Sadness, Despair and Ash at Zhang Huan Show

Diehl Gallery OneA feathered donkey climbing a log...
As China's economic and social infrastructure continues to grow, its art scene is gathering briskly through a rise in prices and frequent appearances in the West. Now, German gallery owner Volker Diehl has brought one of its leading stars to Moscow for his first personal exhibition here.

Zhang Huan's success owes as much to his own talent as it does to the boom-fueled Chinese art fetish: He has exhibited at major international museums, including New York's MOMA and Paris' Pompidou Center, and was recently signed by impresario dealer Jay Jopling of London's White Cube.

Even before the surge in interest in his work this decade, Zhang was difficult not to notice. He first rose to notoriety in the early 1990s as part of the avant-garde Beijing East Village group, staging intensely physical performances that featured him sitting in a public toilet, covered in fish oil and honey, inviting flies to nestle on him.

Recently, however, he has turned towards the more traditional media of drawing, painting and sculpture that are exhibited here. "Performance art is very tiring. It makes me lose good ideas. So I stopped," he said at his Asia Society exhibition in New York last year. "If I have good ideas, then I'll return to performance art."


Diehl + Gallery One
...and a cow skin with a face looming out of it are among the works on display.
This change in approach also owes much to his return to China from New York in 2006, which saw Zhang re-embrace traditional Chinese motifs in his artwork. His approach to them, though, is new, distinctive and very striking, thanks less to drastic thematic reinterpretations than to his idiosyncratic use of material.

Many of his new pieces are made out of incense ash from Buddhist monasteries, which in form can bring famous Western artists to mind -- the disfigured sculpture "Ash Head No. 16" is reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti; "Big Ash Painting" bears the influence of abstract expressionism; and "Military Training on the Sea No. 2" even hints at William Turner's seascapes.

But as a whole, the effect they produce is distinctly Chinese. "I use ash to express and combine all the dreams, aspirations, all the spiritual longings, all the ideas that people have somehow infused into incense ash," he wrote in an essay for Pace Wildenstein Gallery this year. "It's the collective spirit and collective thinking and collective wishes of the people in China."

Zhang's non-burnt new works attempt to reincarnate that same ancient Chinese mentality. The balcony hosts a series of folkloric woodcuts and drawings in ink and soy sauce, some themes from which are metamorphosed into physically striking art objects. Downstairs, a feathered resin donkey climbs a massive wooden log up the western wall, opposite an imposing likeness of the Buddha made out of a cow skin.

These, the first two works Zhang produced upon his return, have in particular an immediacy and physicality translated from his performance years. "The idea of the body," he wrote, "is the common thread throughout my artwork, something to do with the body, something to do with the skin. That's what you see on the surface, as a language. And behind that surface is this sense of sadness, sense of incongruence, of frustration and despair."

Particularly haunting is a piece from his "Memory Doors" series, which Zhang created by traveling around the countryside and collecting old wooden doors, pasting photographs onto them and juxtaposing the images with carved bas-reliefs. This builds on the Chinese tradition of pasting images on doors to bring luck or ward off evil but adds a modern uncertainty at the different import these images have when interpreting the past.

Zhang Huan Paintings and Sculptures runs through January 17th. DIEHL + GALLERY ONE, 5/13 Smolenskaya Embankment. Metro Smolenskaya. www.diehlgalleryone.com. Tel.: (499) 252-8183.