Zhang Huan is an artist from Henan, China, renowned for being one of the country’s most provocative and influential artists. He is best known for his conceptual and performance based work, but, more recently, he’s created more paintings and sculptures.
What really brings his work to life is the amazing range of materials used to create his work. Most famously, perhaps, is the incense ash, which he ‘paints’ with to create huge sculptures, such as Ash Head (2007). The ash, Huan says, is used to represent both ‘detritus and religious ritual’.

The themes of his work tend to reference the history of China, as well as the country’s present social climate. His work asks important sociological, political, and cultural questions. For example in his piece, Q-Confucius No.6, in which a life-size sculpture of the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius violently jolts around a metal cage. Surrounding the cage are videos of monkeys conducting their life as if utterly unperturbed by his racket. The work aims to symbolise the unrest the philosopher would have at the current state of the world and his homeland of China.

Another piece in the Confucius series is, Q-Confucius, a giant sculpture of the philosopher chest-deep in a pool of water, staring down at the viewer. The positioning and expression Huan employs here are reminiscent of Buddha. Confucius is perhaps asking people to listen to him as they would Buddha.

With both of these works from the same series, Huan is questioning his country’s ability to internalise and adopt a ‘new moral code’. The new code needs to fight off the plague of consumerism, of brands and money, and invite society to challenge moral leadership in iconoclastic movements.
So many of his works make the viewer ask key questions about modern society, and all come so naturally to Huan. He says, ‘I think painting is a part of my body’, which is clear to see in some of his more hands-on projects.
To see more of his work and listen to the artist’s story, check out this video below or head to his website.
Cara van Rhyn


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