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Zhang Huan (b. 1965) is one of the most vital and provocative contemporary Chinese artists working today, known for his existential explorations.

Born to a worker’s family in Anyang, in the Yellow River Valley in northern China, Zhang Huan spent his childhood with his grandparents in the nearby countryside. Later he attended primary and secondary school in the city, and finally enrolled in Henan University studying fine art. In 1992 he gave up his secure job as a university art teacher and moved to Beijing to become an independent artist. This major change in his personal life signaled a drastic transformation in his approach to art. Living in a small community of likeminded avant-garde artists, known as the Beijing East Village, he abandoned the noble art of oil painting and began to employ his physical body as a medium for a series of violent and masochistic performances that soon became his trademark.

In the subsequent period, Zhang Huan lived and worked for eight years in New York City. Within this time, he built up an international reputation as a provocative performance artist. Upon moving back to Shanghai in 2005, he has gradually embraced Buddhism as his main source of artistic inspiration. In an installation created in 2007, Zhang Huan used the incense ash collected from several Buddhist temples near Shanghai to create a giant Buddha sculpture. When it was on display, the statue progressively fell apart, losing its recognisable form, and returned to its original state: ash that embodies wishes, desires, anxiety and suffering.

If the ash Buddha employed installation art to pursue the Buddhist truth of life: birth, ageing, death and rebirth, Zhang Huan’s more recent works returned to the more traditional studio practice to express a similar religious intent. In Spring Poppy Fields No. 31, part of a series of oil paintings made over the past two years, the surface of the picture is completely carpeted with whirling vibrant colours, creating a unique sense of push and pull. Gazing at it from a distance, the spectator is drawn into a hallucinatory state similar to that induced by opium, a substance obtained from the flower that gives its name to the picture. When approaching the canvas, we encounter a myriad of tiny grinning faces, inspired by the Tibetan skull-masks. Unlike in earlier Western cultures, however, the skull here is not intended to invoke a sense of death or tragedy of life, but the Buddhist idea of ‘rebirth’, which is so vividly conveyed through the bright colours and the word ‘spring’ in the title.

The painting is on loan from the Mittal Family Collection, with kind assistance from Pace London.

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