Contemporary Understandings of Material Histories by Xu Bing and Zhang Huan

Written by Terisa Ercoles
Content Notification: This paper contains images and discussions of nudity and abortion

This essay explores how notions of material histories have altered over time, by comparing and discussing examples from artists Xu Bing and his artwork Book from the Sky (1987-1991), and Zhang Huan and his performance piece Angel (1993) and his site-specific performance To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995). Given the extensiveness of this topic, I will first provide a visual analysis of these artworks, examining the role of text and performance as materials, through techniques, processes and fabrication used by the artists. This will be followed by a critical reflection of how these methods of materialism have impacted the deconstruction of Chinese culture, through traditional aesthetics. I will then compare these artworks concerning social reactions and the surrounding environment, paying particular attention to the Avant-Garde approach to modern Chinese art, and impact on cultural and traditional understandings of materialism.

(1987-1991). The manipulation of the written word was created through meticulously hand-carving thousands of invented, illegible characters (hanzi) onto moveable type printing blocks carved over four years. This exhaustive production process denies conventional linguistic signs as the installation refuses any singular reading. This is done by denying the viewer the ability to read the work, through the use of meaningless glyphs and imagined characters, which mimic the conventions of layout, decoration and typography in ancient canonical English manuscripts, within the traditional materiality of Chinese scrolls. Designed from a Song-style font standardised during the Ming dynasty, the last ethnic Chinese dynasty, the impact of Book from the Sky left many Chinese viewers feeling hoaxed by the visual scam (Lee 2014). The installation comprises a four-volume treatise, exploring language, Chinese aesthetics and calligraphy. Through the sewn thread-bound books, and wood letterpress onto calligraphic paper, the several manuscripts and huge scrolls remain suspended in drapes from the ceiling and walls, allowing the manuscripts to spread across the floor. Author Hajime Nakatani (2009, p. 23) suggests the arrangement, “mirroring and echoing” off the ample scrolls within the overwhelming space induces a macroscopic perspective, enhancing viewers with no literacy in Chinese to consider the script as a sign of the exotic.

The material history involved in Xu Bing’s installation Book from the Sky involves several formal rules of ancient text, such as giving characters a centre of gravity, creating silhouettes through clean outlines and the integration of distinct parts of the characters, through the size and density (Nakatani 2009). Bing’s pseudo characters, morphological soundness and conformity are what lend themselves to real characters apparent in their illustration through simple marks, outlines and centres. The proportioned and centred silhouettes give the characters body. This consideration to calligraphy outlines the adjustments made by Bing as a contemporary artist, through creating pseudo characters and the general conformity apparent in their illustration. As stated by art historian Stanley K. Abe (1998, p.171), the script “pays homage to the long history of Chinese learning and exegesis that is preserved in printed form”. The meaningless characters, which are entirely fictional, merge between Roman numerals and Chinese script, creating the appearance that this history follows traditional conventions.

Similar comparisons can be drawn from Zhang Huan’s performance art and his performance piece Angel (1993) as one of the most expressive forms of art creation. Invoking many associations, through the materiality of red food colouring and the disembodying of baby doll parts, this sort of bloody art spectacle is a bold and rebellious statement against the official aesthetic of realist paintings (Li 2019). In producing the performance Huan dipped a doll into a paint bucket filled with red paint and fragments of other baby dolls, before covering himself in the red paint. Huan then assembled pieces to recreate a doll and presented it within the middle of the exhibition hall. Author Chan Shing Kwan (2018, p. 102) suggests “Huan was able to unleash personal, social, and political distress, which, in turn, also functioned as symbolic critiques by executing abject art performances”. The spectacle is rebellious, and signifies connections to the notably controversial one-child policy, in which many women were forced to undergo abortions. Zhang Huan, as a pioneer of performance art, considers the alternative models in which the body becomes a major medium for artistic expression. Huan’s strategies implement the most violent kind of body art, by employing modernist techniques with strong Chinese cultural resonance, and as such follow a strong contemporary practice.

Both artists’ creative works revealed various social and cultural issues. Xu Bing ensures the viewer is consumed by language and confronted with the meaning generated. Zhang Huan through the nakedness of his performance pieces breaks cultural shells and re-establishes a natural order. This method is extremely raw as his body is used as a vehicle, contrary to traditional methods of paper, canvas and other media. Writer Yishun Li (2019) argues traditional art forms require some audience sophistication, Figure 2 illustrates why performance art delivers a direct and comprehensible complexity through the human body (Huan 1993). It articulates itself to carry an image and places the viewer within the performed space, as such the artist represents and becomes the work.

This is further considered within Zhang Huan’s artwork To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), which is both an intervention of space and a reference to ancient Chinese folklore. The artwork was produced shortly after the artistic community of the Beijing East Village had been forcibly disbanded (Ke 2019). During this period Huan’s approach to contemporary art changed, in which using classical tools would not be enough, and he would begin to experiment with new expressions (Ke 2019). Through changing natural state and possibilities, ten artists piled themselves naked on top of a hill near Beijing. Author Alessia Daisy Lai (2019) argues To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain was not improvisation, but instead a rehearsed and regulated performance. This function of materiality emphasises body consciousness as a direct tool of expression. Writer Shi Ke (2019) suggests the satirical title targets state propaganda and the celebration of the military martyrdom during the Sino-Vietnamese War for its revolutionary ideology, furthermore adding one metre refers to the corpses of anonymous dead soldiers. The human body, as a discovery of language, for the personal necessity of expression creates a dialogue between the body as a medium, the environment and society provoking different reactions. Using performance as a vehicle for expression, the viewer is ultimately forced to interact and understand the specific cultural and historical circumstances, for the context to be discussed through the body as a form of empowerment of the mind through the concept of identity.

As a piece of experimental literature, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky carefully follows traditional conventions, from the bibliographic forms to the history of Chinese learning and exegesis, which pays homage to the long history preserved in printed form. Within the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, Bing critiques this by using the language of Western art and refuses any singular reading, as such he tires from the “endless philosophical discussions of modernism” (Abe 1998, p.172). The Cultural Revolution within China buried the very character of artists such as Xu Bing. The installation in Figure 1 highlights the metamorphosis of processes and methods, and aims to make traditional aesthetics in Chinese culture more accessible and liberating for all (Bing 1987-91). Exhibited at the China/Avant-XU exhibition and introducing contemporary aesthetics to a broad public Chinese audience, the work was shut down by the government within a few days (Abe 1998). Bing exploits authority of language, and as such his artwork Book from the Sky was not shown in China for nearly 20 years. In 2007, the work was included in the ‘85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art’ in Beijing, as a major retrospective of the post-Mao period in China.

Zhang Huan’s artwork Angel received visceral commentary from the Chinese government and similarly led to a quick closure of the exhibition and censorship of the artist (Artspace 2017). Huan distanced himself from the traditional critiquing model, through an unadulterated art perspective for the engagement with contemporary art. “Performance art has been regarded by Chinese officials and conservatives as a form of dangerous social subversion to the socialist order” (Li 2019, p.13), as such, Huan discovered his body could become his language, as a commentary on Chinese government and censorship. Exceptionalism remains unapologetic in Huan’s art, and the resulting Avant-Garde approach to modern Chinese art in the 1990s, aroused different reactions through his confrontational and instinctive art.

In conclusion, both Xu Bing and Zhang Huan remain contemporary artists who have challenged and explored material histories, and the cultural and political background to their production. Bing plays with the challenges and preconceptions of the authority of language as a material, and how text evokes the role of the Chinese written language for modernist poetics and confrontations of readings by the viewer. Huan’s ability to transform the body and his extension of the body into an artistic language to comment on social conditions can be considered a major medium of artistic expression. To reference traditional issues within China, viewers are exposed to engagements by the artists, which identify the human presence as both a natural object and cultural constitution. Both Xu Bing and Zhang Huan have developed their understanding of material histories through contemporary practices, forming expressive outcomes in which they thrive.

Figure 1. Book from the Sky by Xu Bing, 1987-91, Installation of hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type; ink on paper, each book, open: 18 1/8 × 20 in. (46 × 51 cm); three ceiling scrolls, each: 38 in. × approx. 114 ft. 9 7/8 in. (96.5 × 3500 cm); each wall scroll: 9 ft. 2 1/4 in. × 39 3/8 in. (280 × 100 cm). 

Figure 2.
  by Zhang Huan, 1993, Performance. China National Art Gallery, Beijing, China 

Figure 3.
 To Add One Meter
to An Anonymous Mountain by Zhang Huan, 1995, Performance. Beijing, China.

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