Focus on the collection: Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan is a Chinese performance artist who uses his body as his primary medium and subject, in bold and thought-provoking works of performance art. In his practice, the artist address issues of politics, religion, and overpopulation in China. Through his use of materials such as incense, as well as references to Confucius and Buddha, Zhang conveys the complicated ways in which he both identifies with, and rejects, his cultural history.1 Although he is not known as a photographer, Zhang incorporates photography in his practice to counter the transient nature of performance art, allowing him to document and preserve his otherwise ephemeral work.

Zhang Huan,To raise the water level in a fishpond (closeup), 1997, dye-coupler print.

Zhang Huan,To raise the water level in a fishpond (closeup), 1997, dye-coupler print, 83 x 117 cm approx. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Zhang Huan. Photo: NGC

 

To raise the water level in a fishpond is a documented performance work in which Zhang persuaded forty rural labourers to stand in a shallow pond in Beijing Park. The performance was divided into three parts. First, participants were arranged in a circle facing the water. They then followed the artist into the pond, spreading out with the intention to raise the water level by one metre. In photographs of the event, Zhang carries a young child on his shoulders. In the final part of the performance, participants stood in a line along the middle, separating the pond into two halves.2

The performance was full of symbolism drawn from Chinese tradition: the fish is the symbol of sex while water is the source of life. Furthermore, in an interview with art historian RoseLee Goldberg, Zhang states that the work was inspired by the old saying, “beyond the mountain, there are more mountains,” and “climb this mountain and you will find an even bigger mountain in front of you.”3 The work embodies the idea of changing the natural state of things through spiritual and cultural connections. In the end, however, the act of raising the water level was futile, and the artist concluded that it was “an action of no avail.”4

Zhang Huan,To raise the water level in a fishpond (wide shot), 1997, dye-coupler print.

Zhang Huan,To raise the water level in a fishpond (wide shot), 1997, dye-coupler print, 83 x 117 cm approx. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Zhang Huan. Photo: NGC

 

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Biography

Zhang Huan, born in 1965 in China’s Henan province, is a contemporary multidisciplinary artist working in performance, photography, painting and mixed media. He first gained recognition in the 1990s for his provocative and experimental performances. His works became internationally recognized when he moved to New York City in 1998, and have since been presented in cities around the world.

The artist returned to China in 2005 and settled in Shanghai, where he has continued to expand his practice, creating work in multiple mediums, including painting and monumental sculptures.5

In the words of the artist:

"My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles have ended up in physical conflicts — I felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence. 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. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language."6

About the Author

Jennifer Tang is pursuing a Master’s degree in Film and Photo Preservation and Collections Management at X University (formerly Ryerson) in Toronto.

 


1 “Zhang Huan,” ArtNet. Accessed September 2, 2021. http://www.artnet.com/artists/zhang-huan/

2To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, Zhang Huan website. Accessed September 2, 2021. http://www.zhanghuan.com/worken/info_71.aspx?itemid=974&parent&lcid=190

3 “Interview with Zhang Huan.” RoseLee Goldberg. Interview from 2009 Phaidon monograph. https://www.phaidon.com/store/art/zhang-huan-9780714849249/ 

4To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, Zhang Huan website.

5 “Zhang Huan,” Guggenheim Collection Online. Accessed September 2, 2021. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/zhang-huan

6 Daniele Perra. “Zhang Huan, A Sense of the Possible.” In The Season. Italy: Gallery Pack, 2006. Accessed September 2, 2021. http://www.zhanghuan.com/wzMF/info_74.aspx?itemid=1136

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