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Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Zhang Huan 張洹

Chinese, born 1965

Artist Profile

Zhang Huan is best known for his viscerally challenging, body-based performance works made while he lived in Beijing in the 1990s. Since 2005, however, the artist has turned toward a different medium: incense ash.

Zhang began using ash as an artistic medium following a visit to the Longhua Temple in Shanghai, where he was struck by the ritual significance of the ash from joss sticks burned for prayers. As he described the experience, “The temple floor was covered with ash which leaked from the giant incense burner. . . . These ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings.”1 Collecting ash from various temples around Shanghai, Zhang used this symbolically charged material to produce a number of “ash sculptures” and “ash paintings” that would preoccupy him for more than a decade, up to the present.

In Ash Painting No. 5, Zhang embedded found black-and-white photographs in the ash-covered canvas, visually representing the hopes and dreams of generations of people. Another series of works rendered Cultural Revolution–era photographs into ash paintings. For Seeds, the artist’s studio assistants meticulously sorted ash into a palette of varying shades of gray, then reproduced a photograph of collective farming by painting with this ash. The labor-intensive process of creating the work echoes these historic efforts of collective labor, suggesting an ambivalent reflection on both the aspirations and catastrophes of the past era.

Zhang Huan. Photo courtesy of Zhang Huan Studio.
“Seeing this image of ash conjured a feeling inside of me: it was a beautiful material and it moved me greatly. These ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings.”
—Zhang Huan 2

Footnotes

  • 1

    Zhang Huan, “Ash,” in Zhang Huan: Ash, eds. Harry Blain and Graham Southern (London: Haunch of Venison, 2008), 11–12.

  • 2

    Ibid.

Works on View

Smart Museum of Art

Seeds, 2007

Ash on linen
98 1/2 x 157 1/2 in. (250 x 400 cm)

Faurschou Collection

Zhang Huan, Seeds, 2007. Detail. Photo courtesy of © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Zhang Huan, Seeds, 2007. Detail. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Wrightwood 659

Ash Painting No. 5, 2006

Incense ash, charcoal, and resin on canvas
98 1/2 x 157 1/2 in. (250 x 400 cm)

Pearl Lam Private Collection

Zhang Huan, Ash Painting No. 5, 2006. Installation view, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2019–2020. Photo courtesy of © Museum Associates/LACMA.
Zhang Huan, Ash Painting No. 5, 2006. Installation view, The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2019–20. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

Working Process

Pans of ash sorted by shade. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Pans of ash sorted by shade. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Zhang Huan applying ash to a painting. Photo courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.