Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book: Zhang Huan, Altered States

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2007 by Edizioni Charta and the Asia Society, in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name at the Asia Society. 180 pages, with essays by Melissa Chiu, Kong Bu, Eleanor Heartney, and Zhang Huan. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: While Zhang Huan's images can routinely be found in photography auctions around the world today, to call him a photographer would be to grossly misunderstand his art. His photographs are merely documents of his performance art - sometimes further labeled as "body art" or "endurance art", as many of his performances involve testing the limits of his body and mind. This book provides a retrospective look at all of his performances and installations, going back to 1993. Each and every performance is an opportunity to watch from the sidelines as Zhang explores the depths of his own history and personality or reacts to his environment.

Not surprisingly, some of Zhang's performances work better as photographs than others. He has sat covered in flies in a public toilet; he has suspended himself in midair and had some of his blood drained; he has lain naked on blocks of ice; he has worn suits of bone and meat. Two of his earlier projects To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995 (below ltop) and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997 (below bottom) both lend themselves well to being captured as a single moments. Both works document Zhang measuring himself (with the help of others) against the natural world.

In Foam, 1998 (below left) and Family Tree, 2000 (below right), Zhang tackles the issues of his own personal identity. In one, he holds the photographs of family members in his mouth (is our history inside us, or can we swallow it?); in the other, he disappears under the layers of stories written on his face by Chinese calligraphers.

Most of Zhang's works are subtly infused with traditional Chinese values and Buddhist teachings and these ideas provide the framework and backdrop for his autobiographical explorations. His performances seem to find the just the right balance: surprising without being gimmicky, earnest and stoic without being pompous, real and meaningful without being contrived. Overall, Zhang has generated a significant number of highly memorable and thought provoking moments in his short career; this book provides a valuable one-stop summary of his output.
Zhang Huan's artist website can be found here.
Collector's POV: Zhang Huan's images have become mainstays of the auction circuit. Most are large chromogenic prints (often 40x60, but generally in various formats), in edition sizes ranging from perhaps a handful to as many as 25. Prices for single images have ranged from $10000 to over $100000, with larger groups of pictures (like Family Tree) selling for $150000 to $250000. Even though his work is often found in photography auctions, it has clearly crossed over to the "contemporary art" price schedule.
(Aside: Blogger's handling of embedded images is frustratingly quirky, so please excuse any unexpected odd formatting or white spaces you may encounter, especially likely if you are using a reader.)

No comments: