Head from Buddha Foot, 2006. Copper, 224 x 67 x 39 in.

New Vocabularies: A Conversation with Zhang Huan

“I’m trying to find a new vocabulary to express certain things artistically,” Zhang Huan says. This comment applies to everything from his earliest performances in a poor part of Beijing, which he named the East Village, to his recent two-ton self-portrait as Buddha. Zhang’s early performances were motivated, in part, by issue-driven ideas. Angel, a nude performance given in China in 1993, protested compulsory abortion policies; his props were a white sheet, red paint, broken tiles, dismembered dolls, a rope, and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Many of these controversial early works tested his physical endurance and pushed the limits of acceptability in post-Tiananmen China. After moving to New York in 1998, he began to stage photographs as performances, enacting large-scale events that often involved scores of volunteers, live animals, and high drama to call attention to humanist themes.