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.