Chinese herbology, a complex system harnessing animal, vegetable, and mineral elements to treat illnesses, has been the backbone of Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. In artist Zhang Huan’s latest series of work, to be shown at Pace Gallery in New York in spring 2014, it is the medium with which he creates textured paintings about “physical birth, senility, illness, and death.”
Offering a sneak peek, Zhang, who is one of China’s most prominent contemporary artists, reveals a series that draws on both personal and political history—with implications of hysteria and a slow-spreading sickness. There are dark scenes of ritual shaming from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Communist propaganda images, and, interestingly, portraits of British royalty, including the back of a white bouffant head that is unmistakably the queen’s, though Zhang is coy about the implications of the British subject matter, saying only that “British royalty has a special relationship with modern Britain and the rest of the world.”
He wants his paintings, like the herbal materials used to make them, to be ultimately healing. “We can draw lessons from history, dui zheng xia yao,” he says, repeating an aphorism that means one must identify the illness and treat it with the right medicine, “and give China the right prescription for the future.”
The Chinese medical herbs are dried, colored, and affixed to the surface of the canvas—a process not unlike what he has done with his famous monochrome ash paintings, where burned incense is used like paint.
Ash is a trademark of Zhang’s work. In recent years, it has been used in his most iconic pieces, such as the monumental ash statues of Buddha and other works that reference his recurring themes of life, death, and rebirth. Ash has also been used in a series of “historical” paintings, impastoed works depicting scenes from China’s Cultural Revolution, Chinese leaders, and anonymous family portraits. Here, it embodies a sense of the past, captured imperfectly in these scented, dusty remains, and is also a symbol of prayer and hope.
As to how the Chinese medicine paintings are a continuation of his previous ideas, he says both Chinese herbs and ash have curative properties. “While Chinese medicine is used to cure cancers in human bodies, ash is used for mankind’s mental illness.” To him, ash, made from joss sticks that Chinese Buddhists and Taoists offer to the gods for blessings and deliverance, is a therapeutic substance. “It is our collective soul, our memories, our hope, and our blessings,” he says. This “living, breathing substance” is meticulously collected by his staff from temples around Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou every month.
At age 48, Zhang is one of China’s biggest art stars; his installations and sculptures are exhibited in top museums worldwide and internationally collected. Currently, he has a major solo exhibition on view at the Palazzo Vecchio, an ancient town hall in Florence, Italy. The exhibition, titled “Soul and Spirit,” is a far-ranging showcase that runs through several parts of the historic building and around it, extending to Fort Belvedere and the Boboli Gardens.
But despite his artistic preoccupation with the spiritual, Zhang, who converses in Mandarin, is a straight shooter with an impish air. A joke is never far away. He says his two children, a son aged 13 and a daughter aged 11, are not good at their studies. “You can’t run away from DNA,” he adds with a chuckle. “Their father’s is too strong.”
It has often been pointed out that his recent work—meditative, calm, concerned with mortality—is a lifetime away from the hell-raising performance pieces that established his career in the early 1990s. One of the youngest members of experimental Beijing East Village group, he did several seminal works where he used his body in extreme, potentially self-destructive exercises.
Among the most famous is 12 Square Meters, 1994, where he sat naked in a public toilet, covered in fish oil and honey, while flies engulfed him. It was inspired by the small, filthy bathrooms in rural villages and the exploration of the tension between disgust and attraction.
Later, after an eight-year sojourn in New York, Buddhism became a recurring theme in his work (he officially became a Buddhist in 2005), but he says he is not making Buddhist art. “I’m using Buddhism to talk about being human, about being in the world.”
From physical transgression in ephemeral acts to a Buddhist-inspired quest for enlightenment—looking back, what does he think of his journey so far? “To be honest, I’ve been fighting for so long so that I can make a living through my art. Back in my Beijing days, I often wondered, ‘When will the day come that I can make money from this?’ Now there’s no need to think about these things, and I’m happy to be able to provide employment to others.” He hires about 100 assistants for his 50,000-square-meter studio-cum-factory space.
Then he grows ruminative and says mysteriously, “But we all need a bigger perspective, right?” He pauses. “Sometimes for the big institutions and their big retrospectives of my work, I don’t even go to the opening. You reach the point where you are concerned with the big questions: Where are we going? Where do we come from? These are problems we can’t solve. Problems of life and death. How do we end the cycle? How do we spend the next 10 to 20 years?”
Well, in the not-so-distant future, Zhang himself hopes to become a movie director and has two ideas: the first is a love story set in Tibet, for which he already has the story line figured out; the second is a film about Chairman Mao Zedong. Asked if he’s planning a documentary on Mao, he says, “No, a fictional film.” His impish side slips back into the conversation again. Poking fun at his own bald pate, he says, “I’ll play Chiang Kai-shek!”