Since 2011 Zhang Huan (b. 1964) has been creating “ash paintings” in an industrial studio he runs like a collective workshop on the outskirts of Shanghai. Instead of paint, the artist uses ashes that he gathers from Buddhist temples. His solo exhibition at Pace Gallery, Let There Be Light (through December 5), includes the largest ash painting Zhang’s made to date as well as a new series of ash paintings that use the language of Braille to transcribe western texts including the Bible and the Star Spangled Banner. After the opening of the exhibition Rail editor, Charles Schultz, spoke with the artist about Buddhism, Braille, using ash as an art material, and how a person’s limitations can trigger their creativity.
CHARLES SCHULTZ (Rail): The first time I encountered your work was about a decade ago, at the Battersea Power Station in London. A lot has changed since then. You have evolved from a performance artist to an artist who runs a large studio with many assistants. You’ve also become a Buddhist. Can you talk about how Buddhism has influenced your art practice?
ZHANG HUAN: I have a deeper understanding of life and death, which are central themes to Tibetan Buddhism. This understanding is the ultimate state of the anatta. On this earth we’re all walking dead. Buddhism talks about reincarnation, karma, and impermanence. Only change is permanent. In the beginning of mankind there was no god, no deity, no Buddha. They were invented out of human desires. Their names, appearances and temporalities may be different, but deep down their essences are the same—truth, goodness, and beauty.
Rail: Language is also very much a creation of man. At the root of language and religion, there’s a desire to communicate. What do you think about the relationship between religion and language, as systems for communication?
Zhang: Of course, they are related. In Genesisyou have the phrase, “Let there be light.” In Buddhism there’s a similar saying.
Rail: What about the Braille? How did you decide to start working with Braille?
Zhang: Not long ago I discovered a collection of Mao Zedong’s sayings—printed in the 1950s—that was in Braille. It felt very mysterious: distant, yet so familiar. Even though I couldn’t read Braille, I knew exactly what it said. You know, Mao’s Little Red Book and the Bible are the two most printed books in human history. Afterwards, I got a copy of the Bible in braille, which got me to start reading the Bible in Chinese translation.
Rail: Yes, but the Bible is vastly older. For centuries it had to be written out by hand in order for the language to exist. So there was this physical relationship between the body of the writer and the text itself, the language. When I saw your Braille paintings, I thought there was a connection between your art of transcription, and these old medieval scribes who had to rewrite the Bible every time they wanted to share it. Do you feel connected to that medieval practice in any way?
Zhang: I recently saw two films that have to do with the Bible. One was The Remaining, which begins with a wedding visited by death and a string of strange disasters, but in the end only those who believe in God are dead. [Laughs.] I forget the name of the second film—it’s also an apocalyptic film with a western touch—a man is being hunted for a book he’s carrying, which ends up being the Bible in Braille. I find that very interesting, an oriental way of thinking, similar to Chinese martial arts movies.
Rail: Can you tell me about your painting, June 15, 1964?
Zhang: The painting depicts a military exercise between the Beijing and Jinan Military Regions, attended by the most high-ranking cadres. China was a young country then. It had just suffered the Great Leap and was at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, so there was a dream for the future in the absolute. As we look back at China’s recent history, it appears to be a historical necessity that went beyond partisan politics. There are now two different Chinese dreams, a communist one and a capitalist one. I chose this subject because I was born in 1964, contemporaneous to this photograph. Most people in the picture have passed away, even the youngest would be in their eighties now. They were the same generation as my parents, and their children my peers.
Rail: To me, the painting’s scale is especially powerful. It is so large that you can’t see it all at once. You can’t stand far enough away (at the gallery) to fit the whole picture in your visual field. The experience of looking at your painting made me conscious of the limitations of my vision. Was your decision to scale up the image based in any part on this type of viewing experience?
Zhang: That’s an interesting observation. When my friends in Shanghai saw images of the show, they asked why I didn’t use all four walls of the gallery. [Laughs.] This work posed multiple challenges: to paint it, I had to lie the canvas on the ground, like you would paint a Thangka, and the next morning there would be traces of bugs all over the surface. Besides, my studio is on a busy street with a lot of industrial traffic, so the precise, intricate details become obscured after a few days. It was very uncomfortable in the summer because we couldn’t open the windows or use air conditioning, because even the slightest breeze would blow the ashes away and ruin the work. This work is so far the largest and most consuming of all my paintings—it took me and five assistants five years to complete. If I were to do this by myself, and purely by hand, and let’s say I started at twenty years old, I still wouldn’t be able to finish when I hit 100. I’d die painting it. Anyway, this is the history I grew up with.
Rail: How does the ash as a material interact with this history?
Zhang: To me, incense ash is not merely a material, like oil paint or ink, but the embodiment of a country and its people’s collective blessing for the future and memory of the past. It’s the most appropriate medium with which to paint China’s recent history. For a New York viewer to see this painting is to encounter the thousands of Chinese spirits with an American soul. In my painting, ash connects with western religion in an abstract yet concrete way. Unlike the sublime beauty of music or poetry, it’s prosaic, and has an actual narrative, like the texts.
Rail: Braille has an interesting and, I think, relevant history. It was invented by a Frenchman named Louis Braille; his vision deteriorated badly during his childhood. As an adult he overcame his handicap with creativity; he invented a new language, Braille. It was the first language that wasn’t for vision, but was rather a tactile, almost sculptural language.
Zhang: I think human creativity is deeply connected to the environment, and I do believe that limitations give rise to creations. This show might be the first to use Braille to create art for the blind, and it inspires us to imagine a different life and to cherish what we have, like our vision. So, “Let there be light!”
Rail: Indeed. In English, we have a phrase “in the dark,” that we use when someone doesn’t have enough information to understand a situation. That person is in the dark, and to give them light is to give them information, to enlighten them.
Zhang: We can never live without light, and my understanding of light is broader than mere knowledge. The Chinese dream is a dream about light. Light is the ensemble of the urgent, unsolvable problems that civilization faces today. Neither the dream of gods nor the dream of mankind can work it out. Religions cannot change human nature. They operate in a parallel sphere that can never be united with the world we live in.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.