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'Colossal' artist takes stage

INSTALLATION and performance artist Zhang Huan is one of the earliest and most controversial icons of contemporary Chinese art whose often colossal and mesmerizing works have been exhibited around the world.

Zhang, who is based in Shanghai and New York, is famous for producing works of daunting size and in the past he often used his own naked body in bizarre and masochistic ways.

In 1994 in Beijing's poor east village neighborhood, he covered himself with honey and fish oil and sat motionless in a filthy outhouse for several hours until he was covered with flies and ants. He later plunged into a nearby stream.

The work was said to call attention to filthy conditions and to abortions and female infanticides.

In 1998 he tied slabs of raw meat to his body and walked down a New York street, as a bulging muscle man.

In 2008 he unveiled a spectacular sculpture "Three Heads Six Arms," a Buddhist-like figure of stainless steel and copper. It measured 800cmx1,800cmx1,000cm and dominated the plaza of the San Francisco Civic Center. In October Zhang will stage a solo exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai.

Zhang, 46, was born in Henan Province and attended the Central Art Academy in Beijing where he studied painting. He was identified with a band of radical avant-garde artists who burst on the scene in the 1990s. After his New York exhibition "Inside Out: New Chinese Art," he decided to emigrate to the United States.

In the US, his work incorporated both more Chinese and Western elements.

Since establishing a vast studio in Shanghai in 2006, Zhang has created sculptures that refer in more direct ways to cultural traditions, including Buddhism. For some sculptures, he collects ashes from burned incense in Chinese temples - symbolizing hopes, dreams and grief - and mixes it with his medium.

Last year, his stainless steel pandas titled "Hehe, Xiexie" made their debut at the World Expo in Shanghai. Smaller editions have been collected by celebrities, including Hillary Clinton.

His workshop with many employees is described as being run like a company.

He addressed a recent press conference about his upcoming exhibition.

Q: Your installation work is known for its daunting size. Why?

A: This is my personal character rooted in inner emotions and the land I stand on.

Q: Now that you are famous, you have financial support for very large works, but what did you do when you started out?

A: Opportunity is quite important. I have always had many ideas and waited for a chance to realize them.

Q: How big is your staff?

A: My studio occupies 50 mu (2 hectares) and I employ 150 people, including young artists, craftsmen, writers and technicians. I feel quite lucky to work with such an energetic and passionate team and happy that through my work I can afford such a large team.

Q: How do you describe yourself in three words?

A: Wise, unreasonable and stubborn.

Q: Do you have hobbies?

A: Walking backward.

Q: Do you enjoy public attention?

A: I enjoy my work to be the focus of attention.

Q: Please describe one work at your upcoming exhibition.

A: I bought a very huge and old piece of wood from Africa years ago. Now I will present it in the show. The (decaying) wood nurtures white ants (termites). In my view, the society of white ants is no different from the society of people.


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