The New Season at Storm King Art Center: Zhang Huan’s Behemoths

Despite rain, the ride up to Storm King was an apt foreshadow of the art center’s newest exhibition. Droves of fog rolled down from the peaks of Bear Mountain, dispersed into the woods that lined the Palisades Parkway, and lent the trees a cover for their still bear branches. It was a serene and pretty scene and it was maintained, even as the sun shown forcefully out, by the mammoth sculptures of Zhang Huan.

The 51-year-old began his career as a performance artist in the East Village collective, an avant-garde artist’s community established in the 1990s and located on what was then the periphery of eastern Beijing. The group, named for lower Manhattan’s iconic neighborhood and spearheaded in part by Ai Weiwei, became the platform on which Zhang Huan launched his eminent career. During that time, nearly all his pieces were carnal, oftentimes performed nude, and, on occasion, slightly masochistic. In a public latrine, he slathered his naked body in honey and let the flies feast off him for an hour. He invited three calligraphers to write Chinese characters on his face in black ink for a full day. For a 9-frame photographic series, he simulated copulation with a donkey.

zhang huan the wild mag“Family Tree”

zhang huan the wild mag“Window”

Regardless of his transition in medium, the objectives behind Zhang Huan’s earlier works are not lost on his new forms. During the tour, the Chinese artist, accompanied by a translator, spoke reverently on the persistent theme of Buddhism in his work, namely, the unity of humans and animals and the recognition that opposite forces are constantly at work. The indoor portion of the exhibition includes a series of busts constructed from the incense ash of various Buddhist temples around China and Tibet, as well as a sprawling floor sculpture of a three-headed, four-legged Buddha.

zhang huan the wild mag

zhang huan the wild mag

Outside, the work reaches full scale with “Peace No. 2,” a 20-foot tall bronze bell inscribed with his family’s genealogy and the aspirations of his assistants. A gold-leafed, to-scale replica of Zhang’s body dangles from the bell, and serves as a ringer. Further along, there’s a Buddha head sunken into the earth, an oversized arm with thumb and middle finger together, a leg with a head emerging from the heel. Adjacent to the three, is Zhang Huan’s principal work, “Three Legged Buddha.” The 28-foot copper and steel behemoth is the bottom half of a three-legged creature, one of whose limbs rests on an 8-foot human head. Transported from China in three parts and installed at Storm King in 2010, the sculpture is befitting of the open landscape. As we moved onto the next piece, Zhang said, “This sculpture has found the best home.”

zhang huan the wild magZhang Huan, Peace No. 2, 2001. Cast bronze, gold leaf, and steel, 20′ x 8′ 1/8″ x 8′ 1/8″. Courtesy the artist.

zhang huan the wild magZhang Huan, Long Island Buddha, 2010–11. Copper, 67 11/16″ x 7′ 5 3/8″ x 69 11/16″. Courtesy the artist.

zhang huan the wild magZhang Huan, Gone Beyond, 2008. Copper, 35 7/16″ x 20′ 6 1/16″ x 6′ 4 3/4″. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

zhang huan the wild magZhang Huan, Head From Buddha Foot, 2006. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Albeit impressive—and quite beautiful—the new work is more obvious than Zhang Huan’s performance pieces, less subtle in their presentation of his beliefs. It’s refreshing in that way; we’re not grasping in the dark for meaning. But there feels something more natural about his performances. Although the sculptures are, in their own right, utterly moving, it’s difficult to tell whether the profundity isn’t drawn from the sheer scale of the work; is it possible to feel blank before something so large?

zhang huan the wild magZhang Huan, Three Legged Buddha, 2007. Steel and copper, 28′ 2 1/2″ x 42′ x 22′ 7 5/8″.
Gift of Zhang Huan and Pace Gallery.

text by: Bianca Ozeri

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