In recent years, Chinese artist Zhang Huan has turned his back on the aggressive performance and installation pieces of his youth to embrace Buddhism and its serene understanding of the world—though the philosophy had never been far way from his life. His latest meditative work, Sydney Buddha, is currently on show at Sydney’s Carriageworks, as part of the Sydney Festival, and continues the art center’s ambitious program of bringing international artists to the city. Last year’s program included Christian Boltanski’s monumental installation Chance (2011), and 2013 saw Song Dong’s paean to futility, Waste Not (2005), which turned more than 10,000 items of domestic rubbish into a work of art. As this year’s featured artist, Zhang Huan has more than risen to the occasion with Sydney Buddha, turning 20 tons of incense ash gathered from Buddhist temples into a monumental sculpture—a work that touches on the inevitable consequences of life. Standing in the presence of the work, one can sense decay and death—and yet somehow also a hint of hope—hanging in the air.
Buddhism is the most common non-Christian religion in Australia. The country is also home to Nan Tien, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. Nan Tien, in Mandarin, means “Southern Paradise,” an apt translation considering the manicured lawns, bamboo stands, koi pond and Chinese vernacular architecture housed within the temple’s Wollongong compound in New South Wales. Upon entering the temple, visitors are often seen lighting incense sticks in a special burner as part of a religious ritual.
Burning incense gradually transforms into fragile sticks of ash, until gravity, or the merest breath of air, turns them into dust. The fragility of such ashes is something that Zhang has experimented with in recent years—including in his paintings and giant Buddha sculptures, which have been made using the temporal material. Depending on the atmospheric conditions of Carriageworks, Sydney Buddha may end up crumbling into little more than a pile of sacred ashes by the end of the show’s run.
Zhang is one of China’s premiere artists, who has been living in Shanghai since 2005, following several years in America during which prices for his work sky-rocketed in the art market. Upon his return to China, Zhang’s initial goal was to employ 50 assistants, a figure which has more than doubled over time. When I visited the artist’s studio in 2007, I saw his “ash-sorting room,” where six men were crouched on haunches while delicately separating the ashes into different colored piles of gray, soft white and coal black. The smell of incense in this enclosed room was intoxicating, and the assistants’ task of sorting the ashes appeared as a monumental execution of patience. Zhang assured me that this same production process it is still practiced today.
The ash used in Zhang’s work comes from Buddhist temples located near Shanghai, and the 20 tons used in Sydney Buddha took the artist three years to collect. “We treat the ash as a precious gift from the temples . . . we make a donation [to them in exchange] and invite the blessings that come with the ash to our studio,” Zhang told ArtAsiaPacific through an interpreter.
Sydney Buddha is, in fact, comprised of two statues, each standing 5.3 meters tall. One is an aluminum mold from which its mirror image is cast from a mixture made of ash and water. Upon removing the mold, the ash Buddha is completed, with the structure of its face and and one hand supported by special masks. These masks were later removed once the installation was premiered in Sydney, lending a performance element to the work. The raised hand, representing Buddha’s fearlessness, crashed silently down while the facial features fell away like wisps of clouds. The two statues have since been left facing each other in inquisitorial repose—the aluminum figure representing permanence, while the ash-Buddha, designed to disintegrate over time, embodies transience.
Commenting on the abandonment of his earlier gritty performances in favor of calm, spiritual works anchored in Buddhism, the 49-year-old artist insists “it is all to do with age.” Whatever the reason, it seems Zhang has discovered an inner peace that is manifest not only in his art, but in the asceticism that he practices in his daily life. “These Buddhas are not simple Buddhas, but are collective memories and hopes of our Chinese peoples,” says Zhang. “When I was young I always had a lot of fear and insecurity and aggression, but now that I am almost 50, as Confucius once said, I can see the end. [In] China we aspire for the ‘Chinese dream’: the revival of our culture, our history, our civilization. Our Chairman Xi Jinping says the day we realize the Chinese dream will be in 2049, one hundred years after Chairman Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. We believe this.”
“Zhang Huan: Sydney Buddha” is currently on view at Sydney’s Carriageworks until March 15, 2015.