Zhang Huan (Chinese: 張洹; born 1965) is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York City. He began his career as a painter, then transitioned to performance art before coming back to painting. Primarily known for his performance work, he also makes photographs and sculptures. A talk with Thomas Smetana 

TS Can you explain the background of your work 1/2 ( Meat ) for a Western audience? You’re reflecting on a Tibetan funeral ritual and on humans as special animals but still animals. What’s your intention with 1/2 ( Meat )?

ZH 1998年上半年,我做了1/2。每天吃早 点的菜市场,我都能看到整扇的猪排在 小摊上贩卖,或者在自行车架子上挂着 一扇猪排;看到这些猪排,我好像看到 了我自己,我想象那些猪活着时候的样 子,很可悲,我自己也很可悲。人的一 半是身体,一半是灵魂。作品中的汉字 是请在场的朋友写出他们想写的东西, 象“观念”,“佛”,“卡夫卡”,“宽容” 等等。

I did 1/2 in the first half of 1998. Each day, I had breakfast at the market where I could see stacks of pork ribs for sale, on stalls or hung on bike racks. I pictured myself as those pork ribs and imagined how those pigs looked when they were alive, which made me feel pathetic about them and about myself. The human being consists of half body and half soul. As you can see in the artwork, I was covered in Chinese characters written under the ribs. The audience was invited to write what they wanted, and the meaning of the Chinese characters was Concept, Buddha, Kafka, and Tolerance, among many others.


TS Observing technical progress, AI, and massive changes going on in the media around the world, what is the biggest danger of such developments for you as an artist?

ZH 科技的进步,人工智能的发展,让艺术 也呈现多种变化和发展。但是艺术创作 最大的特征就是情感和精神性,艺术活 动更多是一种创造的过程,它充满感性 色彩。这些是科技和人工智能永远不能 替代和复制地。对于我来说最大的危险 就是太过依赖科技和人工智能,而失去 自己的想象力和创造力,这将是非常可 悲的。

Technology and science have always changed and advanced art. Artificial intelligence is no exception. However, art is a creative process influenced by our human sensibility. Emotions and spirituality, which technology and artificial intelligence can never replace and replicate, are the greatest features of artistic expression. The biggest danger for me would be to become too dependent on technology, to lose my imagination and creativity, which would be lamentable.


TS On the same topic, do you see any chances this development offers our society?

ZH 现代科技和人工智能对人类社会的改变 是显而易见的,而这也将为我们的艺术 创作提供多种可能性。这些是我们无法 忽视,无法视而不见的。

It’s obvious that modern technology and artificial intelligence have transformed human society. They offer many possibilities for artistic creation that we can’t ignore and disregard.


TS Is the term trust meaningful for your work as an artist? Or truth?

ZH 先有真才有美,当你真的去经过你的身 体、大脑、你的生活经历去体会它的时 候,那再说出来它就是真了。一个艺术 家唯一的标准就是真诚,你的内心世界 是一个尺子,你想做的时候你就做,这 是一个完全的自由状态,完全真实的状 态。当你能做到真的时候,美就出现 了,“真”的能量真是太大了。

Truth has enormous power. It comes before beauty. Sincerity is the only criterion for being an artist. It’s only when you realize the states of genuine feelings and complete freedom conveyed from your body, mind, and experiences, that empowerment of the creative process can become real. The final judgment is set by your heart.


TS Working as a performance artist, you often tried to overcome physical limits. What limits do our societies restrict the most?

ZH 思维的局限和思想的开创。

The limitation of human cogitation and mind


TS Civil disobedience is an important part of your work, including reflection on China’s history. You’re living and working in China, traveling a lot, and exhibiting all over the world. Do you think individual freedom is threatened by current social politics and economics?

ZH 我觉得不管是做什么行业,个人的自由 肯定会受所在国家政策法规的约束,这 不是威胁。而今天的中国对艺术的态度 越来越自由。没有一个国家能像今天的 中国如此开放和自由. 

A liberal attitude toward art is increasing in today’s China. No country in the world can be compared to its openness and freedom. No matter what you do as a profession, your freedom is limited by the policies and regulations of your country. This is not a threat.


TS Buddhism is an important part of your life. How does this religiousness find expression in your work?

ZH 我信仰佛教,佛学给我开启了一扇大 门,帮助我理解这个世界和人类本身。 我想借用佛性来表达人性,表达生命的 意义。“佛就是人,人就是佛”。 

Buddhism has opened a door for me to comprehend the world and the human being. Since all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature, I would like to convey this Buddha-nature in humanity and the meaning of life.

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