Zhang Huan

Hong Kong Tatler - - Features -

In a long, white, in­cense-filled hangar on the out­skirts of Bei­jing, Zhang Huan leads us through a se­ries of his monochro­matic ash paint­ings. The 50-year-old artist be­gan his ca­reer as a painter, then moved into per­for­mance art be­fore mak­ing his way back to paint­ing. His per­for­mances in the ’90s in­volved his body (usu­ally naked) and car­ried a strong un­der­cur­rent of masochism. To­day it’s his ash paint­ings that have cat­a­pulted the artist to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. Sev­eral of them now re­side in the Louis Vuit­ton Foun­da­tion’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, not to men­tion those held in renowned mu­seum col­lec­tions world­wide.

Grey ash col­lected from Bud­dhist tem­ples is sifted in lay­ers across can­vases to cre­ate Zhang’s paint­ings, or used to fash­ion ash sculp­tures. The repet­i­tive ges­tures re­quired to make the works draw on the teach­ings of Bud­dhism and Con­fu­cian­ism. Life, death, rein­car­na­tion and mem­ory are mo­tifs in his work—and Zhang’s fix­a­tion with th­ese sub­jects is re­flected in his stu­dio space, a 3.2-hectare com­pound of 20 build­ings once used to make hy­draulic equip­ment. The grounds and build­ings are lit­tered with an ar­ray of bizarre arte­facts, in­clud­ing stone coffins, a train wrecked in the 2008 Sichuan earth­quake and pla­cen­tas stored in a spe­cially de­signed wall of draw­ers. A Bud­dha head made of crum­bling ash and shrouded in smoke po­et­i­cally con­veys the ideas of prayer, med­i­ta­tion and the fleet­ing na­ture of life.

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