Damien Hirst encrusted a skull with diamonds, and Takashi Murakami turned out canvases with cartoon versions of skulls. But when Zhang Huan addresses similar iconography, he creates paintings in a style all their own. Sitting in his Shanghai studio one day recently amid dozens of Tibetan death masks, he was busy preparing for the recent opening of "Poppy Fields", an exhibition of new works at the Pace Gallery in New York.
"Poppy Fields" is a fresh direction for an artist whose studio is much like a factory, with more than 100 assistants churning out copper sculptures of Buddhas, paintings made of ash collected at temples, doors carved with scenes from the Cultural Revolution, stainless steel pandas, stuffed cows and horses and, on one occasion, a version of a Handel opera. His notion is that he can produce anything he imagines without regard for consistency.
"Unlike Western masters, who will stick with one style their entire life until they reach maturity, I am in a constant state of transformation," Zhang says. "I am constantly abandoning old things for new ones, but there is always a thread behind these changes, and that is my DNA."
His latest transformation may be the biggest one to date: turning himself into an oil painter with a keen sense of colour after a career that has so far been mostly black, white and grey. The "Poppy Fields" works are a striking departure, for example, from those shown in a retrospective at Asia Society in 2007, two years after he returned to China after almost a decade in New York.
In the new paintings, the canvas surface is covered with hundreds of skulls modelled after Tibetan masks that look like grinning faces with bulging eyes and Cheshire cat smiles. From a distance, the canvases blur into misty fields of colour, in white, pink and blue in one instance and black, red and gold in another. Yet up close, you can see each face in the crowd, as if you're zooming into a packed stadium from outer space.
"The paintings represent the hallucination of happiness and the hallucination of fear and loneliness in this life as well as the hallucination of happiness in the next life," Zhang says. Asked about his bright hues, he says:"If there's no colour in your hallucination, it won't be heaven. It would be hell."
Buddhism and death rituals have been abiding subjects for Zhang, who was ordained as a Buddhist monk eight years ago. During the anti-religious oppression of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang, born in 1965, remembers watching his grandmother go to the temple and burn incense before a statue of a Buddha. As an adult, he went regularly to temples; even after moving to New York in 1998, he studied every weekend with a monk in Queens, and later donated statues to the Chuang Yen Monastery, designed by I.M. Pei, in New York.
In her catalogue essay for "Altered States", the 2007 retrospective at Asia Society, Melissa Chiu, the museum's director, wrote:"Zhang Huan's works from the past 15 years reflect one artist's search for an artistic voice, first in Beijing, then in New York and finally in Shanghai."
Chiu added that Zhang has placed "a progressive emphasis on Chinese sources with which he finds great inspiration in the shared memory of symbols, stories and materials of his homeland". Yet it is his embrace of Tibetan Buddhism that distinguishes him from other contemporary Chinese artists.
In 2005, a trip to Tibet altered Zhang's thinking and his art. "One day in Lhasa, I got up at 4am and went to the Jokhang Temple, the biggest one in Tibet, and I saw men and women already lining up for miles," Zhang says. He was amazed by the sight of pilgrims crawling to the site in the middle of traffic, in a seeming clash between modernity and ancient tradition.
"I have been to the most famous museums in the world, and I have never seen a sight as striking as this," he says.
He also witnessed a Tibetan sky burial, in which a monk eviscerates the human corpse, leaving the flesh as food for vultures, and smashing the bones into a grainy dust. The process is supposed to liberate the spirit from the body for peaceful transport into the next life.
"Most people, when they see this ceremony, think it is gross and they cannot bear to watch," the artist says. "But when I watch the ceremony, I feel this hallucination of happiness, and I feel free." Zhang promises that at his death, the ritual will constitute his last performance piece.
The New York Times