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.