Chinese Art Star Zhang Huan Stops Traffic With an "Over-the-Top" Public Sculpture for Downtown Toronto

Chinese Art Star Zhang Huan Stops Traffic With an "Over-the-Top" Public Sculpture for Downtown Toronto
(Zhang Huan's Rising (2010-2012) is unveiled in downtown Toronto)

TORONTO — Crowds gathered on Saturday in anticipation of international art star Zhang Huan and the grand unveiling of his impressive new public sculpture, “Rising,” veritably shutting down one of the Canadian metropolis's busiest streets. The flashy new work was unveiled in a ceremony outside the Living Shangri-La Toronto complex on University Avenue north of Adelaide. On hand were a duo of city councilors and Art Gallery of Ontario director and CEO Matthew Teitelbaum, flanking the Shanghai-based Zhang, who was dressed in head-to-toe grey and a sleek, if modest, baseball cap.

Zhang lead an incense-burning ceremony in advance of the big reveal, and, with the aid of his interpreter, read out a poem, titled “breathing life."

The sculpture rises over a reflecting pool, a light-catching lattice of stainless steel birds ‘fluttering’ around root-like arches. Rumored to have cost in the range of $5 million, the piece was funded by the Shangri-La developers in what amounts to “an over-the-top gesture to the city’s Section 37 bylaw that allows zoning easements like height restrictions in exchange for community enhancements like public art,” according to Urban Toronto’s Craig White.

Toronto is presently in the grip of Zhang Huan mania. Though “Rising” will sit behind a fence over the next few months until the hotel and residences open in August (more birds are yet to be installed as well), an exhibition of Zhang's recent work has just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Titled “Ash Paintings and Memory Doors,” it features pieces that are — given Zhang’s history of visceral and politically challenging performance — relatively quiet. But more drama can be expected at another important cultural venue in the city, as Zhang's version of Handel’s "Semele" will be staged by the Canadian Opera Company beginning May 9.

As the Chinese art megastar's touch is felt across the city, one thing is noticeably missing — his own body. As Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte wrote, “its imprisonment, abuses, and tests of endurance was the vehicle that made his name as an artist. In authoritarian China, he exerted control in the extreme on the one thing over which he could have dominion: His own physicality.” But, as Zhang said in an interview with Whyte, “Life keeps changing. If we did the same thing all the time, we would be bored.”

Certainly boredom can be avoided across Toronto, in the coming months, as the "Zhang Effect" continues to demonstrate its reach.