Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Zhanghuan: Zhu Gangqiang

Posted in Reviews by danwang on October 22, 2009

Zhang Huan: ZhuGangqiang in the White Cube

4 Sep—3 Oct 2009
Mason’s Yard 

What strikes you immediately when you walk into White Cube (Mason Rd) is that two live pigs have been put on show in the days of the spread of the Swine Flu. How could farm animals live in such a formal and “white’ gallery? Recently, Chinese established artist Zhang Huan presented his first solo exhibition Zhu Gangqiang (Cast-Iron-Pig) in the White Cube gallery. Following Zhang’s previous practical experience, he used to do performance by his own naked body in a masochistic manner, and tested human tolerance in adverse conditions.

As for this exhibition, Zhang depicted a story about how during the earthquake in Sichuan province on May 2008, 60,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. But it was a miracle that a pig was under a collapsed building and survived for 49 days on rotten wood, dirt and rain water. After the rescue, the pig became famous and was named Zhu Gangqiang, meaning a strong-spirited pig. Artist was impressed by the pig’s strong willpower and had an idea to exhibit this pig as a pilot experiment to present death and a belief of life, recalling Zhang’s previous spirit in his earlier performance.

The concept of his art work was quite simple, but the presentation was hard to achieve. Firstly, Zhu gangqiang was impossible to bring to UK because of the law of animal epidemic prevention. Instead the artist found two of the same species and size pigs and also built an ideal western style farm. It was controversial that the artist used all British materials to tell a Chinese narrative and it was hard to understand the concept at first glance. It seemed to be a happy farm for families to visit, which the context of his art work transformed from a memory of disaster into a sort of entertainment. Secondly, Zhang believed the Zhu Gangqiang survived by his spirit. But it was argued that animal sometimes live by their basic instinct in a biological way.

Zhang also created his paintings of Zhu Gangqiang and human skull using temple incense ash. From his idea, the incense ash was an element of collective fortune wish and attempted to show a life circle among hope, life and death. In fact, this style of paintings was not new and was based on previous resemblance. Compared to Zhang’s early work, for example 12 square metre, the artist himself, with honey all over his naked body, sitting in the dirty and smelly public toilet, was bitten by flies, and explored the relationship between artists and tolerance of the hard environment. This piece of work was impressive and considered as an avant-garde of Chinese performance art. However, nowadays Zhang, like other artists in China, is using Chinese elements and making a number of similar works as a factory production.

Following Andy Warhol’s saying, “Good business is the best art,” nowadays artists consider more about how they can run their own business. As for artist Zhang, who is based in Shanghai now and has more than 50 people working together in a factory size studio, does not only exhibit his work in the world, but also participate in other field of inter-culture. For example he also worked as a director of opera Semele in Brussels. The definition of ‘artist’ has already been widely extended; artists switch their roles in different areas, and witness the art world’s borders becoming vague and indivisible from the social order.

One Response

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  1. curatingthewords said, on November 12, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    I’m glad you wrote this review, cause i too reviewed negatively the show. Chinese artists are way overrated at the moment, specially dage’s like him. He seems to have developed a nostalgia for the the days when he was actually doing some good work.

    (btw, I’m part 1 Curating and lived in China the past 9 years:)


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