Zhang Huan is a Chinese performance artist, photographer, and sculptor born in 1965 in Anyang City, Henan Province, China. He has positioned himself as one of China’s best known conceptual and performance artists. In his most recent creations, he worked with sculptures and paintings that have great content of references about his native country.
For the construction of his works, whether in the field of photography or sculpture, Zhang usually uses quite unusual materials, both organic and inorganic—including feathers, cowhides, and even an embalmed donkey.
Zhang was born and raised in a central southern Chinese city called Anyang, in a family of farmers. His childhood was not easy, as his family struggled to make ends meet. He said he had a hard time during his school years because he was a very wild child who could not concentrate in class.
Early life and education
He faced the death of several loved ones and family members during his youth. He lived through his entire childhood during the Cultural Revolution in China. His journey on the road to art began with private painting lessons at the age of fourteen.
Zhang then received a place at the Henan Academy of Fine Arts in Kaifeng and studied painting at Henan University. While studying, he was inspired by art figures such as Jean-François Millet and Rembrandt van Rijn. After graduation, he worked for three years at Henan University as a professor in the art department then he left for Beijing.
In 1993 he completed a master’s degree in painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. After this, he worked in a commercial painting company in Beijing where he made copies of Degas’ works. His work was excellent but he was poorly paid.
The community of artists of Beijing
During this period, Zhang was extremely poor and decided to move to a declining community of artists, known as Dashanzhuang at the time but later was renamed as East Village (after New York City’s East Village), which was located on the outskirts of Beijing.
It was in this place that Zhang began to use his own body and the bodies of his artist friends to create shows with few resources available for making art. The provocative “living sculptures” and other works of art by British artists Gilbert and George were inspiration to members of The Beijing’s East Village.
The Beijing East Village community was closed down by the police only a year after its conception. But this did not stop these artists from continuing to collaborate. Eventually, they became the first generation of Chinese performance artists to produce works consistently within the country.
Using his own naked body to produce works
Because of these experiences, Zhang continued to deepen his technique by using his own naked body to produce works in an attempt to criticize and challenge oppressive political regimes; the condition and plight of the expatriate in the new world culture; and censorship in contemporary democracy.
Some of his early performances included very extreme physical challenges. On one occasion he tied himself to a board hanging from the ceiling while a doctor drew blood and threw it on a hot plate. On another occasion, he locked himself inside a metal box that had only a small air hole.
Moving to New York
Zhang decided to move to New York in 1998 with his wife Jun Jun, where he began a program of performances and commissions for respected cultural institutions. Their two children were born there, in 2000 and 2003. But after eight years of living in the city, he began to tire of both American culture and the performing arts.
In 2006 he moved back to China to live in Shanghai and left behind performance art because he felt that he was beginning to repeat itself in his work. He opened a studio south of Shanghai where he had a team of over 100 assistants with whom he produced mostly sculptures.
Once back in China, he experienced high levels of fame in his homeland where he now lives with his wife and two children in a simple home. The Pace Gallery in New York has represented Zhang since 2007. He is working on creating sculptures and oil paintings and has given up acting—although the body still occupies a prominent place in his work.