In the Ashes of History at the Hermitage: An Interview with Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan, Love No. 2, 2020, acrylic on linen, 300 x 400 x 5 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 9, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 128 x 307 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 11, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 113 x 278 x 10 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 7, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 124 x 327 x 12 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, Reincarnation No.31, 2019, Acrylic on linen, 220 x 280 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

Chinese artist Zhang Huan is the first Chinese contemporary artist to exhibit at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. On the occasion of this momentous exhibition, Nicholas Stephens spoke with the artist across a myriad of topics spanning destiny, camaraderie, resistance and ingenuity.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.

 

Celebrated Chinese artist Zhang Huan rose to prominence through his “Body Experiments” series in the 1990s, including his famous 1994 performative piece 12 Square Metres, in which he sat on a public toilet slathered with honey and fish oil to invite a swarm of flies to his body. Other works such as Angel in 1993 further demonstrated his willingness to tackle sensitive political and moral issues, with this one addressing China’s one child policy. Later works such as 1995’s To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain underlined his instinct for performative collaboration.

The artist is also a committed innovator, and a practitioner of diverse materials; for example, in large scale works such as 15 June, 1964 (2008–12), Zhang used ash as his medium for painting. The ash hints subliminally at historical authenticity and symbolizes the collective memories, wishes, and prayers of the Chinese people, who may be simultaneously wrestling with the religious doctrines of Buddhism and with the leadership idealisms of a one-party state.

For his historic solo exhibition “In the Ashes of History” at the State Hermitage Museum, co-curated by Dimitri Ozerkov, Anastasia Veialko, and Wu Hung , the artist is presenting 30 works spanning four series. These are “Ash Paintings” (2005– ), among them 15 June, 1964; “Memory Doors” (2006– ) comprised of new wood and silk screen works paying tribute to the Hermitage’s collection; “Love/Reincarnation” (2019– ) of which the new Love component is a direct response to the pandemic; and a new site-specific installation: Hermitage Buddha (2020).

Ahead of the opening, CoBo Social talked to the artist about his new exhibition and his experience of St. Petersburg.

Zhang Huan, Love No. 2, 2020, acrylic on linen, 300 x 400 x 5 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.

 

Mr. Zhang, you are the first Chinese contemporary artist to exhibit at the world-famous State Hermitage Museum. What makes you and the Hermitage such a good combination?
I think everything is meant to be. When the timing is right with the right opportunity, destiny will come.

 

You have said that there is a history of brotherhood between the Russian people and Chinese people. Does this spirit continue to the present day?
I find the relationship between the Chinese and Russian people is one of camaraderie: trusting one another and working hand in hand, from the historical past to present.

 

You have lived in New York and travelled to many countries. From your experience of St. Petersburg, are there colours or materials which strike you as particularly Russian?
I think the red of the “Love/Reincarnation” series in the exhibition is iconic of the Russian and Chinese people, though the colour embodies two different concepts. On the one hand, red symbolises revolutions and communism, connecting the brotherhood between China and Russia; on the other hand, red signifies not only the end of time and humankind but also a way of welcoming new beginnings.

Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 9, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 128 x 307 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 11, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 113 x 278 x 10 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.
Zhang Huan, My Winter Palace No. 7, 2019, Silk-screen mounted on carved antique wood door, 124 x 327 x 12 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.

You created the series My Winter Palace, inspired by your first visit to the Hermitage. What are your impressions of the museum and its role in the world?
As one of the four largest museums in the world, the Hermitage invited me to visit the museum for this special exhibition project. I have had deep admiration for the institution for a long time now, though it was my first time setting foot in it. I remember waking up very early the day when I first arrived at St. Petersburg. I left the hotel and went directly to the Winter Palace; encountering the Neva River, I watched the sunrise from the bridge over the river and witnessed the greatness of the Winter Palace slowly unfolding in front of me. After visiting the museum, I was blown away by the vastness of the collection; its depth; as well as the sheer amount of European Old Masterpieces that the museum holds. It was unimaginable for me! Including artworks from the great masters of the Renaissance to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, the collection also holds many famous works from the Impressionism period. In addition, I was overwhelmed by the assortment of ancient Egyptian burial artefacts and Buddhist sculptures. Since my youth, I have always considered Rembrandt, one of the greatest Old Masters, as an importance influence.

 

When people see Hermitage Buddha for the first time, what emotion will it inspire—is it fear?
I hope the work will inspire a sense of resistance and resolution in the viewers’ minds, as the Hermitage Buddha is about human nature resting within an animal state. It also captures a state of conflict of beliefs as if the giant comes from outer space. The beast is a subversion of reality, authority, and classics, with its one leg stepping on a human’s head. The theatrical tension behind the work is profound: the head is looking to escape from the 18th level of hell according to Buddhism, escaping the underworld to the human world; while the monster on the top is exerting all of his energy, preventing the head from escaping. The sculpture captures this state of contradiction and resistance—the struggle of humans striving to enter the promised land of heaven, amidst all the mishaps and hardships.

 

Can you tell us more about your choice of Ilya Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan as an inspiration in your new work?
I used the ash painting technique to recreate Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan. When I was studying at the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng, my art history teacher talked about Repin’s painting. The work left me with a profound impression: a king took the life of his son. The ash painting is very dramatic, as if it’s a theatrical stage performance. It reminds me of a scene from The Godfather: The main character comes out of the theatre and is suddenly attacked by the gang; he is left holding his wounded daughter in his arms. This kind of classic imagery is everlasting in the viewers’ mind, making it a moment in history.

Zhang Huan, Reincarnation No.31, 2019, Acrylic on linen, 220 x 280 cm. Image courtesy of Pearl Lam Galleries and the State Hermitage Museum.

Your new “Love” series is connected with the global COVID-19 pandemic. Should artists play a role to bring hope and comfort to people suffering?
As an artist, first and foremost, one has to have something to say. If there is nothing to express, then one lacks the ingenuity. When one is hit with immense emotions, then he or she is propelled to recreate that momentum in the form of art. This is a fundamental state of being an artist. The “Love” series serves as a form of prayer. This is my blessing to the deceased, praying for them to be able to rest in peace and in harmony.

 

What exhibitions are you planning in the future?
There are several European exhibitions currently in discussion, and a possible international tour of this Hermitage exhibition.

 

 

About the artist
Zhang Huan was born in in 1965 in Anyang in Henan Province, China. He graduated from the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng in 1988 and begun his artistic career as a painter. In 1993, Zhang graduated with an MA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and around this time, began creating performance works that tested his physical and mental endurance. Currently, Zhang lives and works in Shanghai and New York. Adapting abstraction and minimalism within the parameters of Buddhism and Chinese culture, Zhang continuously strives to give renewed resonance to modernist techniques while retaining his identity as a Chinese artist. His work involves various subject matters, including religion, family, politics, culture, poverty, and famine. The broad range of materials and tools used in his art practices explains the sense of synthesis, even decorativeness, that can be found in Zhang’s art.

 

 
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