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I’m Obsessed with This Photo of Artist Zhang Huan Covered in Flies

Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994. Courtesy of the artist and DSL Collection.

Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994. Courtesy of the artist and DSL Collection.

The first fly I noticed was in my half-filled cup, its wings caught in the surface of the water that I was about to drink. Soon, more entered my apartment, buzzing in through an open window or whenever I opened the front door.
A couple days later, I received a seemingly unrelated message via the Telegram app on my phone. It said that a woman was seen outdoors, a block from where I live, wearing one of the wristbands that are issued to people who are under quarantine. The note was blasted out on a group that functions like a virtual neighborhood watch. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, groups like this have also been used to disseminate information on coronavirus. As was the case with this message, they also track people who may have breached their mandatory 14-day isolation after entering Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the flies in my apartment multiplied. It seemed like every time I smashed one, two appeared in its place. Intuitively, the situation reminded me of 12 Square Meters, a 1994 performance in Beijing by the artist .
In the early 1990s, Zhang and several other artists were living in a squalid neighborhood that they eventually named , where rent for a room ran between ¥60 and ¥80, or under $10 at the time. Penniless, young, and ambitious, they actively rejected paths that were defined by China’s art academies.
Their rooms were in a section of the capital that, to put it bluntly, was downright bleak. , a photographer who spent time with Zhang Huan and regularly captured images of the performance artist, recorded in his diary the experience of heading home in the mid-1990s: “The dogs never stopped barking. I suddenly felt as if I was biking towards hell. Turning around, we saw the Lufthansa Mall, Kunlun Hotel, and the Great Wall Hotel—like lights from heaven, it is a totally different world out there.”
Operating on the peripheries of Beijing’s art scene, Zhang and his circle of friends railed against their circumstances. They forged their own corner of an avant-garde movement that would be foundational to their decades-long practices.
For 12 Square Meters, Zhang enlisted the assistance of RongRong, frequent collaborators Xu San and Kong Bu, (who was more of a mentor to the group than a peer), and a rock musician who called himself Zuoxiao Zuzhou (“Curse”). Zhang sat on a metal stool in a public lavatory—the grimiest in the Village—as fish oil and honey were smeared onto his naked body. It took just minutes for flies to cover Zhang. He remained there, unmoving for an hour, while RongRong, wearing a cloth mask, took black-and-white photographs of him in the scorching summer heat. Afterward, Zhang got up, still nude but with many flies affixed to him, caught in the concoction that was slathered on his skin. He walked into a nearby pond, drowning all the bugs, and emerged as a new man.
The performance was an early experiment by Zhang where he used his body to express a sense of powerlessness as the world around him changed rapidly. Instead of becoming paralyzed or inert, Zhang chose to act, using the limited resources available to him to make sense of his frustrations.
There are many layers to 12 Square Meters. Through his performance, Zhang highlighted the economic inequality and desolate urban life of 1990s Beijing, as well as the transformations taking place in the capital. He pointed to the relationship between an individual and society, as well as how vulnerability and persistence can comingle within a person. Five years after the performance, Zhang said in an interview with art historian Qian Zhijian, “Each time I finish a performance, I feel a great sense of release of fear.”
And what about all the flies that I struggled to get rid of? It turned out that in an apartment two floors above mine, a corpse had been festering and decomposing for a week. An asthmatic man had gotten sick and died. His family members decided to leave his body there without notifying the relevant authorities, so his wife could travel from northern China and see him before a precautionary cremation.
Upon viewing the state of the corpse, his wife dashed out of the apartment and broke her mandatory two-week quarantine period. This was the woman I’d been messaged about. Police cornered her on the street and she was detained after a two-hour standoff.
The episode set off many days of paranoia among tenants in the building. The man who died is not listed among Hong Kong’s casualties due to COVID-19, but that has not dampened the belief shared by many residents that he was killed by the coronavirus. Even now, a month and a half after the incident, the flies still linger. Whenever one lands near me, I think of the hour Zhang spent tolerating their high-pitched collective hum and twitches.
Right now, as public health and economic crises continue to ensnare entire countries and continents, art won’t show us the way out. But just as Zhang submerged his filthy, dipteran-covered body in still water, we can, at least, hope for ultimate renewal.
Brady Ng