Dawn of Time, 2009. Grey brick, truck bed, wooden peg, taxidermied foal, 426 x 1,800 x 900 cm.

Zhang Huan’s solo show “Dawn of Time” opened at the Shanghai Art Museum in early February, showcasing five works: three installations and two ash paintings. Either because this was trumpeted as Zhang’s first solo show in China or because of the brouhaha surrounding its initial cancellation in 2008, at the opening there was an undeniable excitement, born of curiosity, flowing among the painstakingly-dressed crowd and their name-brand handbags.

In the title piece Dawn of Time, scattered old bricks extend from the back of a rusting truck bed, upon which a small donkey perches precariously, across half of the exhibition space. The bricks in the piece were collected from Shanghai demolition sites, and the same material is used in Pagoda, for which grey bricks piled up to form a bell-shaped tower with a window containing a small stuffed pig. That both works include animal imagery may appear coincidental, but Zhang is no newcomer to such work—his 2002 installation Buddha, 2004 and 2005 sculptures Horse and Donkey, and 2008 installation 100 Sages in a Bamboo Forest all make use of images of animals or even live specimens, monkeys in the latter case. In modern times the relationship between humans and animals is unresolved territory (perhaps what Giorgio Agamben meant by his Homo Sacer), with breaches existing between human and animal nature. But Zhang’s work does not appear to belong to this open territory and instead uses anthropomorphism to lengthen the distance between animals and humans.

The piece Hero No. 1 is positioned with its back facing the gallery entrance—perhaps in order to resist the viewer’s gaze—and looks quite familiar: the large work closely resembles the artist’s 2008 sculptures Giants Nos. 1, 2 and 3, and is similarly composed of more than one hundred cured cow hides pieced together, a chaotic and painful collection of disjointed animal limbs. Hero No. 1’s form is tumored, uneven, split and encumbered, but viewers can still make out the crude forelegs of a carnivore along with the ears and shadowy face of a human. The work’s coarse form is a clear calculation rather than simply a free-form experiment by the artist in a novel material; its roughness conceals its intricately plotted nature (Zhang Huan has his own leather workshop). Hero No. 1 may represent a caricature by Zhang of himself and his generation of Chinese artists: heroes come into being under predestined circumstances. The classical tragic hero Oedipus learned of the prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and while he tried to avoid such an evil fate he still walked his predestined path, encountered the fateful events that made him a hero, and met with tragedy as ordained. Zhang’s story of leaving China, achieving fame, returning home and now holding a solo show at a national museum sounds quite familiar. Does the artist’s fate follow the same a priori theatrical program?

Pagoda, 2009. Grey brick, steel, taxidermied pig, height: 518 cm, diameter: 555 cm.

Zhang Huan’s incense ash paintings Reservoir and Grand Canal borrow from newspaper photographs from the sixties and seventies and express a generation’s collective memory; those who did not experience the time can imagine this absent nostalgia. Zhang has expressed in an interview that collecting incense ash is an act of “solidifying spirits,” a concept that resonates with the collectivism on display in the old photographs: on the one hand a view of metaphysical existences and distant shores by countless true believers, on the other the limitless reproduction and dissemination of these images through the mass media. Compared with Zhang’s other works in ash, the care with which the artist assistants of Zhang Huan Studios, have divvied up the work in making these two paintings is a little more aesthetically pleasing: the staff collected incense ash from temples in Shanghai and the surrounding area, sorted it by color and glued it onto canvases according to the chosen image. These countless straight grey lines against a seemingly fragile white background resemble Calvino’s quote of Emily Dickinson’s poem in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium:“A sepal, petal, and a thorn/Upon a common summer’s morn/A flask of Dew.”

Set off by the weak artistic concept of the ash paintings, their artistic form can only turn more dissembling and tedious, and is not as good as the ash and workshop itself.

While he also makes hay with Chinese symbols, Zhang Huan is a little more proficient at this than his peers. Perhaps since Zhang seldom uses saturated colors and textures, his Buddha images, calligraphy, Chinese characters, old photographs and incense ash, while very much part of the “China brand,” come out rather agreeably, at times tranquil, at others alert. For example, in Family Tree (2001), Zhang wrote the names of his ancestors on his face with dark ink until his entire visage was jet-black, leaving only his eyes. The piece’s concept is very frank and direct: China’s patriarchal system and cultural heritage have become a disappearing burden of self. The skin under the ink and brushstrokes absorbs its own sheen, stretched tautly across its materiality, like a pithy face of brushstrokes and color blotches in an abstract painting, to become pure flesh—a trapped animal of bones and skin.

Hero No. 1, 2009. Cow hide, steel, polystyrene foam, 490 x 980 x 640 cm.

While its official English translation may not reflect it, as a title, “Dawn of Time” intentionally refers to the first book of the Old Testament. Like other religious works, The Book of Genesis includes a description of the beginnings of heaven and earth and the emergence of early civilization. Genesis relates that God said “‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” As light represents good, day and night had to be separated. Dawn separates day and night. The title of this show points out art’s current dilemma; Slavoj Zizek has written how Communist buildings reveal political truth (no matter how much those in power give lip-service to “the people,” massive sculptures of leaders atop large buildings speak to the people’s lowly status): is becoming an artist like becoming the dawn, serving as a divider between art historical periods?

The massive size of the pieces in this show (of course massive works are thought to be quite normal in a national-level art museum) and allegorical visual language makes one think of Francois Rabelais’ work The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel. The novel’s absurd and branching plot and astonishing size of its protagonist father and son make for a very baroque work. But Francois Rabelais unbridled humor and imagination fill the work like hydrogen, and his nimble satire of the Middle Ages accomplishes a lot in little space (laughter is a controlled insanity). In contrast, the conceptual underpinnings of the works in “Dawn of Time” are weak, dragging their own weight behind them as they put on a show, quite like the bricks littering the gallery.

Medusa, the monster of Greek mythology, had serpents for hair and turned those who gazed in her eyes to stone. Those who turned to stone all saw their own weight and powerlessness in Medusa’s gaze—the structural reliance of subject on the other, an existence born in death, the subject facing death as an eternal invader and stranger, and whether rejecting or accepting all that results is distance. If the works on display here are stones, perhaps it is also the artist who has stared into the eyes of Medusa.      Venus Lau