"For the past 100 years everyone in China was laying down and sleeping," says artist Zhang Huan of the economic circumstances in his country and its more-than-half-century-old communist regime. "Now they're awake." Of course, when you wake a sleeping giant, there will be unexpected consequences, like the growing influence of a rising middle class that values personal wealth creation over its own heritage and traditions. This cultural shift has become the primary concern of the artist's recent work, including his new exhibition "Neither Coming Nor Going," which opens tonight at Pace Wildenstein's 22nd Street location.
In a series of woodcuts printed in black-and-white ink using floorboards of old houses from the Shanxi province, Zhang Huan references the formerly-banned Tui Bei Tu, a seventh century text of surrealist drawings and superstitious poems that prophesied 60 events in China's future—a Nostradamus for the Tang Dynasty. "It was a warning to the government to be careful with its authority," Zhang told me (with help from an interpreter) as he chain-smoked dainty Esse cigarettes and walked me through the show.
In the gallery you'll find two pieces hung opposite each other, each depicting a male and female deer embracing (or as Zhang would have it, "two takes on love"). Other feature a body lying face down in the reeds ("Today China is sinking intellectually."), a tiger hemmed in by a ruler (Zhang's symbol of the inefficacy of gauging national power), and a black crow perched on a mountain of white feathers (China) overlooking a a small sun (Japan). So Japan is lower than China? "Much lower," he said with a laugh. Some traditions live on, even in jest.
In the back office he's also made some haunting woodcuts from old doors as an homage to the 19th Century watercolorist Qi Baishi, whom Zhang Huan likes to compare to Richard Serra. "Doors are a window onto people's lives," he said. "Qi Baishi spent his whole life focused on painting tiny insects on paper and Richard Serra spent his whole life making these huge sculptures out of steel, but they both feel very heavy, and simple."
Simplicity is one of the hallmarks of the show, even in the seemingly chaotic six-ton, 18-foot Buddha, Rulai, which will blow smoke out of its head, effectively turning the gallery into a temple of provocations. Hewn from incense ash glued onto a wood and steel frame, it's the result of six months of work by 20 assistants, and is adorned with fake skulls, wilted joss sticks, red wrappers inscribed with wishes, and porcelain relics sourced from the two main temples in Shanghai. "People always carry these to the temple to wish for more money," says Zhang Huan, pointing to a fake gold offering dish that's affixed to the palm of the Buddha's severed hand. "I wish they replaced all the gold Buddhas in the temples with something like this. This piece represents the strong passion for people in China to get rich, change their lives, catch up with America, and have power—and how they pay a lot to do so."
Neither Coming Nor Going opens tonight, 6–8 PM, through January 30. Pace Wildenstein is located at 545 West 22 Street.