Zhang Huan at Pace Wildenstein
December 11, 2009 — January 30, 2010
545 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 929 7000
Titled “Neither Coming Nor Going,” Zhang Huan’s exhibition of an ashen sculpture of Buddha accompanied by collaged monoprints on paper suggests some form of stasis, an exegesis on silence, where everything remains still. The large Buddha is molded in ceremonial ash collected from temples in China. The thickly molded surface of the sculpture is embedded with small porcelain relics, copper dishes (used for offerings), simulated skulls, and joss sticks, normally burned on the occasion of certain Buddhist rituals.
For this exhibition, the artist intended his Rulai (seated Buddha) to possess an interactive effect not only in terms of its silence, but through the olfactory impact of temple incense. This impact, however, was limited only to opening night. As the billowing clouds of incense emanating non-stop from the oversized head of Buddha, they filled the gallery space with a choking fragrance that drove many a visitor back outside the door into the frigid street. Upon realizing there was no ventilation by which to release the clogging smoke, the staff wisely decided to extinguish it, thus allowing visitors – in the final minutes of the reception – to breathe normally and view, if not smell, the work more accurately.
This innocuous happenstance aside, the exhibition is charged with innovative features that appear less conceptual than driven by the fertile imagination of the artist. In a catalog statement from the previous exhibition in 2008, the artist (who returned to Beijing two years earlier after residing in New York for eight years) explained: “I think the key to my success is to just do it without thinking too much. I don’t reason. I just do it.” To the Western mind, such a comment suggests the romantic notion of inspiration, but for a Chinese artist, born the year prior to Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it could be read two ways: as a release of energy in the Buddhist sense of emptying the mind, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a way of manifesting desire for survival against all odds. For those who lived through this period, young or old, the challenge to live a cultural life was constantly under siege and therefore impossible to realize in the full sense.
In the Rulai, it is within the gray ash that one senses the conflicting elements of life and death. The artist has removed the raised forearm on the right and several of the fingers in the hand to the left. This is a formal decision. The Rulai is not an historical relic but a recent construction, so it would seem superfluous not to have them attached. Having visited many temples and seen numerous statues of Buddha throughout Asia, including the monumental bronze in Kamakura (Japan) exactly twenty years ago, the feeling of repose and tranquility expressed within that work, in particular, is not precisely what I saw or felt in the ashen Buddha of Zhang Huan. Instead, what I get from the Rulai at Pace Wildenstein is an appearance that suggests a mediated form, a kind of religiosity, which exists vaguely in the present but without the tension of an actual history to contextualize it. Still, there is an urgency about this Buddha that is different than the rest.
Given the rapid entrepreneurial atmosphere in China, the desire to preserve the past – essentially, what was not deccimated during the Cultural Revolution – is less likely to suggest repose and tranquility than a fierce desire to retain some semblance of a spiritual core. This idea is further expressed in the 7th-century, Tang Dynasty prophecy book, the Tui Ben Tu, which the artist used in the elegant series of works on paper that surround the Rulai on the walls on the gallery. Many of these contain animals that symbolically portray spirits that presumably will guide the Chinese people to a sense of well being in contrast to the kind of devastation they experienced in the previous century.