Zhang Huan: Spiritual Made Material

Feb 14, 2013 9:50PM

"These ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings. It was here that I finally discovered the ingredient I had been looking for to pave the way for new work." - Zhang Huan

A founding member of Beijing’s conceptual artists movement in the 1990s, Zhang Huan gained early notoriety from his performance works involving extreme physical taxation. These shocking demonstrations — most notably, meditating in a public outhouse covered in flies (12 square Meters, 1994) — demonstrate the artist’s early preoccupation with physicality, mental stamina and spirituality, themes he would repeatedly return to even after transplanting himself to New York in 1998.

Nearly a decade in the U.S allowed Zhang to develop a unique synergistic style, alluringly knitting the cultural and artistic threads between East and West.Upon returning to China, Zhang Huan was struck with an epiphany which led to his creation of paintings from incense ash. Huan’s experience with Western society informed new perspectives on his own Eastern culture. Of this epiphany, Huan described the "magic" of prayer and the power of the incense ashes: "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." (Zhang Huan: Ash Paintings and Memory Doors, video, Art Gallery of Ontario, 2012).

Xiao Lu, is a brilliantly executed ash portrait from 2007 of Huan’s studio assistant. While Huan also explores nature, history and recognizable figures in his ash paintings, this work, in its clarity and brilliance, reflects the close friendship of the artist with his subject. The conviction and sensitivity with which Huan has painted Xiau Lu is heightened by the symbolism of the material itself.

The ash produced from burning incense is collected from twenty or so temples in Shanghai weekly and is brought to Huan’s studio in the Min Hang district to be sorted by color gradation for his paintings and sculptures. Aside from the materiality of the ash itself, it carries with it an symbolic significance in Eastern cultures with its use in rituals to commemorate ancestors and venerate deities. For Huan, "these ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings" (the artist quoted in Nina Miall, Zhang Huan: Ash, Haunch of Venison, London, 2007).

Ash maintains a metaphoric connection to memory, the soul and the spiritual. Past and present are synthesized with the use of ash as material and as contemporary subject matter. Huan inherently addresses the collective experience of Chinese identity with memory, spirituality and soul. In Huan’s words: "Everything we are, everything we believe and want are within these ashes." (Zhang Huan: Ash Paintings and Memory Doors).

Xiao Lu
will be offered in our Contemporary Art Day Sale, 15 February 2013, in London.