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Zhang Huan was born in 1965 in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. He studied European painting at the Nan University and later undertook post graduate study in painting at Beijing's Central Academy. While there, he moved to the city's East Village, where he was influenced by the community of experimental avant garde artists. He consequently abandoned painting and graduated from the Academy in 1993, despite having his final submission, an installation and performance on female infanticide, rejected.


Zhang Huan is a leading figure among second generation Chinese performance artists rising to prominence in the wake of political unrest culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacres. His work addresses trauma: the aftermath of shock, suffering and pain and is expressed both as a personal comment concerning his own and his family's histories and as a collective response, articulating, for example, China's emergence from the Cultural Revolution and oppression.

Zhang's performance work takes both solo and group forms. Much of the work performed alone involves some type of bodily mortification, referencing the practices of Buddhist asceticism and Christian sacrifice. Suffering is used as a means to transcendence. Here, when he is harnessed to a rafter while his blood and sweat mix on a hot plate or when he invites insects to crawl over him in a squalid public toilet, Zhang's performances confront the thresholds of pain and point to a way through.


In his three-photograph series 1/2 (1998), Zhang Huan works dualistically, opposing body and mind, while perfectly aware that they interact and interdepend. Lacking all clews such as clothing, haircut or other temporally determined- hence decipherable- codes, it is impossible to order the photographs. The first in particular, for which the artist asked a row of friends to write whatever words came into their heads on his body in black ink, is unintelligible if one can read no Chinese characters- the image simply eludes interpretation. The letters ABC and the word "freestar" on the artist's right arm constitute an insignificant exception, but these few legible signs merely serve to underline the foreignness of the rest. Exhibited in a Western context, such works are exotic, because the culture literally inscribed onto Zhang Huan's body is translocated, decontextualised and reinterpeted. Misunderstanding or incomprehension inevitably result. The point is, however, that while the work opposes current views on art in its country of origin it is not exotic. The process of decontextualisation, and the altered conditions of the work's reception, are what exoticise.


< 1/2
Chromogenic print
Edition of 15
40 X 33 inches (image) / 49 X 43 inches (framed)

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