"Methodical Suffering: Chinese Buddhism as a Tool in Zhang Huan's Early Performance Art," by Sarah Horton

 

"Methodical Suffering: Chinese Buddhism as a Tool in Zhang Huan's Early Performance Art," by Sarah Horton

At 11:30 am, on a sweltering June morning in 1994, a nude Zhang Huan sat down in a run-down public restroom in Beijing’s East Village, covered in a mixture fish oil and honey. Immediately swarmed by flies, Zhang maintained that position with perfect stillness for an hour, despite the stench and stifling 100° heat. Zhang allowed the flies to cover his body and did not react even as they entered his ears and nose, drawn to the viscous liquid coating his skin. Accompanied only by a few artist friends who would document this feat of endurance, Zhang went to this filthy public restroom to complete a work of performance art, a form of art practice banned in China, titled 12 Square Meters.

This early performance by Zhang is one of his many works that demonstrate an engagement with elements of Chinese traditional culture. This is particularly the case with Chan Buddhism, a popular sect of Buddhism native to China with a focus on reaching buddhahood through self-contemplation. While Zhang never promoted his early work as engaged with traditional concepts, such engagement is made incredibly apparent in his later, international work. Focusing on 12 Square Meters, and in his referencing other relevant works by the artist from the 1990s, this thesis will examine the functional role of Chinese Buddhism in Zhang’s early performances. As these performances are ephemeral, I will rely on photographs, videos, and records documenting Zhang’s works. My research also depends on a wealth of information on Zhang and his art practice, as well as Buddhist ideology, in order to illuminate connections between Zhang’s work and practices such as meditation and self-immolation. This investigation will be carefully situated within the context of the specific social and political circumstances faced by Chinese artists in the last decade of the millennium, because these circumstances directly impacted and restricted the nature Zhang’s art practice. Ultimately, I seek to demonstrate that in 12 Square Meters and Zhang’s other work from the 1990s, Chinese Buddhist concepts are employed as tools or methods that the artist applies to the ideas he seeks to address in his performances. I will argue that these early works, born out of the repressive artistic conditions of the 1990s in China, display a level of engagement with Chinese traditional culture that is more subtle but no less powerful than Zhang’s later international art practice.

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  • HAAARCH!!! 2015
  • Undergraduate Work