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Dissertation

Zhang Huan and 12m²

Li Bowen
Strange foreign bodies, endowed with Yin and Yang, with the Third Eye, the Cinnabar Field and the
Ocean of Qi, bodies incised, engraved, marked, shaped into microcosms, constellations:
unacquainted with disaster. Strange foreign bodies protected from the weight of their nudity,
devoted to finding their center inside, under skins saturated with signs, in effect confining their
sense to a single, empty, unfeeling sense, bodies liberated-alive, pure points of light emitted entirely
from within.
– Jean-Luc Nancy

Chinese contemporary art has enjoyed for more than a decade prosperity and success in the

international art world. Among the numerous stars of Chinese contemporary art, Zhang Huan(张洹,
1965) is known today as one of the most important and successful artists from the country. Started
out as a performance artist carrying out extreme experiments with his own body in Beijing in the
1990s, today Zhang Huan works in a colossal studio in Shanghai producing large-scale ash
paintings and objects. In the writing of the history of Chinese contemporary art, Zhang Huan's
career is marked by a distinction between two periods and a number of departures, and his practice
today is considered betraying his early, radical and political performances, by returning to
traditional paining and object makings that is more profitable and is devoid of meaning and
significance. Indeed it is understood that, there is a great rupture between the early Zhang Huan and
the later Zhang Huan.
This dissertation aims at providing an alternative reading, and at preparing for a future rewriting
of the history of Zhang Huan's art. That is, by examining the turning points and departures, it tries
to suggest that Zhang Huan's art respects its own genealogy, and that a breaking of Zhang Huan's art
into two perhaps has always been too hasty a move. However, For a number of reasons among
which some are more obvious than others, why is there a break between the early Zhang Huan and
the later Zhang Huan is a question that this dissertation cannot deal with. Instead, I will attempts
reading Zhang Huan's career as less marked by a break, a rupture, a distinction, but more by
something that manages to escape writings on Zhang Huan's art so far. In short, I try to pay
attention to what is left untouched in history, what is seemingly impossible, or at least insubstantial.
How does Zhang Huan betray himself? How are the recent large-scale ash paintings and objects not
bearing the same signature of the Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Huan anymore, or how is the
signature of Zhang Huan written twice, the second time profaning and even effectively effacing the
first? I contend that a close reading of the break can demonstrates that there are in fact more
connections between the two periods of Zhang Huan's career than commonly assumed. Or, better,
there are in fact nothing but supplements that manage to connect and hold together the signature
Zhang Huan. Zhang Huan's artistic practice is perhaps marked less by a total, resolute and absolute
betrayal, than by a continued, persistent and weak play of presence and absence that starts with
early performances and has yet seen its end. This is also related to the question of an absolute origin
of a body of artistic practice – or even, of any body at all, one is tempted to add, especially in the
case of Zhang Huan. Concerning Zhang Huan's art, it is proposed in this dissertation that, replacing
the two-periods separation, a logic of fall is more appropriate as it houses within itself a possibility
of the absence of distinction. Unlike common opinions – considering this fall to be merely a selling
out, involving only a certain economy – however, I will argue that not only has this fall always
already been anticipated since the beginning of Zhang Huan's artistic career, therefore making this
fall not a fall into one's other proper (again, property is what is questioned throughout in this
dissertation), particularly one's other as an artist that is thoroughly and eagerly commercial, in this
specific context; but also that, concerning the bigger picture of Chinese contemporary art in general,
a future fall-from-grace – that is, a fall from the revolutionary or counter-/post-revolutionary, from
the non-conformist, from the rebellious, avant-garde, experimental spirit – that is already predicted
and is perhaps even already witnessed, a fall might not necessarily be decadent. China is no longer
the totalitarian China, and Chinese contemporary art is no longer political in the naïve, outdated
sense that is still prevalent in the West.
The dissertation will firstly contextualize Zhang Huan's artistic practice by providing a brief
general survey of performance art in China since the beginning of 1980s, then it will trace Zhang
Huan's practice from the 1990s to now. In the fourth chapter this dissertation will attempt reading
the object makings of the second period through the performances of the first period, and suggest
that the second period, though has witnessed a dramatic change in terms of medium, negotiates in a
complex way the radical legacy of the first period of Zhang Huan's artistic practice. Specifically, it
is proposed that the 1994 performance 12m² can effectively serve as a metonym for the career of
Zhang Huan, especially when it is taken as such – separated, demarcated into two. The play of
presence and absence, staying vigilant and falling in the 12m² has an important part in our
reconsideration of Zhang Huan's practice as not manifestly and naively political or confrontational.
As one of his earliest performances, 12m² is of significance to the career of Zhang Huan,
anticipating the legendary 10 artists group performance To Add One Meter to an Anonymous
Mountain(1995); as the history of Chinese contemporary art goes, it is also considered one of the
most original, influential, and enigmatic performances. However, even to today, its significance has
yet been fully studied, and is often dismissed as simply a shocking, erotic and exotic work of art
from a nation that is still considered a spectacle, an absolutely other of the international
contemporary art scene that is dominantly Western in nature; or the work of performance can only
be assimilated into the international contemporary art scene by undergoing thorough
commercialization. It is my intention to treat in this dissertation Zhang Huan's artistic practice, a
Chinese artistic practice par excellence as, in turn, possibly a metonym for the reality of Chinese
contemporary art. I try to argue that it is perhaps unjust to write and read a history of Chinese
contemporary art as simply departing from the political to, without mediation, complication and
problematization, the commercial. Responding to the economic shift of the nation, that is, facing the
disappearance of a terrifying absolute other that is named China, the revolutionary, totalitarian,
political, threatening red China – one is not to anticipate a contemporary art that is thoroughly
devoid of political meaning and is only commercial, but is to anticipate with vigilant faith a
contemporary art that is radically political as an absolute other that is faithful to a certain legacy.
12m² is to be reawakened, to disturb the tranquility and silence of the water.

I. Performance Art in China

However problematic the notion of performance art in China sounds – What? Who? Where?
When? How? By what criteria? – if one is to attempt to speak of it as such and to trace its history,
one can start from such a provisional definition: performance art, as an artistic practice, as
happening in the interior of the realm of Chinese contemporary art, as framed by and framing
Chinese contemporary art – this performance art, according to Thomas J. Berghuis, started as early
as in the 1980s. It is understood that chairman Deng Xiaoping's Reform initiated in 1978 as a grand
socio-politico-economic context, and the demand for new art that was appropriate for such a reform
were vital for the emergence of performance art in China, just as in the forming years of new China
since 1949, the socialist idea of producing a "superstructure" that was appropriate for the social and
economic infrastructure. One of the first series of events of performative nature was organized by
the infamous Stars Group(Ai Weiwei was a prominent member), and it happened as early as in
1979. Although detailed description of the performative nature of the early works are wanted, it can
be said that in general these events came close to what is known in the West as performance art for
about a century, since the Futurists.1 Somehow paradoxically, only when market economy was first
introduced, when consumption became a legitimate option, this form of art that rejects consumption
proper – concerning more the unsaleable process than the result, which is in turn rendered only a
documentation of the process – emerged. However, only in 1987 has Chinese contemporary art

world settled with the term performance art, Xingwei Yishu (行为艺术, literally action art, activity

1 For a history of performance art, see RoseLee Goldberg, Performance art: From Futurism to the Present (Rev. &
expanded ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001).
art, or behavior art, with numerous allusions in Chinese language. It has also promptly become a
joke among those outside the art world), as it is known today.
Besides the Stars Group, other noteworthy artists or movements of performance art in China
include Huang Yongping and Xiamen Dada Group, the Pond Group, Wang Qiang (who, according
to Berghuis, staged "what can be considered one of the first private performance works" 2), Zhang
Peili and Geng Jianyi (with their Wrapping Up – King and Queen, 1986, which in fact corresponds
in many way with 12m² ), Lin Yilin, Chen Shaoxiong, Xiao Lu and Tang Song (with their
performance/installation Dialogue involving gun fires and subsequently marking the arrest of Tang
Song and closure of the legendary 1989 China Modern Art Exhibition). Early foreign influences
that directly or indirectly inspired works of performance art in China include Robert Rauschenberg's
exhibition in Beijing promoting the idea of self-expression (as opposed to formalism propagated by
the academies in China), John Cage's work, Christo and Jean-Claude's wrapping (appropriated later
by a number of Chinese artists wrapping their own bodies)3. Generally speaking, Chinese
performance art in its first decade, before Zhang Huan's participation, was marked chiefly by re-
stagings of revolutionary repertoires – collective and public movements, events and gathering And,
a series of Western influences – artistic, theatrical and cultural. Based on Berghuis' observation,
these two forming a fascinating dialectic in turn responded to the desire of the era: the desire for
self-expression.
As history has it, in the 1990s the Western influences prevailed. The title of a massive
performance that was included in the earliest Chinese avant-garde exhibition tells it: there was "No
Return." Chinese contemporary art became evermore determined, concerning its future direction.
And Zhang Huan was no exception.
As belonging to the second generation of Chinese contemporary art, Zhang Huan was raised in
Henan province, and had been studying and teaching in the 1980s. 4 In terms of both time and space,
he missed the centre of the great change. Not only was his artistic practice then somewhat outdated
– academic oil painting – the whole of Henan province was not able to offer him an adequate
horizon. As a latecomer, only when he moved to Beijing for further study in the Central Academy of
Fine Arts "Zhang Huan found himself in the center of China's art world." 5
Zhang Huan was born in 1965, and he started drawing since he was in the fifth grade. From 1984-
88, he studied fine art in Henan University, Kaifeng – a city known for traditional culture, a
surprising amount of Chinese-Jewish people, and being relatively backward and undeveloped due to
its inland nature, being the underbelly of the "soaring dragon". As confirmed by Zhang in an

2 Thomas J. Berghuis, Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006), 48


3 Ibid., 56.
4 Zhang Huan et al., Zhang Huan: Altered States (New York: Asia Society, 2007), 14.
5 Ibid., 14-15
interview with RoseLee Goldberg, before he went to live, study and work in the capital and cultural
centre Beijing in the 90s, performance art as a possibility of artistic practice was unknown to him. 6
As it was the case in the general scene of Chinese contemporary art in its early days, Zhang's
practice of performance art was initially more inspired by artists and movements from the world
outside, less by something interior.(perhaps re-address this in the conclusion) Zhang's early indirect
encounters with "non-traditional paintings" – via photographs in publications and hearsay – include

Tweng Kwong-Chi(曾广智, 1950-1990), Robert Gober(1954), and Kiki Smith(1954). Therefore,


unlike the commonly accepted narrative regarding Chinese contemporary art, Zhang's rather radical
change is not to a great extent affected by the revolutionary '89 Tiananmen Square Event; instead,
something that was exterior to – but nevertheless was influential to – both the art and the politics of
China determined his practice in the following decade. His enlightenment comes as an offset
against the inevitable, inescapable grand narrative of political turbulence at that time.
Zhang considers himself reborn, in Beijing in the 1990s, not out of the '89 Tiananmen Square
Event but something else:"I can say that before 1991 and 1992 I didn't have a personality as an
artist, but after 1992 the influence of these ideas and images gave me a sense of my individuality, a
sense of self."7

II. The First Period: Performance

Zhang performed publicly for the first time in 1993, with Angel, in which he appeared barely
naked, covered in fake blood, and tore apart a plastic baby doll, in the courtyard of the National Art
Museum of China in Beijing, not long after the historical 1989 Avant-Garde Exhibition taken place
on the same site shortly before the Tiananmen Square Event. With the irony of the title – as perhaps
a veil, one could argue, covering his eventual Buddhist conversion – Zhang, who considers himself
and his practice to be influenced significantly by religious thinking such as Buddhism, successfully
transformed himself through a Buddhist nirvana, a nirvana brought by an exposure to international
modern/contemporary art. For this is the narrative of the Angel: between I and my ego, the doll and
man, an intolerable, extreme violence happened, as an event of historical significance, as an
originary event.

6 RoseLee Goldberg and Zhang Huan, Interview: RoseLee Goldberg in conversation with Zhang Huan, in Zhang
Huan et al., Zhang Huan (London: Phaidon, 2009), 15.
7 Ibid., 16.
Angel, Zhang Huan, performance, National Art Museum of China, Beijing, China, 1993

Jean-Luc Nancy speaks of "strange foreign bodies" in Corpus:

Strange foreign bodies, endowed with Yin and Yang, with the Third Eye, the Cinnabar Field and the
Ocean of Qi, bodies incised, engraved, marked, shaped into microcosms, constellations:
unacquainted with disaster. Strange foreign bodies protected from the weight of their nudity,
devoted to finding their center inside, under skins saturated with signs, in effect confining their
senses to a single, empty, unfeeling sense, bodies liberated-alive, pure points of light emitted
entirely from within. 8

Regarding Zhang Huan's body, however, firstly, although Nancy is in fact describing a Chinese
body that is more Taoist (Yin and Yang, Third Eye et cetera are manifestly Taoist motifs) than
Buddhist, his description nonetheless offers an opportunity of a meaningful comparison. In relation
to Nancy's description of this strange foreign body, Zhang Huan's body is in fact in a movement of
distancing itself from being purely and solely "strange" and "foreign." As shocking as it was then,
the Angel deliberately and desperately worked two movements: Zhang Huan invading into the body
that is foreign to him; and the invasion of a foreign Christian body into the bodily site that is signed
Zhang Huan. As mentioned above and as we shall see more later, the performance is effectively an
attempt to render this strange foreign body of Zhang Huan less strange and foreign, to a certain

8 Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (translated by Richard A. Rand, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 7.
audience. We will come back to this important work, the origin of Zhang Huan's performance.
12m² was performed and documented in 1994, after Angel and The Third Leg in 1993. It is a
performance of two parts: firstly, Zhang covered his naked body with fish oil and honey, sit in an
ill-conditioned public toilet for about an hour, attracted a great number of flies to feast on his body.
After, he stood up, for the second part of the 12m² (why was it the second part? Why was it not
considered, with the previous activity of meditative sitting, in a hell-like environment, forming a
self-present totality that is irreducible and is not subject to division? This being the unbroken thread
of this writing: the logic of division, break, split, fall, betrayal and faith), walked straight into a
pond nearby that is filled with garbage and waste, submerged, and can no longer be seen.

12m², performance, 1994

From a first glance, as a performance, 12m² pertains first and foremost to nothing outside of
contemporary art history in a global context, as precisely a response to it, to certain inspiring
performance pieces, as somebody who is initiated into it by his own act: a performative act proper.
As the third performance of Zhang Huan, it already breaks away from the narratives of Angel and
The Third Leg in the previous year questioning the identity of the man – from an artist that does
traditional paintings but is naively attempting avant-garde gestures, to an artist that performs
confidently and maturely, and has Zhang Huan work and create with this identity that is readily
established. Further, mature work of performance in China is necessarily this: apparently apolitical
but subtly confrontational, according to common, vulgar, Western discourses. With it, he was
already a mature performance artist: he became able to choreograph a fresh (what is fresher than
shit?), perplexing, ungraspable solo performance, a performance without explicit cultural or artistic
reference that is local, regional, specifically Chinese indeed; a performance as a movement of
banality, basic necessity, animality, with a gesture that is instantly and profoundly religious,
resembling Buddhist ascetic meditation. It managed to shock and to bring awe, without being
something that is absolutely alien to the daily and artistic experience.
And Western discourses never fail absorbing a Chinese performance as such, that is, by
dismissing it: "As in the Angel performance, in this action Zhang was responding to social
conditions in China by addressing the neglect of public facilities." 9 Not only was a critique of the
social conditions in China not in Zhang Huan's intention – such a critique being indeed a laughably
pseudo-political/humanist one – as Zhang Huan at that time had a better chance of not knowing a
better public toilet, coming from rather backward area, with definitely worse public toilet system, to
Beijing, the heart of the nation; the public toilet in Beijing was by no means neglected, and had also
undergone already a number of developments that actually has significantly improved the condition.
As Tim C. Geisler tells it, with surprising honesty, enthusiasm, sympathy and friendly plainness, the
toilet in China is not a space without history, a space that is intolerability itself, through and
through. Instead, as included in the grand modernization movement in China, it is a space of
gradual and steady development that strives for something not dissimilar from the three
requirements of civilization mentioned by Dominique Laporte: beauty, cleanliness, and order. 10 But
presently it will suffice locating public toilet in Beijing, at least this one specifically, as a destination
of immense abjection, absolute excess, provoking negatively more than one sense – sight, smell,
sound, et cetera, if not all senses in a totality.
At least, going to, and staying in public toilet as such is suffer, is what is narrated in 12m². It is not
spending an hour in, say, the Palace of Fountainbleau 11. In relation to this suffer, the absence of

9 Yilmaz Dziewior, Survey: Self-Made Man, in Zhang Huan et al., Zhang Huan, 45.
10 Dominique Laporte, Histoire de la Merde (translated by Zhou Mang, Shanghai: Commercial Press, 2010), 11.
11 However, to our interests here of playing with binary logics, good versus bad, high versus low and cleanness versus
filthiness etc.: staying in the Palace of Fountainebleau was perhaps not some nicer activity. A footnote on page 13, in
Laporte, Histoire de la Merde:
"Among the many testimonies attesting to the shortage of facilities and ensuing discomfort, we select the
following extravagant missive written on October 9, 1694 by Madame la duchesse d'Orléans:

Fontainbleau, October 9, 1694

To the Electress of Hanover,


other human being – at least in the documentation of it – in contrast with 65kg perhaps is not of
insignificance here. Zhang Huan introduced askesis into his performance in this year, with both
12m² and 65kg. In 65kg, which is named after Zhang Huan's weight then, Zhang Huan hanged
himself horizontally with iron chains to the ceiling of a room, with his blood dripping on to a tray
placed beneath him on the floor. As the metal plate was heated during the performance, spectators –
quite a number of them, as we see in photographs – would be clearly informed of his pain by the
smell of blood. The smell was created specifically for the others in the same space, to the extent
that, if there were none other but Zhang Huan, the smell of the blood as both a threatening medium
and message would be meaningless. In 12m², firstly, the smell, the condition is far more intolerable;
this intolerability is affirmed by the fact that the documentation of it is to frame no other but Zhang
Huan himself; it will be pure cruelty if Zhang Huan shows hospitality to others, by inviting them to
be there, to witness – because to witness is here to experience, to suffer, and to tolerate together.
The anecdote of one of the two cameramen fainted during the performance is also telling. Secondly,
and perhaps more significantly, the smell of the 12m², of the toilet, was not created by and for
Zhang Huan himself (though he might had contributed); instead, the smell, indeed the totality of the
12m², the space of insignificance in terms of size, was created by something greater, of which
Zhang Huan has little control. It was a supplementary readymade. We will also revisit this work in a
moment.

65kg, performance, 1994

You are indeed fortunate to shit whenever you may please and to do so to your heart's content!... We are
not so lucky here. I have to hold on to my turd until evening; the houses next to the forest are not equipped with
facilities. I have the misfortune of inhabiting one and consequently the displeasure of having to shit outside, which
gravely perturbs me because I like to shit at my ease with my ass fully bared. Item all manner of people can see us
shitting; there are men who walks by, women, girls, boys, abbeys, Swiss Guards... As you can see, there is no
pleasure without pain, and if we did not have to shit, I would be happy as a fish in water here at Fountainbleau.
(Correspondence of Madame la duchess d'Orléans, Princess palatine. Paris, Charpentier, 1855, vol.II, p. 385)"
1995 was a year of importance in Zhang Huan's career, because it was in this year when he and
nine artist friends together made the now legendary To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.
We will not discuss this work itself in detail here, but it is necessary to mention it in passing.
The preparation for the performance is the subject of a great number of literatures. It is discussed
in great details in a strange romanticism as such: "At 13:00 on May 11, 1995, only the occasional
truck along the highway disturbed the calm atop the mountain." 12 This performance as an event that
is considered historical is rendered, first and foremost, by such a writing of history: in exhibition
catalogue Zhang Huan: Altered States alone, out of four essays in total, at least two essays
recounted with enthusiasm and in great details the happening of the To Add One Meter to an
Anonymous Mountain, one by Zhang Huan himself and the other by his friend Kong Bu, an eye
witness of the performance. In other writings, if not an extensive description of what happened that
day during the performance of To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain – which, it is only
fair to say, was not extremely exciting and inspiring – it is frequently mentioned with admiration.

To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995

Zhang Huan moved to the United States in 1998, on the occasion of the exhibition Inside Out:
New Chinese Art, curated by Gao Minglu. It was at this time, when Zhang Huan was being thrown
into an alien nation with utterly different culture that his role as a performance artist started to
dissolve.

12 Kong Bu, Zhang Huan in Beijing, in Zhang Huan et al., Zhang Huan: Altered States, 34.
Speaking of moving to the United States: "My goal is to continue observing society." 13 As if,
Zhang Huan had long been observing society even when he was in Beijing. Suddenly, with the
change of cultural context – that was certainly dramatic – taking place, Zhang Huan's previous
experimental performances are no longer ascetic, hermetic and self-indulgent.
Zhang Huan's first performance Angel, instead of engaging solely with the then weak and
powerless Chinese contemporary art world, did effectively engage with the broader society of
China, because the site of the performance was the China Art Gallery, the prime, conservative
national gallery at that time. "On these occasions the staging of performances were immediately met
with criticism from the museum staff and members of the audience, many of whom were frightened
by the confrontation with the body-in-action at the gallery." 14 But Zhang Huan during his time in
Beijing was chiefly concerned with his individual artistic development, and not a face-to-face
engagement with the society, as was evident in his prompt retreat into a more secluded space; and, it
is my contention that in Zhang Huan's case, his move from Henan to Beijing was not in anyway less
significant than his move from China to the Untied States. Even with Angel, it is difficult to
determine today whether he did deliberately engage with the society or not. The work, being largely
irrelevant to the social condition of China, only managed to generate negative opinions among the
public. After Angel, in terms of social significance, Zhang Huan's work only retreated into the heart
of experimental performance, concentrating mostly on his relationship with his own body, its
relationship with the nature, and its relationship with body of the other in an extremely narrow
sense – bodies of artist friends as abnormal bodies, such as Ma Liuming's (a male artist who
considers himself a woman) – and most importantly, retreated to the genealogy of the works, all
bearing the same signature Zhang Huan.
But a significant change certainly did happen after Zhang Huan arrived in the United States. Only
in the United States and in other countries, has Zhang Huan's practice gained the confidence and
bravery necessary for exerting grander social impact. It was certainly a foreign land for Zhang
Huan; however, United States' familiarity with and relative hospitality towards works as radical and
experimental as Zhang Huan's renders this land also a home for him. For the difference between
China and the United States, however, besides the lack of artistic freedom in China, as frequently
discussed in numerous literatures on Chinese modern and contemporary art, what urgently requires
attention for a rewrite of the history is the overall lack of desire and interests. The fact that the
Chinese public in the 1990s was to a great extent not desiring nor interested in such a new form of
art was largely ignored, but it is my contention that only after examining such an ignorance, an
ignorance that is essentially related to the property of Chinese contemporary art – by who(Chinese
artist)? For whom(Western audience)? For what(economic gain)? – can one speak of artistic
13 Zhang Huan, A Piece of Nothing, in Zhang Huan et al., Zhang Huan: Altered States, 73.
14 Berghuis, Performance Art in China, 174.
freedom. Why a move from one's home country to another, a country that was foreign? "In China in
1995, artists did not know anything about artworks entering the market." 15 Neither did the general
public.
At any rate, Zhang Huan continued performing after he moved to the United States. "In my more
than ten years of creating art after that performance, I have continued to use the language of lying
on my stomach, as in the pieces Pilgrimage – Wind and Water in New York, Peace, and Dream of
the Dragon."16 The difference between his performance in China, and his performance outside of
China even before his move to the United States, such as in Munich in 1996 and Tokyo in 1997,
among many things, is primarily marked by a departure from the private to the public, from the
identity of a singular individual artist to the identity of a Chinese that is representative of the mass
of China. The movement of the naming of his works also testifies to this, from 12m² to My
America(Hard to Acclimatize) (1999), from 65kg to 3006 Cubic Meters/65 Kilograms (Tokyo,
1997). And, in Zhang Huan's case, as in the case of all Chinese artists, it is only unjust to identify
the public he usually confronted in China – either a group of isolated, secluded special
professionals, or the general public that is uninterested – with the public he faced abroad – the mass,
the ordinary, who is also enthusiastic and desiring. The dichotomy between these two kinds of
public is not only spatialized, but is also temporalized: only after the private is settled, confirmed,
matured, only after securing his presence as one singular individual in China, can he start – with a
new identity that is social, political and not merely hermetically spiritual – negotiating with the
other, the other that demands at the same time a language he could not speak and a language he has
mastered with his body.

15 Zhang Huan, A Piece of Nothing, in Zhang Huan: Altered States, 66.


16 Ibid., 66.
3006 Cubic Meters/65 Kilograms, 1997, Watari Museum, Tokyo

III. The Second Period: Object Making

(In any case, it's no wonder the body inspires so much hatred.)17

Zhang Huan's first sculpture was made in 2000, a work demonstrating direct, albeit distant,
Western influence: Rubens, a golden sculpture of Zhang Huan's naked body, with numerous hands
moulding the head. After Zhang Huan returned to China in 2005, he set up a massive studio in
Shanghai and shifted the focus of his practice from performance to large-scale object makings, the
most prominent of which are ash paintings and sculptures.
His large-scale object making is read as a reaction against his early practice: "Since his return to
China in 2005, the artist has largely eschewed performance in favor of making objects that relate
directly to Chinese history."18 A double betrayal: a reaction against form (from performance to
object making), and a reaction against content (from personal exploration to investigation into a
national history). Yet another birth of the artist, another farewell to the past. How is the coming
back, the return, more radical a departure than leaving one's home – the previous two times leaving
home, first from Henan, then from China? How are the objects related to Chinese history more
directly? What becomes the nature of the work?
"Zhang Huan says that after returning from The United States in 2005, he went to Tibet and that
17 Nancy, Corpus, 9.
18 Richard Vine, Zhang Huan's Ghostly History, in Zhang Huan: The Mountain is Still a Mountain (London: White
Cube, 2012), 8.
trip rekindled his desire to become a Buddhist." 19 And he admitted he did become a Jushi (Buddhist
householder) in 2005. With this final, formal, definite conversion, he started collecting ash –
resulted from the burning of incense in Buddhist temples – brought them back to the massive scale
studio and made them into ash paintings. His first series of ash paintings includes Ash, 2006.

Ash, 2006

With at least the series of ash paintings made in 2006, which are all abstract and without image,
one only have to wonder whether these belong to "objects that relate directly to Chinese history." 20
Most previous writings of the history of Zhang Huan's art fail in acknowledging a certain
deferment, a deferment that is essential to the origin and genealogy of Zhang Huan's art: just as the
origin of Zhang Huan's performance was not so much the political turbulence of 1989, but the
developments in international and Chinese contemporary art, and, most urgently, Zhang Huan's
desire to break from his previous artistic practice, which is, interestingly, painting; Zhang Huan's
return to China was not without mediation in itself what motivates a shift of focus to the history of
19 Huangsheng Wang, The Ascetic Artist: Zhang Huan, in Elena Geuna et al., Zhang Huan: Ashman (Milan: ORE
Cultura srl, 2010), 37.
20 Vine, Zhang Huan's Ghostly History, in Zhang Huan: The Mountain is Still a Mountain, 8.
China. This is not merely an error that is without significance; as we have seen and shall see again,
such a misreading, misattribution, an ignorance of the complexity of Zhang Huan's shifts in his
artistic practice constructs an unjustified history of Zhang Huan.
While ash painting as abstract as the Ash provides a valuable opportunity for a closer
investigation of the nature and unique quality of the material – the painting's disturbed surface being
resulted from a gesture that is absolutely foreign to its Western counterparts – a reading of the
strange material is still wanting today. In the history written collectively by the artist and the
historians, the material, instead, is described socially and culturally in unforgivable naïveté,.

To me, incense ash is not just ash, nor is it just material, but a collective soul, of our collective
memories and good wishes. No one wishes ill toward others as they go to the temple and stand
before Buddha, but they only pray earnestly for good. Of those devout men and women who go to
the temple, some are wishing to have a child, some are wishing for the well-being of their family
members, some are wishing to recover from illness, some are wishing for good luck and success in
the upcoming year, some are hoping to get through some difficulty, free themselves from poverty,
have success in their work and endeavors. Inside the temple there is a world of completely different
hopes, whereas hospitals are also a world of desperate struggle where we face pain and death. 21

Structurally, in the writing of the history of Zhang Huan's art, descriptions that are as apparently
neutral as these words of Zhang Huan's – which are really social and cultural in nature, not religious
proper – are to be re-assimilated, re-affirmed, indeed rewritten, and recovered, by a writing arguing
for the political significance of the works. Descriptions as such are to be supplemented with a
political reading, or vice versa. In the face of potential political significance, Zhang Huan's
optimism is to be transformed into anger. Writing on Zhang Huan's sculpture works, Eleanor
Heartney says: "These [antique Buddhist sculptures the artist encountered in and collected from
Tibet] had been shattered and parts stolen during the Cultural Revolution." 22 As if, the Buddhist
sculptures had not been shattered and parts stolen, during the whole history of China, especially and
most significantly by those from another culture, another religion!
Concerning Zhang Huan's object making, the works that are most representative and popular
include large scale sculpture Three Legged Buddha, 2007, in the courtyard of the Royal Academy of
Arts; and ash paintings Mao Portrait No.1, 2008, 1959 National Day, 2010. I will now discuss these
works in relation to other works of similar nature.

21 Zhang Huan and Elena Geuna, Reflections on Ash: a collective soul – Zhang Huan and Elena Geuna in
conversation, in Elena Geuna et al., Zhang Huan: Ashman, 17-19.
22 Eleanor Heartney, Zhang Huan: Becoming The Body, in Zhang Huan: Altered States, 47.
Three Legged Buddha, 2010, in the courtyard of Royal Academy of Arts

"I hope that this "Three Legged Buddha" from the East will bring harmony to London and the
world."23 Long before Zhang Huan's return to China, he started making large scale sculptures of
religious motifs. In 2001, while he was still working and living in New York, Zhang Huan created
Peace 1, 2001. The shift of medium from performance to sculpture brings with it a drastic change
of attitude and of logic: although in Three Legged Buddha one still sees a trace of Zhang Huan's
presence, with the manifest narration of Zhang Huan's total conversion to Buddhism, the work no
longer seeks to disturb, to shock, to bring uneasiness and anxiety. Instead, the work takes up the
form of a gift (albeit a gift that one have to purchase, a gift that directly requires financial return).
Although it is still to an extent shocking, due to its size and form, it becomes act of hospitality, in a
foreign land, as a strange host that does not own the house, but only the gift itself. And, this strange
guest/host is to deliver to its other this only thing he owns. The writings of these gifts involve
heavily what is conventionally attributed to the teaching of Buddhism: wisdom, peace, harmony,
tranquility et cetera. Even the sculptures using cowhide such as Giant no.1, 2008, or Cowskin
Buddha Face, 2007 – as violent as they are, they are read as, instead of ultimate horror or hypocrisy
in a humanist fashion after a tracing of the causal logic of the creation of the work, "a reflection on
man and the meaning of life and death." 24

(It's no wonder the word's so pinched, narrow, wretched, distant, and disgusted – but also
disgusting, fat, squinting, obscene, pornoscopic.)

23 Zhang Huan's statement. From Zhang Huan's website: http://www.zhanghuan.com/ShowWorkContent.asp?


id=126&iParentID=68&mid=4
24 Elena Geuna et al., Zhang Huan: Ashman, 90.
(Maybe – maybe this word could be saved by beautiful geometrical designs in three or n
dimensions, with elegant axonometries: but then everything would have to float, hanging in mid-air,
and bodies must touch the ground.)25

Nancy: "(In any case, it's no wonder the body inspires so much hatred.)"26 And the half-body of a
three-legged Buddha floats. The complication of Nancy's idea of a strange foreign body comes to a
new height, in a work as such. Hatred or hospitality, an act of attack or an act of gifting – how could
one not be reminded of the hostile gift par excellence, the gift of Trojan, colossal, housing within
itself the possibility of hostility? Also, the Buddha floats, as Nancy describes it, but its floating
requires in this case an extreme supplement, that is, the body of Zhang Huan that is always already
falling (to a below. Is this below, however, a below-the-ground or a below-the-water?). (The fall of
12m² is yet again revisited. As a Westerner, Nancy says:"We didn't lay the body bare." 27 But as a
Chinese, a religious Chinese, Zhang Huan lays bare the totality of the body of 12m² in the Three
Legged Buddha, just as in any other work of his.)

Giant No.1, 2008

25 Nancy, Corpus, 9.
26 Ibid., 9.
27 Ibid., 9.
Cowskin Buddha Face, 2007

1959 National Day, 2010, 430 x 1000cm


Since 2007, one year after he started creating ash paintings, Zhang Huan has been making ash
paintings that draw heavily from the history of China. In many cases, they are direct representations
of events or figures of political and social importance.
1959 National Day is a direct depiction of the national day ceremony 10 years after the
establishment of new China. Concerning a work as such, facing such almost brutal directness and
plainness, writings are determined to largely ignore the special material of ash and are drawn
immediately to the political and historical aspects of the content. But the historians, especially those
in the West, are to meet this embarrassment, just as soon: a painting as such can almost in no way
be described as a criticism of the political situation of China! One have to blind oneself to assert
that paintings that are political as such – including Youth(2007), Broomcorn Field(2008),
Conference Room(2008), Salute(2008), Division Meeting(2009), The Night Watch(2009) and many
more – condemn the politics and the regime of communist China. Due to its ambivalence or in fact
absence of obvious political stance, it goes against expectations, expectations that are to arrive at
this veteran artist whose early works were easily used by a motivated writing of the history of
Chinese contemporary art with clear political implications. It seems, as if, a certain impossible
radicalization happened to the signature Zhang Huan, and that it – as what gathers under itself a
colossal body of works, anticipating the death of the person it signifies so that the works can
become in its totality a work of mourning proper – is no longer present to itself. So much so that
one is tempted to not speak of the latter work at all, and speak instead of an early death of Zhang
Huan, a death that is too early but is able to save the signature its integrity, to keep it from falling.

IV. One Body or Another

We have in fact only two certainties in this world – that we are not everything and that we will die.
To be conscious of not being everything, as one is of being mortal, is nothing. But if we are without
a narcotic, an unbreathable void reveals itself. I wanted to be everything, so that falling into this
void, I might summon my courage and say to myself: "I am ashamed of having wanted to be
everything, for I see now that it was to sleep." From that moment begins a singular experience. The
mind moves in a strange world where anguish and ecstasy coexist.
– Georges Bataille

...before this patient, slow, detailed recognition, we have drunk, of course, have quenched our thirst
over and over again, have even been heavily intoxicated, but have never sensed; sensation never
came – we were speaking. Knew need and desire; took remedies and poisons in altered states, most
certainly drugged ourselves, but overlooked sensation. Anaesthetic robs us of aesthetics.
– Michel Serres

Zhang Huan – at least, the signature – is split into two, is written two times. The second writing,
which is speculated to be yet finished, writes to cover the first which is already a history, and at
once tries to retain the bloody ink of the first signature. The first Zhang Huan is the ascetic, injured,
hung, drawn, lonely, political, avant-garde, experimental, radical, performative, being one of the
founding fathers of Chinese performance art; the second Zhang Huan, torturing, killing the Zhang
Huan that was himself, presents objects that are historical, social, painterly, masterful, managing a
massive studio, a mass of employees, taking care of international business, re-appropriating his
identity as a son of the traditions he helped shattering. But what is most intolerable is that, he does
not even criticize the nation, politically and ideologically. Ironically, while Zhang Huan finally
returns to representation, to what is other to his own body, he is no longer contributing to the
international collective effort of "revealing" the nation – as precisely inventing a nation. His
paintings and sculptures – in perpetuating the imagery of historical, revolutionary China before and
during its formation, and in using materials of Buddhism, a religion/culture that is only
marginalized in the reality of contemporary art to the extent that it becomes decorative – become a
repetition of both himself and history. A rupture, and a repetition, at once. Also, shutting the
mouthes twice: no longer can one speak with comfort of a signature, written in Chinese, that is
political; one cannot even speak of a signature that assembles, gather together, a body proper.
But a return to representation, we said. How is it in fact a return? What is deliberately effaced and
forsaken is the fact that Zhang Huan started out, as almost every Chinese professional artists of his
time, as a painter. He always paints. Even on his official website, that is to be considered today a
site of import for investigations, casual or serious – on which there is an obvious selection of works,
a self-censorship, a play of privacy/publicity, instead of a total honesty and lay-bare (the ash
painting of Mao Zedong, for instance, is not presented on the website) – there are three paintings
made in the 90s. We are to be reminded by at least these three paintings that object making as
opposed to performance is not at all something new in Zhang Huan's long career. It has long been
presented, but is yet spoken of in any writing on Zhang Huan's art.
In each and every writing on Zhang Huan, the body is considered to be the most important aspect
of his work. It is indeed; but if the body bearing the signature of Zhang Huan – be it Zhang Huan's
own body, bodies of co-creators, or bodies of animals et cetera – is not to be firstly questioned, the
assertion that Zhang Huan works with, in, on, and of his body is nothing other than a reductionism
or dismissal in the form of an originary simplification: this body of work by this Chinese artist, is
identical to that by that American or German artist, in that they all involves human bodies. However
soon such a statement will be refuted, ridiculed, Western art historians tend to refute or ridicule only
on the basis that there is more than a use of the body by that American or German artist, and is not
so in Zhang Huan's case. What escapes a Western art historian is left aside, silently.
On the other hand, Zhang Huan speaks frequently of his reminiscence. When being questioned of
the reason for using ash as a material for his recent paintings, he says: "just as we discussed before,
I think it still has something to do with my background, with my countryside background." 28 It is as
if, what comes after the performance is to be considered as an excavation of a ruin, a ruin that he
had made departure from with his performance. Or better, the ruin created by exactly his
performance. Though RoseLee Goldberg's first and only powerful statement in her conversation
with Zhang Huan was to make essential something in Zhang Huan's work that is to be erased in a
future writing of the history of Zhang Huan, it nevertheless means something more to us here, after
our confirmation of the problematic nature of Zhang Huan's background, realm, origin, and points
of departure: "You are really a country boy at heart." 29

Window, 2004

In comparison, what absolutely did not has something to do with Zhang Huan's background in the
countryside, formed the origin of his performance: Angel. The 1993 performance was a trace of

28 Wu Hung in conversation with Zhang Huan, translated by the author, in Wu Hung, Zhang Huan Studio: Art and
Labour (Guangxi: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009), 46.
29 RoseLee Goldberg in conversation with Zhang Huan, in Zhang Huan et al., Zhang Huan, 9.
something absolutely exterior to what is described as the background of the one who properly bears
the signature: not only was the performance an enigmatic engagement with a concept that belongs
to an exotic religion, the body of the baby doll was also not something he was familiar with – he
being, especially when compared with his peer artist Ma Liuming who plays with his sexuality, a
country boy. His gender is not to be questioned, or, gender play is not the focus of his art. If the
Angel as an origin of a whole body of work is not to be reduced to be simply a performance that is
chiefly and even only provocative, it involves a logic of resistance and embrace: Beijing and its
contemporary art scene as a strange foreign land, is identified in the narrative of the performance
with a religion he was yet initiated into, and in the violence that was an embrace he became himself,
foresaw his future as the baby doll being torn apart.
For, impure is the body of Zhang Huan. Bearing in mind Nancy's description of a strange foreign
body aforementioned, Zhang Huan's body is not a body with the Third Eye, the Cinnabar Field and
the Ocean of Qi, it is not one of the "bodies incised, engraved, marked, shaped into microcosms,
constellations; unacquainted with disaster..." 30 Or, in fact, if we are to finally venture and say this: as
we have seen, it is, and it is not. What it is, from the very origin of the Chinese contemporary artist
Zhang Huan titled appropriately Angel, is the perpetual play of the ontological nature of the body.
What body is it? It is strange, foreign, Eastern, and not – it is familiar, domestic, Western, and not.
We have spoken of Angel as a movement of initiation, into a religion; what an initiation is, then, if
not becoming acquainted with something other? And "disaster": disastrous was the Angel, in any
possible sense. (Incidentally, Zhang Huan's body as impurity itself perhaps anticipates a renewal of
the thinking of subjectivity.)
Subsequently, the performances that followed Angel are in turn rendered impure. The
performances are then, above all, not marked by a singular, self-present, absolute faith that is
religious – but by a split between Zhang Huan's own background, and the performative injunctions
of his new faith. The violence witnessed in the performances in turn becomes the supplement that is
irreducible in such a structure, originated by such an abyssal split. If Zhang Huan in his long series
of performance, can be described as faithful, he was only faithful to such a split, without ever being
able to arrive absolutely at either realm. On the performative text that is signed Zhang Huan, what is
written is the irreconcilability between the two births.
This is confirmed by a repetition, by an even later origin of work of art: Rubens, as mentioned
before, is the first sculpture by Zhang Huan made in 2000. It resembles Angel, in that as the first
work in a long series, it also refers to something that is rather distanced from Zhang Huan's practice,
or at least, to some interests of Zhang Huan that is largely hidden. And more importantly, Rubens'
similarity with the Angel is also confirmed by what comes after it: just as the motif of a Western

30 Nancy, Corpus, 7.
religion was immediately abandoned after Angel, the allusion to Western master painters did not
sustain.

12m², performance, 1994

What is so far left untouched is the second part of 12m². This dissertation proposes that it is
strategically crucial that, before a revealing that is to promise for the future works – future works
that again breaks, splits, and disseminates – a return to its past, the second half of the 12m² is to
remain hidden, absent. "Only being mentioned", has been its destiny (also be reminded its
metonymic role in this dissertation). The dismissal of the second part of 12m² and Zhang Huan's
career is rehearsed in this dissertation.31 It is almost as if, since it is most insubstantial, it is
determined to be left alone, undisturbed. Like the surface of the water. Reading Zhang Huan's
career through 12m²: he performed, for a duration, in an environment that is at once inviting and
refusing, intolerable and peaceful.

After, he stood up, for the second part of the 12m² (why was it the second part? Why was it not

31 For, we are, after all, speaking of the performative nature of performance in general. Whether it is a performance
involving a body or a group of bodies, or a performance that involves merely a pen or a mouth – and Derrida
perhaps would argue against a clear distinction between these two.
considered, with the previous activity of meditative sitting, in a hell-like environment, forming a
self-present totality that is irreducible and is not subject to division? This being the unbroken thread
of this writing: the logic of division, break, split, fall, betrayal and faith), walked straight into a
pond nearby that is filled with garbage and waste, submerged, and can no longer be seen.

But we have already said this twice. The second part is already itself a repetition, in a repetitive
movement that follows strictly a logic that is the signature of Zhang Huan. No matter how
enigmatic this turn – that is a fall – is, total obliteration, ignorance towards it only produces an
injustice that annihilates the complexity of this act of writing, that is at once a break and a
repetition, an art and a history.

One time, I made an assignment for the woodcarving unit, asking each one of them to make a sad
leg, and asking them not to read book or reference, but to create totally on their own
understandings and life experiences. Eventually they worked brilliantly; one craftsman, during the
making, rolled up his pants and felt one of his legs while making the woodcarving leg, created an
extremely lively work.32

One night, I went to the copper studio; the employees had gone to rest, the studio was empty. I saw,
for the making of a copper Buddha leg, a foot cut open and left by the leg. I was very excited, and
immediately called the craftsmen over and asked them when will this work finish. The leader said it
will be finished in two weeks; because the foot was not right, they cut it open and will weld it back
together tomorrow. I thought it was fortunate that I come to check tonight, or it is possible I will
never see the condition like it is today. I said this work is finished, and the effect is brilliant! Do not
work anymore on this. Craftsmen, after hearing this, were happy and cried out, it is impossible to
understand Mr. Zhang. That is the surprise the making offers me! Judgement of the work takes one
second; the completion of the work, is important to the artist. 33

It is where the body, among other things, disappears, where an economy of presence and absence
immediately presents itself. Two identifications: the body of Zhang Huan, on the one hand, is
identifies with (and as) his signature, and this implies that the absence of the body guarantees the
absence of the signature (which is really of unmatched importance in the contemporary art world);
the second part of 12m² , on the other hand, is identified with the second part of Zhang Huan's
career through this absence of Zhang Huan's body. This is first and foremost what motivates and
even forces the silence towards it. After Zhang Huan is affirmed as an artist of the body, one do not
32 Zhang Huan's statement, translated by the author, in Wu Hung, Zhang Huan Studio: Art and Labour, 130.
33 Ibid., 130-131.
know how to speak of this absence of Zhang Huan's body (as the absence of his signature). As if the
absence of Zhang Huan's physical body also implies the absence of Zhang Huan's effort, mental and
physical, that is, the totality of Zhang Huan's involvement in the making of the sculptures and
paintings (but one has to wonder: how is it only an "as if"? Hence the importance of Zhang Huan's
statement quoted above): simply, as general opinion goes, and as the lengthy quotations above have
it, he does not contribute much to the conception and realization of the sculptures and paintings.
But since Zhang Huan's identity as an artist is given, in the given space it will not be questioned.
The artist will not be called a non-artist yet, however tempting such a move is. Our concern here in
this dissertation, rather, is the condition of the possibility of the everlasting, patient faith in the early
performances, affirmed and strengthened by and only by later object makings. The present and the
future as staying faithful to the past. Granting that an artist's signature, as related to a number of
works of mourning, is generally in a perpetual expansion, claiming an ever greater number of works
and even greedily venturing into realms that is considered its absolute other (in Zhang Huan's case,
the realm of large-scale production that does not involve both his mental or physical contribution) –
Zhang Huan is to promise a non-betrayal to his signature that is always already historicized and
canonized, and even, at once, a working without and within this signature.
The fall of the second part, be it the second part of 12m² or the second part of Zhang Huan's
career, first falls asleep. Nancy:

To these we can add: how I'm fainting from pleasure, or from pain. This fall, in its turn, in one or
another of its versions, mingles with the others. When I fall into sleep, when I sink, everything has
become indistinct, pleasure and pain, pleasure itself and its own pain, pain itself and its own
pleasure. One passing into the other produces exhaustion, lassitude, boredom, lethargy, untying,
unmooring. The boat gently leaves its moorings, and drifts.34

Call Zhang Huan's early performances masochistic, if you wish. Be it pleasure or pain Zhang
Huan gained from the performances, through a fall Zhang Huan stops feeling either. And fall, in
turn, falls into water. "I myself become the abyss and the plunge, the density of deep water and the
descent of the drowned body sinking backward."35 Immediately, this water promises a place
infinitely beyond: "everything has become indistinct"; "I fall to where I am no longer separated
from the world by a demarcation that still belongs to me all through my waking state and that I
myself am, just as I am my skin and and all my sense organs. I pass that line of distinction, I slip
entire into the innermost and outermost part of myself, erasing the division between these two

34 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep (translated by Charlotte Mandell, New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), 1.
35 Ibid., 5.
putative regions."36 Considering fall in this way, writings' refusal to speak of the fallen absence of
Zhang Huan only demonstrates the impotence of the writings. However one is to imagine the
movement of the becoming-indistinct, explosive or gradual, this movement exceeds the scope of the
writings that are chiefly Occidental (and ironically so, considering the word Occident in relation to
fall), or are at least strange and foreign to Zhang Huan's body.
Writings' refusal to speak of the second part of 12m² and of Zhang Huan's career, reacts against
an absence, specifically the absence of Zhang Huan's body. The writing ones can no longer decide
the status of Zhang Huan's body. Although Zhang Huan's body, as an Oriental body, is further
complicated by another supplementary demarcation that divides Zhang Huan from Zhang Huan (the
aforementioned split within), the water holds: it provides for Zhang Huan a place that is akin to a
nothingness that could also be read as Buddhist in nature. One – to the end of this sentence it
betrays itself by becoming the abyss of the "one" – no longer differentiates.

V. "The Mountain Is Still A Mountain"

We have so far spoken of firstly the numerous origins and departures of Zhang Huan, from the
Angel – as a distant, alien origin of Zhang Huan's performance – to the Rubens – as, on the other
hand, the no less foreign origin of Zhang Huan's large-scale object making. By problematizing
through our reading these two origins/departures par excellence along with Zhang Huan's numerous
moves – from Henan province to Beijing (again, not meeting directly 1989 Tian'anmen event as
popular history has it, but meeting directly the numerous Western and Chinese artistic influences),
to the United States, then back to Shanghai – it is suggested that the art of Zhang Huan, internally
(between works, from one work to another) and externally (between art and life, between the
changes in art and the changes in life), there are in fact a number of, in Derrida's words, mis-
chances. Things are not meeting each other, as if naturally. Zhang Huan's artistic practice does not
quite fit perfectly in the current reductionist writing of the history of Chinese contemporary art, and
in fact merits a further close inspection.
We have also attempted reading the whole of Zhang Huan's career through the work 12m². We
have traced the history as a history of fall, a fallen history. 12m² and Zhang Huan's overall career
are identified with each other chiefly through the economy of presence and absence of Zhang
Huan's body (an absence that is, to reiterate, Zhang Huan's fall), and it is understood that, just as the
second part of 12m² is largely ignored because of an absence, the second part of Zhang Huan's
career so far is marginalized and dismissed because of a certain lack. We have tried to think in this

36 Ibid., 5.
dissertation, however, this absence or lack deserves more attention. One should indeed start
thinking of the economy as a deliberate play, and start complicating and problematizing fall.
Besides this play of presence and absence, this trajectory of fall – adding one extra layer of time
onto the spatialization that is the totality of presence and absence – however, the 12m² as a whole,
along with other interesting works such as 65kg, is related to the second part of Zhang Huan's career
in yet another movement: it (both; for perhaps soon it will be no longer just to speak of them
separately) smells. Smell works itself in a movement that renders distinction impossible. Smell
connects and permeates, but is only to pass unnoticed in the face of an injunction that is nothing less
than essential to the idea and reality of contemporary art that is predominantly visual and, somehow
strangely, linguistic. The face of contemporary art has eyes, mouthes, ears, perhaps even skin, but a
single nose. It cannot deal with Zhang Huan's 12m² and his career as a whole, it cannot recognize
this smell that goes from one to another and indeed identifies one as another. It, in protecting itself,
refuses what Michel Serres calls confusion. Con-fusion.
Zhang Huan suffers in the 12m² primarily through smell. If not for the intolerable smell of the
public toilet, the logic of suffering in this work will not even be valid. On the other hand, one of the
most important aspects of the material for the ash paintings that is totally left out from any
discussion is that this ash carries with it, always already, the trace of a smell. It no longer functions
as a source of a particular smell, but it exists as the residue, legacy, inheritance, supplement, and the
gift of smell.

Clear, distinct knowledge is the result of analyses which divide and separate, systematically
distasteful of confusion. Separation and division presuppose a space, on which or in which
distinction pricks out a singular location: all simple topological operations... Confusion or multiple
cascades, intertwining and interchanging in confluence, also presuppose a space, but also
somewhat more attention. They represent, in fact, the direct operation of division, or separation;
which is a kind of summation, or multiplication. 37

Against language, Serres proposes in The Five Senses confusion with which distinction created by
language collapses. Following Serres, these two smells (or better, a smell in 12m² that is never
sensed but only hinted, and a trace of a smell in the ash paintings that is long gone or erased; In
short, smells that are especially spectral, more spectral than smell in general is) come closer to each
other on their respective paths to death. The toilet as presupposed by a knowledge ("...this passage
from raw to cooked, is connected to knowledge" 38 – a knowledge that starts with food, and this

37 Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I) (translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter
Cowley, London: Continuum, 2008), 167.
38 Ibid., 165.
implies ending with excrement), and the ash by the sacred: "I sense that we are heading
simultaneously towards knowledge and the sacred, we are approaching repulsive places: filth,
mixture, excrement, death – the supreme filth, supreme excrement." 39

Smell seems to be the sense of singularity. Forms reappear, invariant or recurrent, harmonies are
transformed, stable across variations, specificity is countersigned by aroma. With our eyes closed,
our ears stopped, feet and hands bound, lips sealed, we can still identify, years later and from a
thousand other smells, the undergrowth of such and such a place in a particular season at sunset,
just before a rain storm, or the room where feed corn was kept, or cooked prunes in September, or a
woman."40

The sense, therefore, of the confusion of encounters; the rare sense of singularities: our sense of
smell slides from knowledge to memory and from space to time – no doubt from things to beings. 41

Loving a body, that rare special thing; no other volume on the surface of the planet has more value.
Love confuses us: two chambers pouring together. Lingering near the surface of skins – veils,
complex and subtle tissues – this or that indefinable scent, belonging exclusively to her or to him
and signifying each one to the other, in conscent. We do not love unless our senses of smell find
themselves in improbable accord, a miracle of recognition between the invisible traces which scud
over our naked skins, as air and clouds float above the ground. Until death there remains within us
this spirit, in the chemical and mystical sense of the written and spoken word; as far as the nose is
concerned, the emanations of whomever we have loved remain. It returns to haunt our skin, at dawn
on certain mornings. Love perfumes our lives, aromas resurrect encounters in all their splendour. 42

Clear, distinct knowledge presents or represents a space. Confused knowledge flows and returns
along fluent times. Is present, certainly, but its past floods back, and it remembers.
Take this and drink. Do this in memory of me.43

In this impossible realm of the history of Chinese contemporary art, smell – and smell alone, one
may say – guarantees the singularity and integrity of Zhang Huan.
Perhaps, if not for an absolute, unconditional justice, at least for a certain love and a certain
memory, despite or exactly in spite of the knowledge of its harm, we are to attempt to mix the ash

39 Ibid., 164.
40 Ibid., 169.
41 Ibid., 170.
42 Serres, The Five Senses, 170.
43 Ibid., 168
with the water and drink, as some faithful Chinese would, in order to cure his or her illness.

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Wu, Hung, Zhang Huan Studio: Art and Labour. Guangxi: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009.
Zhang Huan, Vine, Richard, and Luard, Honey, Zhang Huan: The Mountain is Still a Mountain.
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Zhang, Huan, Chiu, Melissa, Kong, Bu, Heartney, Eleanor, and Desai, Vishakha, Zhang Huan:
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Zhang, Huan, Goldberg, RoseLee, Dziewior, Yilmaz, and Storr, Robert, Zhang Huan. London:
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www.zhanghuan.com