The Buddhist Resistance of Zhang Huan’s Pagoda

Introduction

On May 12, 2008, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit a mountainous region of Sichuan Province, China, with its epicenter in Wenchuan County. The human toll, as offered by the official information source of the People’s Republic of China, was 87,150 dead and 17,923 missing, with an estimated 5,000 students losing their lives in the ruins of poorly constructed schools.1 Given China’s one-child policy at that time, the loss of an only son or daughter was particularly devastating for parents who were forbidden by the state to publicly mourn these deaths.2 The fallout from the Wenchuan earthquake—not only a natural disaster, but also one involving issues of human rights, government corruption, and silent outrage at the death of innocents—provides necessary cultural context for Pagoda (2009), a Buddhism-inspired sculpture by Zhang Huan that takes the form of a commemorative building for the remains of holy beings.

Zhang Huan, Pagoda, 2009. Gray brick, steel, taxidermic pig, 264 x 335 in. (670 x 850 cm.). Installation view, Blum and Poe, Los Angeles. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Joshua White.

An unexpected element of Pagoda is the pig that pokes its head from an aperture carved into the massive brick structure. Zhang Huan (b. 1965) has stated that this stuffed pig references an actual farm animal that subsisted for forty-nine days on rainwater and rotten wood in the rubble of the Wenchuan earthquake. The media dubbed this pig Zhu Gangqiang, or Pig Steel-strength, and the public embraced it as a symbol of heroic survival. The unusual juxtaposition of a humble pig with the most sacred of Buddhist buildings thus makes sense: in Zhu Gangqiang’s forty-nine days of survival, Zhang found resonance with the seven weeks of purgatory between death and rebirth in Chinese Buddhism.

Zhang Huan, detail of pig in Pagoda, 2009. Gray brick, steel, taxidermic pig, 264 x 335 in. (670 x 850 cm.). Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Joshua White.

Zhu Gangqiang’s will to live supports Zhang’s own longstanding self-mythology as an artist/dragon perpetually striving against social and political currents—not because he is a revolutionary, but because he sees himself as a patriot committed to improving the lives of the Chinese people.3 The development of this self-mythology coincides with the artist’s thirty-year engagement with Buddhist forms and concepts, with Pagoda representing the culmination of a longer spiritual journey spanning his folk Buddhist practices of a rural childhood, his formal eight-year study of Zen meditation in New York, and his official ordination as a lay follower of Tibetan Buddhism in 2006.

While Pagoda is driven by the artist’s spiritual beliefs in compassion, impermanence, and interconnectedness, the work is nonetheless restrained by the political narratives that frame the Wenchuan earthquake. By integrating seemingly incompatible categories, such as introspection and spectacle, Pagoda presents a dangerous cocktail of religious and political messages in a country whose constitution states that “no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order.”4  It would seem that Pagoda clearly possesses the potential to “disrupt public order,” yet authorities allowed its exhibition in China and the United States. Are the religious and political allusions in Zhang’s Pagoda so personal and idiosyncratic that they flew under the radar of censorship? Is there a distinction between the art of quiet resistance and that of loud activism? Does spiritual belief have the power to diffuse political commentary? This essay considers these questions by viewing Pagoda through three frameworks: the spiritual and the political, resistance and activism, and Buddhist art and the global contemporary.

 

The Spiritual and the Political

The well-known fate of Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong Buddhism, whose leaders have been exiled to India and the United States, respectively, attest to the harsh persecution faced by Buddhist groups that threaten the Communist Party.5 Yet an examination of the historical antecedents of Pagoda reveals that spirituality and politics have always been present in the form and function of the architectural type to which it refers.

For instance, the earliest record of a pagoda in East Asia originates with a golden man that appeared in a dream of the Emperor Ming (28–75 CE) of the Eastern Han Dynasty of China (25–220 CE). Buddhist-leaning factions at the court convinced the emperor to send emissaries to the western regions of his empire, who returned with news that the golden man was known in India as the Buddha, an enlightened sage from several centuries earlier who had left behind scriptures, relics, and images for the instruction of later generations. The emperor was so pleased by the success of the mission that upon its return from India, he established China’s first Buddhist temple in the capital city of Luoyang. The newly consecrated White Horse Temple also included China’s first official pagoda, a form of commemorative architecture dedicated to housing relics that would become, along with the image hall and the lecture space, one of the primary components of Chinese Buddhist temples.6

The current pagoda at the White Horse Temple dates from the twelfth century, but its function aligns both with its first-century origins and with Zhang’s contemporary installation.7 That is, the artist’s interest in Pagoda is less due to its formal fidelity to a quintessential Chinese type and more in its traditional function as a monument capable of transferring spiritual authority from one region to another. Zhang has acknowledged that Pagoda is based on an inspiration sourced far beyond the Chinese world: its long-lost twin is surely the Bawbawgyi Pagoda from the seventh-century Burmese kingdom of Sri Ksetra.8 And although the silhouettes of the two constructions are nearly identical, the reclaimed gray bricks are specific to the relentless demolition of Shanghai’s premodern neighborhoods.

Bawbawgyi Pagoda, seventh century. Brick, 1087 in. (4590 cm.), Sri Ksetra archaeological site near Pyay, Myanmar. Photograph © Jakub Halun.

The motif of the taxidermied pig also plays with the historical meaning of relics as “dead bodies, bits of bone or cloth, dirt or fingernails…[that] have discomfited some and consoled many.”9 It is this capacity of relics to disgust and to comfort that sheds light on their ontology as both dead and alive, an ambiguous status that humans typically fear in the remains of other humans—not in the leftover parts of animals. For Zhu Gangqiang to become a relic, then, the pig needed to become human.

The recent controversy regarding the use of animals at the Guggenheim exhibition Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World highlights deep fissures in cultural attitudes toward the humane in contemporary Chinese art.10 The legal protection of animals is nonexistent in China, and Western critics often regard the mistreatment of animals in contemporary Chinese art as emblematic of human rights violations in China more generally. This spotlight on the proper treatment of living beings, both human and animal, became especially intense following the tragedy of the Wenchuan earthquake and the international attention on China leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Since authorities eagerly sought distractions from a natural disaster worsened by their own neglect, Zhu Gangqiang quickly became a national symbol of hope and a full-blown celebrity.

The anthropomorphizing of Zhu Gangqiang increased considerably when Zhang expressed his desire to adopt the pig, setting off a public debate of whether Zhu Gangqiang was a ward of the farmer, the local community, or the state. Ultimately, the farmer was allowed to sell the pig to the artist in exchange for a new house. Shortly thereafter, Zhu Gangqiang quickly transformed from earthquake survivor to art world superstar.

Zhang Huan, Zhu Gangqiang, 2009. 171 5/8 x 255 7/8 x 522 1/16 in. (436 x 650 x 1326 cm.). Oxford Sandy pigs, live-streaming video. Installation view, White Cube: Mason’s Yard, London. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

This transformation began with the pig’s eponymous exhibit, Zhu Gang Qiang, at White Cube Mason’s Yard (September–October 2009). For several weeks, the Chinese pig appeared in a projected live video feed from Shanghai, while his British girlfriend Oxford Flower (of the rare Oxford Sandy and Black breed) roamed the actual space of the London gallery.11 The constant surveillance of Zhu Gangqiang introduced the pig, already famous in China, to an international audience somewhat perplexed by the nonspectacular visuals of his daily routine.12 Since British regulations prevented a live Chinese pig from roaming the semipublic space of an art gallery, Zhang constructed an internet romance between the boar in Shanghai and the sow in London that was recorded as a text dialogue in the accompanying catalogue. A particularly poignant exchange between the two lovers relates to the revelation that Oxford Flower had a child from a previous union:

Flower: I already have a child. Do you mind? When I was in high school. I didn’t know any better. I fell for this hot guy. He was the captain of the football team. I ended up having his kid. Later he went to play for Madrid Real and now he’s a huge star. He left me and his kid behind. You’re a real man. You have a sense of family.

Gangqiang: Of course, I mind! I didn’t plant those seeds!! Send me a photo of your kid. I’ll take a look.

Gangqiang: …Well, the child does look really obedient.

Flower: He looks a little like you.

Gangqiang: If people didn’t know, they might think he was my own child. Not bad.13

Sadly, Zhu Gangqiang died of unspecified complications shortly after the White Cube exhibition, but his spirit lived on in the artist’s next project as the heart of Pagoda and its display in two major exhibitions: Dawn of Time at the Shanghai Art Museum (February 2010) and 49 Days at Blum and Poe, Los Angeles (May–July 2011).

Dawn of Time successfully opened in 2010 after Chinese officials had blocked it without explanation in 2008, and it reads as a sly annotation on the idiosyncrasies of state power.14 The exhibition was both small and epic, comprising five large works juxtaposed in compelling pairs. In the first room, Pagoda was put into dialogue with Hero #1 (2009), a thirty-two-foot-tall sculpture of a hundred cowhides assembled over an armature of steel, wood, and foam, from which a child’s head emerged through layers of skin and hooves. Placed face-to-face, the child in Hero #1 amplifies the Buddhist symbolism of the pig in Pagoda to illustrate that humans and animals are subject to the same laws of existence.15

Zhang Huan, Hero No. 1, 2009. Cow skin, steel, wood, and polystyrene foam, 193 x 368 x 252 in. (490 x 980 x 640 cm.). Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.
Zhang Huan, Hero No. 1, 2009. Cow skin, steel, wood, and polystyrene foam, 193 x 368 x 252 in. (490 x 980 x 640 cm.). Installation view, Shanghai Art Museum. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

In a second room, a related conversation developed between Dawn of Time (2009), an installation of bricks streaming from a decrepit truck bed, and an ash painting entitled Great Leap Forward – Canal Building (2007) on the opposite wall. The old bricks tumbling from the truck facing a monumental image of a famous state project created a powerful cyclical narrative of destruction and construction, construction and destruction. Zhang’s ash paintings are among the most compelling expressions of his religious sincerity and artistic vision, since they are made through the meticulous application of incense ash gathered from local temples that is then sorted into tonal gradations. The selection of this particular image also demonstrates the artist’s awareness of the historical afterlife of images and their dynamic circulation. The actual ash painting was completed in 2007, but the image is based on a historical photograph from the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) that was widely disseminated a decade later as propaganda for the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). And just as the collected incense ash represents the hopes of countless worshippers, the hundreds of faceless figures in Great Leap Forward represent the unknown human toll of misguided state projects.16

Zhang Huan, Dawn of Time, 2009. Steel dump-bed, wood, gray brick, and taxidermic foal, 173 x 709 x 236 in. (490 x 980 x 640 cm.). Installation view, Shanghai Art Museum. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

The political undertones of Dawn of Time were rendered more explicitly religious in 49 Days, a 2011 exhibition at Blum and Poe, where Pagoda was exhibited alongside a set of eleven sculptures made from similar gray bricks. These comprised six pigs (49 Days #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #11) and five skulls (49 Days #6, #7, #8, #9 #10) that corresponded with the expanded iconography of purgatory in medieval China (fourth to tenth centuries). Consequently, the presence of Pagoda in 49 Days reflects a Chinese Buddhist view of death and rebirth in which ten of the brick sculptures would accord with the Ten Kings that presided over the courts of purgatory at seven-day intervals.17 However, the eleventh brick sculpture would represent the Bodhisattva Ksitigharba, an important addition to the iconography of the Ten Kings at the height of their cult during the ninth and tenth centuries.18 Ksitigharba, as ultimate savior, had the power to pardon the deceased from the most unfavorable judicial outcomes and rebirths. Thus, the eleven brick pigs and skulls of Zhang’s 49 Days, like the Ten Kings and Ksitigharba of medieval China, provide an expanded context for interpreting Pagoda that is more spiritual than political.19

Zhang Huan, 49 Days No. 1, 2011. Gray brick and steel, 135 7/8 x 98 3/8 x 131 7/8 in. (345 x 250 x 335 cm.); 49 Days No. 10, 2011. Gray brick and steel, 79 7/8 x 80 3/8 x 7 in. (203 x 204 x 18 cm.); and 49 Days No. 3, 2011. Gray brick and steel, 2011, 28 3/8 x 139 3/4 x 79 1/2 in. (72 x 355 x 202 cm.). Installation view, Blum and Poe, Los Angeles (artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Joshua White).
Ten Kings of Hell with Ksitigharba, tenth century. Ink and colors on silk, 36 x 26 in. (91 x 65.5 cm.). Stein Collection OA 1919.1-1.023, British Museum. Artwork © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

Resistance and Activism

Pagoda commemorates the body parts of the “special dead,” as Peter Brown has memorably described the remains of deceased saints.20 And the placement of the humble pig in a place reserved for the most sacred of relics is neither lighthearted nor sacrilegious. Rather, it blends the Indian Buddhist respect for all forms of life with a Chinese Marxist understanding of struggle, and stands in distinction to other examples of contemporary Chinese art that take explicit aim at the official failures of the Wenchuan earthquake. By situating a symbol of individual survival (Zhu Gangqiang) within the framework of collective religion (Buddhism), Zhang resists the official narrative of the Wenchuan earthquake in ways different from the activism of Ai Weiwei, in which the celebrity of the artist simultaneously brings attention to and takes attention away from the subject of the outrage itself.

Nonetheless, both artists took great risk in even addressing the Wenchuan earthquake, since engaging with a taboo topic means challenging state narratives put in place to coopt the inception of these challenges. Consider that the official explanation for the deaths of children buried in their schools focused on the intensity of the earthquake, rather than the quality of construction. Pagoda, as a structure not only composed of bricks from destroyed buildings, but also one that is continually built and dismantled with each installation, could easily be interpreted as a commentary on this type of corruption—if not for the cover of a parallel Buddhist message related to impermanence. Likewise, by creating a pagoda commemorating the most famous survivor of the earthquake, Zhu Gangqiang, Zhang has essentially designed a funerary monument independent of those maintained by the state.

The moral ambiguity of Pagoda contrasts with Ai Weiwei’s fury at the student deaths of the Wenchuan earthquake and his outspoken criticism of the Communist Party, as demonstrated in his Remembering (2009).21 The viewer approached this thousand-square-meter installation at the Haus der Kunst in Munich to find the infamous Nazi art temple adorned with a new skin. Upon closer inspection, the tarp-like façade revealed itself to be a mosaic of nine thousand children’s backpacks announcing in incongruously cheerful red, blue, green, yellow, and white that “she lived open-heartedly [happily] in this world for seven years” (ta zai zheige shijieshang kaixindi shenghuoguo qinian 她在这个世界上开心地生活过七年).

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009. Backpacks and metal armature, 364 x 4175 x 4 in. (925 x 10605 x 10 cm.). Installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Artwork © Ai Weiwei Studio, photograph © Ai Weiwei Studio.

Ai Weiwei quotes a mother grieving for a daughter lost in the Wenchuan earthquake through the colors of a child’s toy blocks and the composition of a Cultural Revolution slogan. What is more of a cover-up: the new façade of the Haus der Kunst, or the deliberate concealment of the deaths of thousands of children? Notably, the character for “open” (kai 开) occupies the central spot in the fifteen character statement, and frames the museum entrance as a visual and verbal pun that imposes the passing of the child onto the visitor entering or exiting the building.22 Moreover, the choice of white as the background color for this central character not only outlines the museum entrance with its vertical and horizontal components; it also references the Chinese folk religious association of white with death. Yet the mournfulness of Remembering is entirely political, and contrasts with the contemplative resistance of Pagoda.23

Ai Weiwei, detail of “kai” in Remembering, 2009. Backpacks and metal armature, 364 x 4175 x 4 in. (925 x 10605 x 10 cm.). Installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Artwork © Ai Weiwei Studio, photograph © Ai Weiwei Studio.

The commentary of Pagoda extends beyond a general observation of social ills—in a tenor deemed politically acceptable by Chinese authorities—and enters the controversial terrain of critically assessing state policies and decisions. In this sense, it differs from Zhang’s other Buddhism-inspired work: his performances of mental and physical discipline in Beijing from 1993 to 1998, his explorations of cultural alienation after his move to New York in 1998, and his monumental object-based work on themes of history and religion upon his return to Shanghai in 2006. Consider Zhang’s early performance, 12 Square Meters (1994), when on a steaming summer day, the artist sat motionless for one hour in a reeking public toilet that he used daily with hundreds of other people in Beijing’s East Village.

Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994. Performance, Beijing. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

If performance art negotiates the personal body and the public ruptures it creates, 12 Square Meters inscribes the human predicaments stemming from China’s headlong development onto the skin of the artist.24 As he recalled in a 1999 interview,

I just felt that everything began to vanish from my sight. Life seemed to be leaving me far in the distance. I had no concrete thought—I could only feel my body, more and more flies landing and crawling over my nose, eyes, lips, ears, forehead, every part of me. I could feel them eating the liquid on my body. Some were stuck but did not stop eating—the very concept of life was then for me the simple experience of the body.25

Endurance was an exercise in consciousness, in which one transcended the body through a complete awareness of it as an experience. By extension, the viewer looks at Rong Rong’s now-iconic photographs of 12 Square Meters from the perspective of Zhang’s mind’s eye.26 Not unlike the operations inherent in traditional Buddhist art, the subject is expected to assume the meditative state represented in the object. Associations with Buddhist sculpture are equally present in the artist’s posture and adornment. Zhang sits with both legs pendant in a pose associated with a specific image type named the King Udayana Buddha, after a sixth-century BCE Indian ruler that carved a likeness of the Buddha to always keep him present. Notably, the King Udayana Buddha is among the most famous image types from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Longmen, near Zhang’s hometown of Anyang in Henan Province.27

Zhang’s nearly naked figure is also adorned in a manner that recalls the iconography of bejeweled Buddhist divinities. His right arm and hand bear an Indian style bracelet and ring, and his chiseled muscles glisten beneath honey and fish oil, a concoction improvised from common ingredients found in his kitchen. Critical analyses of 12 Square Meters typically focus on the pungent, sticky nature of this liquid to emphasize the artist’s fortitude, but less noted is the visual function of this liquid upon his physique: one that turns sweat into the gilded surface of a Buddha statue.

Aspects of Buddhist experience also appear in Zhang’s first commissioned performance in the United States, Pilgrimage – Wind and Water in New York (1998). As part of Inside Out: New Chinese Art at the Asia Society and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (September 1998–January 1999), Pilgrimage was presented in the newly renovated courtyard of P.S. 1 (now MoMA PS1) with a reproduction Ming-dynasty daybed covered in a slab of ice. Purebred dogs of various breeds were tied to the bed, and their loud barks competed with the solemn sounds of Tibetan prayer chants piped into the space. The naked artist entered the courtyard by prostrating himself in the Tibetan fashion by kneeling and then fully extending his torso until his face touched the ground. He slowly repeated the gesture, inching his way to the daybed like a human caterpillar, until he had finally stretched himself face down on the ice. He lay there for nearly ten minutes until the cold became unbearable, and then sat upright to face the audience.28

Zhang Huan, Pilgrimage – Wind and Water in New York, 1998. Performance, New York. Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

According to Zhang, Pilgrimage was inspired in part by the artist’s dismay at the coldness of New Yorkers, and by his amazement that, in America, dogs were treated better than homeless people. As in 12 Square Meters, the artist uses his body and various multisensory props to evoke meditative discipline. However, the Buddhist references in Pilgrimage are directed less at the miscarriages of Chinese society and more at undermining the myths of the West. Pilgrimage exposes exoticism as multilateral by superimposing the Western fantasy of Tibet as a Shangri-la with the Chinese obsession with Tibet as a spiritual source. Zhang aims to undercut the Western fascination with artists under authoritarian regimes—epitomized by the artist himself—by critiquing the limits of Western creative autonomy.

In 2006, Zhang returned to China as a global art star. He purchased a studio that spanned a Shanghai city block, and hired over one hundred assistants to execute his projects. Two years later, he officially become a lay follower of Tibetan Buddhism. The stage was set for the contemporary realization of Buddhist art on a grand scale: Berlin Buddha (2007), which combines Zhang Huan’s earlier interest in duration with a new concern for materiality and labor.29 On one side of the gallery, a Buddha made of incense ash slowly disintegrates, while on the other side, its aluminum sculptural mold waits to give birth to another ash sculpture.

Zhang Huan, Berlin Buddha, 2007. Ash, iron, and aluminum, 146 x 114 x 102 in. (370 x 290 x 260 cm.). Artwork © Zhang Huan Studio, photograph © Zhang Huan Studio.

The hollow aluminum Buddha measures twelve feet high and nine-and-a-half feet wide, and is large enough to accommodate a dozen people. Several assistants are needed to pack eight tons of ash into every crevice of the Buddha’s body, arms, fingers, head, and face. Yet incense cannot be durably cast, and Zhang embraces the fleeting nature of the material through the installation’s formal and conceptual underpinnings. Iron poles and mask buttress the Buddha’s head as an object of beauty in its own right, while the Buddha’s unsupported right hand is allowed to collapse under its own weight in the manner of ancient stone sculpture. Gravity and human vibrations take their relentless toll on the rest of the crumbling body, until, at the end of the exhibition, a group of participants yank at the supports until the head crashes down in a thick cloud of dust.30 Berlin Buddha invokes both entropy and samsara: ashes to ashes in a Buddhist sense, with the incense eventually remolded into future incarnations, such as Taipei Buddha (2010) and Sydney Buddha (2015).

 

Buddhist Art and the Global Contemporary

Zhang’s career coincides with the post-1989 era of the global contemporary, and his practice sheds light on the increased role of political commentary in Buddhism-inspired art. The resonances between principles of interconnectedness in Buddhist thought and the global economy are striking. A central tenet of Buddhism maintains that no phenomena holds an irreducible essence, but rather, depends on something else for its being. Similarly, globalization promotes the division of labor and resources among nations to establish more profitable connections in production and consumption. The Buddhism-inspired contemporary art of Zhang, which developed alongside economic globalization following the end of the Cold War, thus stands apart from earlier examples of Buddhism-inspired contemporary Chinese art made before the marketization of China in the 1990s.

Consider two works that have entered the canon of contemporary Chinese art: Wang Keping’s Idol (1978), associated with the groundbreaking Star Art Exhibition of 1979, and Huang Yong Ping’s The History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987/1993), linked to the watershed China Avant/Garde Exhibition of 1989. Both Star Art Exhibition and China Avant/Garde Exhibition were unofficial shows in Beijing that were swiftly cancelled by the authorities and prompted the exile of Wang Keping and Huang Yong Ping to France.

Idol, a large bust made from red-stained birch, satirizes ideals of rulership and divinity through its references to Buddhist iconography and Communist propaganda.31 Completed by Wang Keping (b. 1949) just two years after the death of Mao Zedong, Idol transposes the fleshy style of a Tang dynasty Buddha (618–907 CE) onto the plump features of the Chairman. In effect, the artist uses a style associated with a “golden age” in Chinese Buddhism to mock Mao’s deification during the last decade of his life during the Cultural Revolution.

Wang Keping, Idol, 1978/1979. Birch wood, 26 x 16 x 6 in. (57 x 40 x 15 cm.). Artwork © Wang Keping, photograph © Wang Aline.

And as Mao’s later authority relied on the pious devotion of his followers, Idol uses Buddhist symbols to construct an authoritarian image of love and fear. For example, the headdress of Idol combines the five-pointed star of Communism and a pendant pagoda. The face of Idol presents one half-closed eye and another that is wide open, illustrating a Chinese proverb on the dangers of complicity.32 Do the Buddhist-socialist elements of Idol poke fun at Mao’s hubris or confirm his transformation into a god? Perhaps the very asking of this question renders Idol dangerous, and it remains a controversial work to this day.33

On a more conceptual level, Huang Yong Ping (b. 1954) used the iconoclastic leanings of Chan Buddhism to examine the blind adoption of Western theories in 1980s China, as exemplified by his sculpture The History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987/1993).34 As Wang Keping employed Buddhist iconography to unmask false gods, Huang Yong Ping mashed up a survey of traditional Chinese painting and a study of modern Western painting to produce an illegible pulp of badly digested cultural arguments.35

Huang Yong Ping, The History of Chinese Art and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987/1993. Chinese teabox, paper pulp, glass, 30 1/4 x 19 x 27 1/2 in. (76.8 x 48.3 x 69.9 cm.). Artwork © Collections Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2001.

Zhang would have certainly known about these works, which not only resonate with the artist’s reinterpretation of traditional Buddhist iconography, but also provide precedents for his use of religion in political commentary.

The question remains as to whether Zhang was aware of the Buddhism-inspired contemporary art that developed in the West concurrently with his own work. In the absence of any verbal or visual evidence that directly links Zhang’s work to Western artists, I would argue that influence/appropriation would be difficult to discuss given the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western approaches to Buddhism. In short, Zhang demonstrates an interest in historical and doctrinal references that serve to support his identity as a Chinese artist, while Buddhism is more abstract in the hands of the Western artist, requiring teasing out and elaboration through the interpretations of critics and scholars.36

For example, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (2004) and Smile of the Buddha by Jacquelynn Baas (2005) are both the fruits of a two-year project entitled Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness.37 Taken together, the two books introduce a distinction between Buddhism-inspired interpretations of art that are implicit on the part of the writer or curator, and Buddhism-inspired expressions of art that are explicit on the part of the artist. As Jacob explains, “interconnectedness speaks to both multiculturalism and diversity, and to a new universalism – a renewed humanism – allowing for a consideration of both the culturally specific and a universal nature among all cultures.”38

Within this context, Jacob has asked Zhang to shed light on the Buddhist understanding of existence as suffering, and how art might affect the acknowledgement of this suffering. I conclude this essay on spirituality and politics, resistance and activism, and the intersections of Buddhism with the global contemporary with Zhang’s response to this question: “art, to many people, to me, is another kind of religion…art lovers, Christians, Buddhists….People need a feeling to save themselves, to ease suffering, to live lighter.”39


Winston Kyan received his PhD in Art History from the University of Chicago. He researches and publishes in the areas of Buddhist art and Chinese contemporary art, Buddhist art and the ancient Silk Road, and Buddhist art and the Chinese diaspora. He currently teaches at the University of Utah.

  1.  These numbers are taken from Bin Xu’s book-length study of the sociological impact of the Wenchuan Earthquake. Bin Xu, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
  2.  Bin Xu, “For whom the bell tolls: state-society relations and the Sichuan earthquake mourning in China,” Theory and Society 42, no. 5 (September 2013): 509–542.
  3. Zhang Huan, “Statement, 2008,” in Zhang Huan, Yilmaz Dziewior et al. (London: Phaidon Press, 2009), 132.
  4. Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Chapter II: The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens, Article 36, at http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/200711/15/content_1372964.htm, as of October 16, 2018.
  5.  For recent studies on the suppression of Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong Buddhism in China, see the essays in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, ed. Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)—in particular, David A. Palmer, “Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults: Labeling Heterodoxy in Twentieth-Century China,” 113–134; and José Ignacio Cabezón, “State Control of Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism in the People’s Republic of China,” 261–291.
  6. For an analysis of this famous dream, see Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 29–31.
  7. The current Qiyun Pagoda at the White Horse Temple is dated to 1175 by an accompanying inscription. For a discussion of the pagoda type represented by the Qiyun Pagoda, in which masonry techniques are used to construct towering, multistory forms with densely placed eaves, see Chinese Architecture, ed. Nancy Steinhardt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 180–183.
  8.  The Bawbawgyi Pagoda is the oldest actively worshiped Buddhist site in Myanmar, with a relic chamber filled with thousands of terracotta tablets inscribed in Pyu script from before the eleventh century. See Donald M. Stadtner, Sacred Sites of Burma: Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm (Bangkok: River Books, 2011), 206.
  9.  Gregory Schopen, “Relic,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 256.
  10.  Three works deemed inhumane to the treatment of animals were removed days before the public opening. See Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb, “Guggenheim Museum Is Criticized for Pulling Animal Artworks,” New York Times, September 26, 2017, at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/arts/design/guggenheim-art-and-china-after-1989-animal-welfare.html, as of October 16, 2018.
  11.  Zhu Gangqiang was not the only pig that survived the earthquake. There was also Zhu Jianqiang, who endured for thirty-six days after the earthquake, and Zhu Chaoqiang, who lived for eighty days. However, Zhang Huan has stated that “the number 49 is very Buddhist,” and his particular preference for Zhu Gangqiang should be taken in this context. See Zhang Huan and Susannah Hyman, Zhu Gang Qiang (London: White Cube / Zhang Huan Studio, 2009).
  12. Mark Hudson, “Zhang Huan – Zhu Gangqiang at White Cube Mason’s Yard, review,” Telegraph, September 7, 2009, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/6151981/Zhang-Yuan-Zhu-Gangqiang-at-White-Cube-Masons-Yard-review.html, as of October 16, 2018.
  13. Zhang Huan and Susannah Hyman, Zhu Gang Qiang (London: White Cube / Zhang Huan Studio, 2009), 27–28.
  14.  Officially canceling exhibitions without reason happens so frequently in China that Wu Hung has written a study of this phenomenon. See Wu Hung, Exhibiting Experimental Art in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  15. In his lead essay for the exhibition catalogue, Liu Jingjing writes, “The little wild horse from the Silk Road is stacked on the bricks of the Dawn of Time and the little pig looking upon the world from out the window of the Pagoda are two curious and sophisticated witnesses. If we say the bricks dumping from a tipping bin in the Dawn of Time is proof of construction in progress, then the gray bricks of the Pagoda are seemingly an upside down memorial Buddha bell for this century’s natural disasters.” See Zhang Huan, Chuang shi ji  = Dawn of Time, (Shanghai: Shanghai meishuguan, 2010).
  16. Numerous scientists, both Chinese and Western, have suggested that the weight of 320 tons of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir may have triggered the Wenchuan earthquake, whose fault lines were less than a mile away. See Sharon LaFraniere, “Possible Link Between Dam and China Quake,” New York Times, February 5, 2009, at https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/world/asia/06quake.html, as of October 16, 2018.
  17.  See Winston Kyan, Zhang Huan: 49 Days (Los Angeles: Blum and Poe, 2012).
  18.  See Stephen F. Teiser, The Scripture on the Ten Kings and the Making of Purgatory in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1994).
  19. Zhang Huan has stated his devotion to the Buddhist scripture dedicated to the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha’s powers, the Dizang jing. See Zhang Huan, “Statement, 2008,” in Zhang Huan, ed. Yilmaz Dziewior et al. (London: Phaidon Press, 2009), 136.
  20.  See Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  21.  See Ai Weiwei and Mark Siemons, Ai Weiwei: So Sorry (New York: Prestel, 2009).
  22.  Other important works by Ai Weiwei addressing the Wenchuan earthquake include Nian (2010), a 220-minute sound work of 5,205 dead children’s names, and Straight (2008–2012), an assemblage of thirty-eight tons of straightened rebar from collapsed schools. See Kerry Brougher et al., Ai Weiwei: According to What? (New York: Prestel, 2012).
  23. Shortly after the Wenchuan earthquake, Ai Weiwei asked, “Does karma really exist in this world? At least I’m not a believer. For if it did, retribution would have come long ago, and wouldn’t have dragged on so long; fate and efficiency are both unreliable.” On the other hand, Zhang Huan has declared that “inside, I’m a Buddhist; outside, I’m an artist.” See Ai Weiwei, “Blog post of June 21, 2008,” translated by Lee Ambrozy, Ai Weiwei: So Sorry, Ai Weiwei and Mark Siemons (Berlin: Prestel, 2008), 12; and Mary Jane Jacob, “Zhang Huan,” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 241.
  24.  Eleanor Heartney, “Zhang Huan: Becoming the Body,” in Zhang Huan: Altered States, ed. Melissa Chiu et al. (New York: Asia Society, 2007), 39.
  25. Qian Zhijian, “Performing Bodies: Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, and Performance Art in China,” Art Journal 58, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 65–66.
  26.  For Rong Rong’s account of the performance as recounted in a letter to his sister, see Wu Hung, “Speaking the Unspeakable,” in Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 1999), 102–107.
  27. Since 12 Square Meters, Zhang Huan has used the meditative pose of a Buddha with two legs pendant in several performances, including My America (Hard to Acclimate) (1999), Seeds of Hamburg (2002), and My Boston (2005). For a concise discussion of the Udayana Buddha type at Longmen, see Tamami Hamada, “Buddha Image Described as ‘King Udayana Image,’” Conversations: An Online Journal of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (2014).
  28. See RoseLee Goldberg, “Interview,” in Zhang Huan, ed. Yilmaz Dziewior et al. (London: Phaidon Press, 2009), 21.
  29.  See Elena Geuna, “Reflections on Ash: A Collective Soul,” in Ashman (Milano: 24 Ore Cultura, 2010), 23.
  30.  “Zhang Huan: Berlin Buddha / Haunch of Venison Berlin,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S482ctWZahU, as of October 16, 2018.
  31.  See Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 92.
  32.  The proverb is “to open one eye and to close one eye” (zheng yi zhi yan bi yi zhi yan). See Martina Koppel-Yang, Semiotic Warfare: The Chinese Avant-Garde, 1979-1989 (Hong Kong: Blue Kingfisher, 2004), 125.
  33. Wang Keping included Idol in an exhibition on Cultural Revolution art in Hong Kong in 2013, but later that year, he decided not to include Idol in his solo show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. See Jane Perlez, “A Muzzled Chinese Artwork, Absent but Speaking Volumes,” New York Times, October 15, 2013, at https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/world/asia/a-muzzled-chinese-artwork-absent-but-speaking-volumes.html, as of October 16, 2018.
  34.  See Fei Dawei, “Two-Minute Wash Cycle: Huang Yong Ping’s Chinese Period,” in House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, ed. Philippe Vergne and Doryun Chong (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2005), 8.
  35. “The History of Chinese Art” refers to Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting (1982), which covers prehistoric pottery to 1911, and “A Concise History of Modern Painting” refers to Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1959, Chinese translation 1979), which covers Cezanne to Rothko. By choosing these texts, the artist implies that Chinese art and modern art are two separate histories that do not overlap until they are forcibly mashed together into an incomprehensible pulp. See Craig Clunas, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 13.
  36. See the images in the 2009 exhibition The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 at the Guggenheim, and the essays in the accompanying catalogue by the same name, edited by Alexandra Munroe (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2009).
  37.  See Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob, eds., Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); and Jacquelynn Baas, Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  38. Mary Jane Jacob, “In the Space of Art,” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, ed. Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 168.
  39. Jacob, “Zhang Huan,” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, 247.