of the carnage. And he also adopted a famous pig that had survived the destruction, trapped for 49 days without food, Zhu Gangqiang, the “Cast-Iron Pig.” These 49 days — mirroring Zhang’s own feats of endurance — correspond to the period according to Buddhism that the ordinary soul (neither pure nor wicked) spends between death and transmigration, and during which it searches for the conditions of its rebirth. Accordingly Zhu Gangqiang subsequently became a leitmotif in various works, peering out of “Pagoda” (2009), a smoking bell-shaped temple constructed of reclaimed bricks (disturbingly reminiscent of an oven), and also the basis of Zhang’s first exhibition at White Cube in late 2009, which included a live-feed video of the pig at Zhang’s studio while two real pigs became pungent residents in the gallery itself. (6)

The same year came “Hope Tunnel” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. At once numbing and operatic, the installation of a train mangled by the earthquake forced visitors to walk through and over the wreckage, as if over an old battlefield. And it remained breathtaking right up until the moment one read the accompanying publicity, which involved emoticon descriptions that accorded with the government narrative of sympathy without analysis, that is, reducing the rage and shock of the installation to mere sympathy. For example:

…Every so often there comes an event that rattles our faith, shatters what we have built and shakes us to our very foundations. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was one such tragedy. No one who witnessed the terrible destruction and loss of life will ever forget it. Yet in the aftermath of tragedy there is hope, a reminder of what people working together can achieve… (7)

Why problematic? Because the debate as to why so many buildings collapsed, particularly school buildings, killing so many, was silenced. Who was responsible for this curatorial gloss, this crude appropriation of empathy? Was it censorship, or self-censorship? Uncritical complicity was unnecessary, — is that a fair comment? Like many Chinese artists, unrealistic (Western) expectations are sometimes projected onto Zhang. After all, an autocracy is really post-modern: eventually everyone gets appropriated. Other artists though took a different path….


5. The image derives from the 1972 issue of China Pictorial, a magazine from the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76).

6. “Zhu Gangqiang,” White Cube, September 3 – October 2, 25-26 Mason’s Yard, London. “Pagoda” also references Zhang’s early performance piece “Peace,” (2001) in which a gilded life-size statue of Zhang is the hammer for a Buddhist temple bell inscribed with the names of people he knew from his village. Another of Zhang’s familiars is a priapic donkey who fucks skyscrapers – Shanghai’s Jin Mao tower (“Donkey,” 2005) – and leaps out of piles of bricks reclaimed from demolished old houses (“Dawn of Time,” 2010).

7. Here from the e-flux announcement:

Every so often there comes an event that rattles our faith, shatters what we have built and shakes us to our very foundations. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was one such tragedy. No one who witnessed the terrible destruction and loss of life will ever forget it. Yet in the aftermath of tragedy there is hope, a reminder of what people working together can achieve. Zhang Huan’s Hope Tunnel, a curated social project at UCCA, was conceived and designed by an artist who believes that art has the power not just to move us emotionally, but to galvanize us into positive action. When we behold the train that Zhang Huan purchased, refurbished and installed here, we may find ourselves dwarfed by the scale of the wreckage, dismayed by the destructive force of nature and daunted by the challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps we should feel humbled by the shadow of that awesome bulk, but as the title reminds us, while we may be small, we are not powerless. Through remembrance, reflection and concerted action, each one of us has the power to help—and to hope. [e-flux announcement for Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, July 9, 2010.]

Nationalism and Memory

1959 National Day” (2010), an epic tableau — 430 x 1,000 cm — presents the mass celebration from a raised perspective, looking down the square to the East Gate of the Forbidden City (the Tiananmen), upon the gathered ant-like multitudes. Balloons crowd the sky — more numerous than in the source image — and smoke seems to rise from numerous points, perhaps the trails of fireworks. With their ribbon-tails, the balloons seem spermatozoa-like, not communicating with the stars as Cai Guo-Qiang’s fireworks are meant to, but impregnating the sky. Does it represent the birth of a nation? The Great Leap Forward had failed. The country was economically shattered. Millions were starving or dead. Consider then the Orwellian-denoted “1984 National Day No.2,” (2010) in which a black maelstrom is engulfing Tian’anmen square.

Another series of portraits also from 2010, “Puyi”, “President Yuan,” and “Pu Chung-hsi” and “Soldier,” show military men, each with medals, but while the young unknown soldier has only one (for shooting), the “great men” are covered in them (for whatever). By contrast, “Voice from Shan Bei” (2009) depicts Zhou Enlai, on the phone to his militia in the campaign defending Shaanxi Province against Chiang’s Nationalists, calm, concentrated, even as shrapnel — pieces of charcoal — appear to emanate out of the telephone. (8) As a nod to London, a portrait of “Churchill,” (2012) is also here. Notably, except Zhou Enlai and presumably the anonymous soldier, all of these individuals changed ‘sides,’ whether by force of circumstance or opportunistically, even Churchill, and to which list may be added “Chiang Kai-Shek and Hu Hanmin,” (2010) and “Pai Chung-Hsi,”(2010).


According to Buddhism, the four fundamental elements are water, earth, fire and air, and in China sometimes also a fifth: metal. But here water, the element of cohesion, is absent. The ash works, phoenix reincarnations, literal carbon copies, are also desiccated ghosts desperate for water.

Zhang Huan is a devoted Buddhist and his faith imbues his practice and life (his Gao An Foundation has supported construction of school buildings in dozens of economically deprived areas of China, including Sichuan and Tibet). (9) “The Mountain is Still a Mountain” refers to a key metaphor in the teachings of Yuan Weixin, a Chan [Zen] Buddhist master during the Tang Dynasty (608-917 AD):

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

It refers to intellectual transcendence, the acknowledgment, understanding and acceptance of conceptual reality: what is truly true. (10)

In “Chiang Kai-shek and Hu Hanmin” (2010) the general appears with his erstwhile colleague, who switched his allegiances from Sun Yat-Sen to Chiang, only later to be imprisoned for criticizing Chiang for mishandling the war against Japan, before becoming a nationalist leader in Southern China. It is a revelation. It shows that Zhang’s “Rui Yuan” portrait is actually cropped from the image of the two together. These black and white images document scenes as factual truths, whether of status (a leader) or historic (a celebration or construction project), but as we have seen, truth can be ambiguous, temporal and contextual — it has many lives and to fully appreciate it we must pursue it. Factual reality depends on how we treat it. Memory may be contingent but re-membering is a discipline.


8. Shaanxi is home to Yan’an, the Communist headquarters following the Long March.

9. See

10. Chan Buddhism adapted traditional Buddhism to China, including adopting aspects of Daoism.

My Literary Teacher” includes a subtle reference to China’s ink and landscape Shanshui artistic tradition and Western notions of it — “literati-style” — with the delicate, possibly bamboo, leaves hovering above the woman’s head. The Literati movement itself originally established in opposition to the accepted stylistic practices of staid imperial court composition, advocated a return to nature, a pure truth, principles that reverberate strongly in the present day. Bamboo fronds reappear in “Winter Jasmine” (2008), which depicts the master painter and reputed forger, Chang Dai-chien, seated at home (notably in Taiwan, the break-away Nationalist province being another leitmotif). Chang appears with various calligraphic scrolls in the background — truth and authenticity are at stake (but culture too). Taiwan is also present in “Drum Mountain,” (2008) which depicts the founder of a progressive Buddhism organization in Taiwan. Could it be that the rift of “Canal” might also refer to the political and geographic one between the mainland and Taiwan — symbolic of diverse fractures in Chinese life, that Zhang believes Buddhism can help to heal?


The key work in the White Cube exhibition was “Fire.” Noted writer and propagandist, Wei Wei (1920-2008), also a Henan native, is depicted finishing the manuscript of his 1978 novel “In the East.” But Zhang shows the manuscript kindling flames. In “Flag,” the Stars and Stripes are also kindling, and one wonders what else has begun to smoke. There is a type of nausea at work, a combination of ennui and panic. And it extends beyond the ash paintings to the installations — strategic games all — from the giant Madonna and Child of “Dawn of Time” to the wrecked ghost train of “Hope Tunnel,” and the schizophrenic pairing of a demented Confucius with a giant one soaking in his bath. Whereas the ash paintings are explosive time capsules, the installations are shock treatment. While the installations provoke us to see, the paintings ask us to recollect.



“Zhang Huan: Dawn of Time,” Shanghai Art Museum, February 3 – 28, 2010 (People’s Square, 325 Nanjing West Road).

“Hope Tunnel,” Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), July 17 – October 24, 2010 (798 Art District, No.4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing).

“Zhang Huan: Q Confucius,” (curator Fumio Nanjo), November 15, 2011 – January 29, 2012, Rockbund Art Museum (20 Huqiu Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai).

“Zhang Huan: Ash Paintings and Memory Doors,” May 5 — August 19, 2012, Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada).

“The Mountain is Still a Mountain” White Cube, July 20 — August 26, 2012 (144-152 Bermondsey Street, London).


Richard Vine, catalogue essay, “The Mountain is Still a Mountain,” 2012: White Cube: London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *