On ViewStorm King Art Center
May 3 – November 9, 2014
Walk down the southern slope of Storm King Art Center and you might feel as though you’ve discovered the ruins of an ancient Buddhist temple. In the distance, an ornate copper Buddha’s head peaks out from the dirt. Its expression is serene, despite the fact that its nose and cheeks seem crushed in. Nearby, a severed arm, even more colossal, lies gently across the grass. Its fingers, posed into a mudrā, are detailed down to the elegantly formed fingernails. It appears to have been ripped from its metal body just above the elbow. Even more puzzling is another piece found not too far away, a large leg made of sheets of hammered copper stitched together like damaged skin. From the sole of the foot, a small head pops out, its eyes closed. A puddle of water has formed within the hole left in the leg. The mind may wonder: How did these objects get here? How long have they been in this state?
It’s a stunning sight, but of course these are not the ruins of a magnificent ancient temple in upstate New York. They are fragments of the imagination of Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist who first became known for his endurance-based performances in the early ’90s, and is the subject of the new exhibition Zhang Huan: Evoking Tradition, which runs through the summer and fall at Storm King Art Center.
The best place to begin the exhibition is in the Museum Building galleries where sculptures, photographs, sketches, sculptural models, and studio ephemera paint a fuller picture of the artist’s practice. In the most striking of the galleries, half a dozen grey busts look out through large glass windows and gaze onto Storm King’s rolling fields. The surface of each figure is mottled and a slightly different shade of gray. It’s nearly impossible to guess what they are made from, which is ash collected from Buddhist temples stored around the artist’s studio. In a nearby room, jars of ash from incense and other temple offerings are arranged by texture and color to show the range of the artist’s palette. In each jar, and in the works he eventually makes from them, are the countless hopes, dreams, fears and desires of the people who made these offerings.
Buddhism is something that has been on the artist’s mind recently, since returning to China in 2005—where he has a studio complex employing dozens of workers on the outskirts of Shanghai—after an eight-year stint in the United States. Though Zhang was born in rural Henan province, he came of age in Beijing’s experimental art scene in the years shortly following the events of the 1989 Democracy Movement. Despite being witness to his country’s political turnovers, its tradition and cultural history have only recently been at the forefront of his artistic concerns. This shift was inspired in part by his move to Shanghai, but also by his travels to Tibet, where he was shocked to discover broken pieces of Buddhist statuary littering the ground, detritus from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. On the second floor of the Museum Building, photographs of these found fragments give context to the sculptures that lay outside.
But back onto the south fields. As you walk down the sloping hill, the first piece you encounter is a bell 20 feet in the sky: “Peace No. 2,” created in 2001 when the artist was living and working in New York. From its center dangles a golden figure of a man—perhaps Zhang himself? For those familiar with the artist’s work, it calls to mind a piece installed a decade ago in Lower Manhattan, wherein the artist placed his own body in the center of a bell to mend a damaged public sculpture. It is modeled after a Buddhist temple bell and inscribed with the wishes of Zhang’s friends and family. If you’re lucky enough to hear its deep chime, it serves as a somber reminder: You are entering a holy place.
The rest of the sculptures on the field are scattered around an enormous copper figure called “Three Legged Buddha,” which was installed at Storm King in 2010. In the piece, a tripod deity balances on a head emerging from the earth. Is it two gods: one evil, one good? Is the figure emerging from the earth or being trampled back in? As a viewer it’s hard to say. Like the rest of the pieces scattered across the grass, “Three Legged Buddha” leaves such matters ambiguous and up for interpretation. These uncanny human forms capture the imagination. Their delicately rendered details and the organic way they meld with the landscape are a stark contrast to the clean abstractions by Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, and Mark di Suvero that surround them at the center. Despite being made from copper, each of Zhang’s pieces has a lightness, a feeling of ethereality.
At the very bottom of the hill, on the edge of a wooded area, stands a piece unlike any other in the exhibition. It is a wooden gate from the Qing period, perhaps 300 years old. Traditionally, such gateways mark the division between the worlds of the living and the spirit realm. In comparison to the works surrounding it, Milly’s Temple is a quiet piece, but it is hardly static. Behind the gate, Zhang has installed an aluminum beehive, a symbol of human connectedness, and also of the uncertain nature of reincarnation. He hopes it will become a hive of activity.