Talk about the exhibition Photography from the New China has tended to focus on how niche, different, and Chinese the images are compared to Western photographs.
Yes, China has a distinctive history as well as a unique relationship to photography—while Europe reveled in the unveiling of Louis Daguerre’s photographic prototype in 1838, China was mired in the First Opium War and distrustful of all foreign elements. But, as the complementary exhibition Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China illustrates, there were also enterprising Chinese painters who set up photography studios for a customer base, both native and foreign, that recognized early on the virtue of this new technology.
The works in New China have a human core that transcends cultural differences, which is one of the themes I’ll be exploring in Zhang’s work as well as that of six other Chinese contemporary photographers in the upcoming Adult Gallery Course offered by the Education Department, Resolution Revolution: Photography in China from Confucianism to Communism to Capitalism.
To me, the most moving example of this universality is the work of artist Zhang Huan. His performance art and his ability to connect on a basic human level first gained him international attention. The body, being, and humanness were Zhang Huan’s primary mediums and subjects in his first works. These days, his work is in renowned collections, including the likes of MoMA and the Met.
Zhang began his training at the age of 14, painting in the Communist, state-sanctioned Soviet style and admiring artists Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt van Rijn. Eventually, he tired of two-dimensional materials, finding them insufficient for the profound and meaningful expression and communication he was seeking.
One day, at the dawn of avant-garde art in China in the early 1990s, Zhang was riding through the squalor of the artist community of East Village, Beijing, when he found the discarded leg of a mannequin and decided to haul it back to his apartment in his bicycle basket. Zhang began experimenting with the plastic extremity, eventually applying it to his own body as if he had three legs.
This moment was transformative for the artist not just physically, but also mentally and spiritually:
I had three legs. I suddenly felt I understood something extraordinary. Three legs! I tried to walk with three legs. The feeling was strange yet exciting. I felt that I found a way of walking—of being—that I could not have achieved before. The manner of my body’s participation completely moved me. This may be said to be the first work that I created with my body. The directness of using my own body made me feel grounded, and I told myself that this would be the only way for me. I need nothing more. Nothing else can move me. I don’t want anything. I only want my own body.
—Zhang Huan, “A Piece of Nothing,” in Zhang Huan: Altered States, ed. Melissa Chiu (New York: Asia Society, 2007), p. 54
The primacy of Zhang’s body in his early work was “the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me,” he’s also said. Get a taste of his approach in this video from the Asia Society.
Today, Zhang has evolved to create artwork in all modes, including painting and monumental sculpture. In his latest venture, he has directed and designed the sets and costumes for his reinterpretation of George Frideric Handel’s Baroque opera Semele, for tour venues in Brussels, Beijing, and Toronto.
Speaking to the L.A. Times in May 2010, Zhang explained his return to two- and now three- dimensional mediums: “I spent more than 10 years doing performance art. I was young and energetic, and I had strong hormones in my body, so I wanted to use them up. Now I am 45.”
I’m in suspense over what Zhang Huan will surprise us with next. Word has it that his current projects include a collaboration with Diane von Furstenburg and plans for a restaurant with giant shark tanks.
His work is compelling, thought-provoking, and visually arresting, but no matter the medium or mode, it always returns to the fragility and feeling of the human experience. And there’s nothing uniquely “Chinese” about that.