on view at Haunch of Venison, London, 10. Oct. 2007 – 10. Nov. 2007.
Reviewed by Wiebke Gronemeyer
Zhang Huan is one of the most visible and well-known Chinese artists and has just received his first retrospective at the Asia Society in New York. This autumn, Haunch of Venison hosts his first solo exhibition in London, for which he presents his “ash works”, a series of haunting paintings and sculptures. Concurrently, the Royal Academy of Arts is displaying a colossal sculpture that the artist has conceived for their courtyard space, while Haunch of Venison shows the major installation Berlin Buddha (2007) at its venue in Berlin.
His days of Maoist indoctrination and his direct assumptions on this education by means of his early performances may be distant, but his memories of those times provide many of the themes – family, loss, propaganda and alienation – for his new body of work and are very relevant for a retrospective approach. As new material he uses incense ash, which he collects from a Shanghai temple. Here, his interest in Buddhism, which always figured indirectly in his earlier work, becomes more defined.
On entering the gallery space the direct notion of this spiritualism is induced by the strong smell of incense. However, the cultural connotation of a spiritual realm, which comes with this strong smell, calls for a further sensuous ratification, which the first series of ash busts, Ash Head Nr. 12 (2007), modelled on the artist’s own head, immediately denies. The dusty materiality of the crumbly fabric and greyscale colour of the piece excites another connotation relating to ash: deterioration and effacement. This irritating oscillation between these different cultural associations is implied in Zhang Xiao Mei (2007), a large-scale painting of ash on linen. It conveys neither mourning, nor does it incinerated surface embed the prayers and hopes of Chinese ritual incense burning.
In an act of extravagating cultural boundaries it is the entity of remembrance that Huan’s paintings, based on remediation of historical images, whether private or public, claim. Seeds (2007) depicts a group of rural Chinese in the course of their ‘re-education’, ploughing a field. This once heroic image of the Cultural Revolution is overshadowed by a dense materiality that, recalling the work of Anselm Kiefer, brings to bear an uncomfortable confrontation with both collective and individual subconscious.
The series of ash continues on the gallery’s third floor. The Smoking Buddha (2007) is almost 5 metres high; a giant that imposes with its material fragility yet transmits a transcendent stability. The smoke exuding from its features warns that at any moment it could collapse back upon itself and thus perform a last animated motion in a realm in which death is not an end but rather a mid-point in one’s path.
In any sense, ash carries one’s soul away, regardless of the cultural realm in which it is embodied and what kind of remembrance arouses. In a less aggressive but subtler form of provocation, Huan embraces different stages of his oeuvre in these new works.