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b. 1965, Anyang, Henan Province, China
Zhang Huan was born in 1965 in Anyang City in the Henan Province in China. He received a BA from Henan University in Kai Feng in 1988 and an MA from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1993. Living among a community of artists in an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Beijing, Zhang created several performances that tested the limits of discomfort that his body could endure. The artist coated himself in honey and fish oil to attract swarms of flies as he sat motionless in a slovenly public bathroom for 12 Square Meters (1994). In 65 Kilograms (1994), titled after the artist’s weight, Zhang suspended himself naked by chains hung from the ceiling as two doctors drew 250 milliliters of blood from his body; the blood, dripping into a pan resting on a hot plate, diffused into the room amid the smell of disinfectant. During Zhang’s last three years in Beijing, his performances grew in scale and number of participants; for example, in 1997, Zhang and forty local workers waded into a fishpond to raise the water level. The suite of black-and-white photographs titled Skin (1997) show Zhang distorting his face with his hands.
The artist moved to New York in 1998, whereupon he created works that often responded to his new surroundings and specifically his identity as a Chinese artist within the United States. References to Chinese culture appear in works like Family Tree (2000)—a photographic series in which the artist’s face is progressively covered in calligraphy—and several sculptures entitled Peace (created between 2001–03), which incorporate temple traditions of statuary and bronze bells. Other enigmatic performances also drew from the artist’s immigration, although less explicitly. For Pilgrimage--Wind and Water in New York (1998), the artist lay naked on a bed of ice surrounded by dogs in the courtyard of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. For the performance My New York (2002), presented at the Whitney Biennial, the artist donned a suit fashioned from raw meat molded into oversized muscles. At the same time, the artist staged major performances throughout the world, including Santiago, Spain (2001), Hamburg (2002), and Boston (2005). In 2006, the artist established a studio in Shanghai, where he turned his attention to sculpture, drawing, painting, and photography. Inspired by a trip to Tibet in 2005, the artist created several copper and bronze sculptures made from the fragments of Buddhist statues. In 2007, he employed incense ash to create sculptural self-portraits and paintings of the American and Chinese flags. In 2008, Zhang began fashioning monumental sculptures from cowskin, steel, wood, and polystyrene foam that appear as gigantic thread-bare doll-like figures.
Performances and solo exhibitions of Zhang’s work have been held at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto (2001), Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Center (2003), Asia Society, New York (2007), and Vancouver Art Gallery (2008). His work has also been included in major group exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (1999), Lyon Biennale (2000), and Whitney Biennial (2002). In 2006, Zhang and Hu Chang Guan founded the Gaoan Foundation to “to focus on developments and donations in education, culture, and Buddhism.” In 2009, he staged his interpretation of the opera Semele, written by George Frideric Handel in 1743, at Le Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Belgium. Zhang lives and works in Shanghai and New York.