San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Arts Commission President P.J. Johnston and Director of Cultural Affairs Luis R. Cancel will dedicate a new temporary sculpture by celebrated Chinese artist Zhang Huan at a public ceremony on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 10 a.m. Presented in conjunction with the Shanghai-San Francisco Sister City 30th Anniversary Celebration, Zhang’s colossal Three Heads Six Arms (2008) will make its world premiere in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center, the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, which is located across the street from City Hall. Three Heads Six Arms, courtesy of the artist and The Pace Gallery, New York, will be on loan through 2011. The Asian Art Museum and the Arts Commission will sponsor a FREE public program featuring Zhang Huan in conversation with Museum Director Jay Xu on Wednesday, May 12 from 7-8:00 p.m. at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin Street in San Francisco), see below for further details.
“The installation of Zhang Huan’s spectacular sculpture in the Civic Center marks a high point in the Shanghai-San Francisco Sister City 30th Anniversary Celebration and a milestone for the San Francisco Arts Commission,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom. “By bringing this incredible work of art to the City, we underscore Shanghai and San Francisco’s bond as two of the world’s most important centers for arts and culture.”
“We are deeply honored that Zhang Huan chose San Francisco as the site for the sculpture’s world premiere,” said P.J. Johnston. “Bringing such an impressive work by an artist of his caliber and renown to San Francisco is a tremendous accomplishment for the San Francisco Arts Commission, and we are delighted that we can provide city residents and tourists with the opportunity to experience this colossal masterpiece in person.”
According to Luis R. Cancel, “Zhang Huan is one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists whose haunting and poignant artworks are layered with existential questions and social commentary. While many people are familiar with his performance art through photographs, not many have had the occasion to experience works that are more representative of his traditional art practice. Three Heads Six Arms is Zhang’s largest sculpture to date, and we are absolutely thrilled to bring it stateside and show it for the first time.”
Three Heads Six Arms is part of a series of monumental works depicting the fragmented extremities of Buddhist statues. The series was inspired by Zhang’s discovery of religious sculptures that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution for sale in a Tibetan market. He began the series in 2006 shortly after moving from New York City to Shanghai where he retired his performance art practice and embraced a more traditional approach to artistic creation. His recent work is characterized by a more overt relationship with traditional Chinese culture and Buddhist iconography. However, he continues to use the body as a primary vehicle for exploring existential questions and expressing emotions, and it is a common thematic thread through his various artworks.
The first sculptures in the Buddha series included nine large-scale copper fingers, which were based on remains he collected during his visit to Tibet. According to Zhang, “When I saw these fragments in Lhasa, a mysterious power impressed me. They’re embedded with historical and religious traces, just like the limbs of a human being.” The fingers of Buddhist deities are considered highly symbolic because they convey different spiritual meanings through various hand gestures, or mudras. Zhang continued the series with several even larger sculptures combining the legs, feet, hands and heads of Buddhist deities. The artist, having been deeply moved by the sight of the desecrated statues, believes that by recreating these fragments on a grand scale, he is able to alleviate the pain caused by their destruction.
Standing over 26 feet tall and weighing almost fifteen tons, Three Heads Six Arms is Zhang’s largest sculpture to date. He began the sculpture by sketching a few ink drafts of Three Heads Six Arms. His assistants then created a miniature, approximately 5′ x 5′ x 3′ clay sculpture that was based on the ink sketches. Once Zhang approved the clay maquette, his assistants constructed a glass-steel model. He then turned the design over to his copper workshop, which is one of nine specialized workshops that comprise his Shanghai studio complex, to build an enlarged copper construct. The hands and body were enlarged directly in accordance to the glass-steel model. However, the head section presented Zhang with several challenges.
Since the expressions on the faces were so elaborate, subtle changes in detail were especially difficult to realize. In order to overcome these issues, Zhang and his assistants created one large-scale isometric clay sculpture by welding together a steel structure and overlaying it with clay. The forging specialist hammered out the copper skin over the clay head model, and the final head was pieced together after all the individual faces were finished. According to Zhang, “When using pieces of copper to make Buddhist images, I like to keep the original character of the copper and the traces of the welding. For me, pieces of copper are like stitched skin after an operation.”
“The shape of Three Heads Six Arms came from my correlation of it with the Chinese mythological character Nezha, inspiration came from Tibetan Buddhist sculptures. I replaced two of the three Buddha heads with human heads,” said Zhang. Among the sculpture’s three heads is a self-portrait of the artist. In his earlier performances and photographs, Zhang always placed himself at the center of the action. Using his own body as his primary medium, he would subject himself to extreme physical trials and exploits often in front of large audiences. By introducing himself into the Buddha series, he reinstates this practice and draws a parallel between the body of Buddhist deities and his own. Zhang has been quoted in a past interview with curator and art historian RoseLee Goldberg as saying, “To me, the objects that I am making now are still very theatrical. I see them as motionless performance art.” Three Heads Six Arms exemplifies how the layers of ideas explored in his performance pieces have carried through to his more traditional studio practice. “Three Heads Six Arms reflects the changing realities of Chinese people today and also reflects the attitude that humankind has conquered nature and even reflects deeds of volition and hope,” said Zhang.
Zhang chose San Francisco as the ideal setting to debut his sculpture, in part because of the long-standing history being honored between Shanghai and San Francisco during this year’s Sister City Celebration.
“The Shanghai San Francisco Sister City celebration commemorates this important time in the history of our two countries when the exchange of art, culture and ideas between the East and West is marked by openness and mutual appreciation. While Three Heads Six Arms clearly embodies ideas that are rooted in Chinese culture and tradition, it is also about our common humanity. I hope that, while the sculpture is in San Francisco, it will serve as a bridge between these two great cities and that it will continue to foster this sprit of tolerance and appreciation,” said Zhang.
“The Pace Gallery is honored to have been able to facilitate the loan of this monumental sculpture by one of the world’s most important contemporary artists to the city of San Francisco. With his continuing interest in the continuity of Buddhist philosophy Zhang Huan deals with the fragmentation of Chinese society by enlarging a small ruined Buddha to heroic scale. By doing this he illustrates the promise of a new society in which the past as well as the present will co-exist with equal value,” says Arne Glimcher, Founder and Chairman of The Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan was born in 1965 in a small town called Anyang in Henan Province just prior to the Cultural Revolution. At one year of age, Zhang went to live with his grandparents in a tiny village in the countryside known as Tangyin County. At fourteen, he started his artistic training in the so-called Su-style or Soviet style and traveled by bus each day for his lessons. Zhang enrolled in undergraduate studies at the Art Department, Henan University, Kaifeng to concentrate on Chinese ink painting, drawing, oil painting and art history in 1984. Upon completion in 1988, Zhang was an instructor of art and Western art history at Zhengzhou College of Education for three years. He studied oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing from 1991 to 1993, and it was during this period that he first started experimenting with performance art.
At the same time, a group of young Chinese artists, including Zhang Huan, established the “Beijing East Village.” It was in this community that Zhang developed his early performance practices and many of the works that would soon bring him international attention, such as 12 Square Meters, in which the artist sat for an hour, covered in honey and fish oil, in a fly infested public latrine and To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, where nine people lay on top of one another to raise the summit by a meter. These performances and many others came to be known by their photographic documentation, which are now considered the artist’s first iconic works.