The art world success of Zhang Huan makes a compelling story, the postmodern Horatio Alger myth at the heart of contemporary Chinese art. Today, at the age of forty-three, Zhang is a multimillionaire. In New York, he is represented by PaceWildenstein, which held a survey of his latest work in Chelsea last spring. At his factory studio in Shanghai, a hundred assistants living in dormitories churn out labor-intensive carvings of propaganda scenes, photorealistic “ash paintings,” and fifty-foot-tall giants constructed of calfskins stitched with wire. After a decade and a half of privations, Zhang has become a giant himself, one of the artistic titans of the new Chinese economy. But his tale should come with a warning label. Zhang has struck it rich through cunning and compromise and contamination. He embodies all that it means to be a contemporary artist “made in China.”

In the early 1990s, when Zhang started out, the prospects for artistic survival in the People’s Republic looked grim. Born in 1965 in Henan Province, the Chinese Midwest, and raised by his grandmother in a rural town, Zhang took an undergraduate degree in oil painting at Henan University in 1988. At the time, the first flush of Western-style artistic experimentation in China, through a movement known as the ’85 New Wave, was working its way through modern modes, most notably Pop Art. Artists started criticizing the regime of the Chinese Communist Party and the cult of Mao. Shows of Western artists such as Robert Rauschenberg came to Beijing. The culmination of these developments took place in 1989, when an exhibition called “China/Avant-Garde” went up at the National Art Museum. Then, four months later, the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, leading to a crackdown on democratic expression from which China has yet to recover.

Today’s Chinese avant-gardists do not “share either the political intent or the reckless bravery of the Tiananmen organizers.”

The art critic Richard Vine, a senior editor at Art and America and for many years one of the few incorruptible observers of China’s cultural scene, recounts this history in his new critical survey called New China New Art, published by Prestel.1 Today’s Chinese avant-gardists do not “share either the political intent or the reckless bravery of the Tiananmen organizers,” he notes. “The cruel lesson of June 4, 1989 is that repression sometimes works.”

In the post-Tiananmen world, Zhang confronted his limits. In 1993, after receiving an advanced degree in oil painting at the selective Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he moved to a run-down section of the city, where rent was $16 a month, and promptly became depressed. He listened to the music of Kurt Cobain—the suicidal front man of the grunge band Nirvana.

Look up Chinese art history and you won’t find chapters on illusionistic painting or abstraction or high modernism. Traditional Chinese art is limited to calligraphic ink on paper. So today’s hot Chinese artists, who skillfully replicate the contemporary practices of Western art, never passed through the history that created it. “Mao Zedong, having set out to establish a Communist utopia,” notes Vine, “inadvertently paved the way—at the cost of forty to seventy million peacetime lives—for a postmodern society par excellence.”

Western-style art in China did not emerge from a vacuum. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union exported its oil-on-canvas technique to the PRC—handed down through the nineteenth-century Russian Beaux Arts—to be used for propaganda purposes in socialist realism (think of the portraits of Mao). Two constellations of art schools developed in China—a division that can still be found in most cities—with one dedicated to native techniques and the other to foreign influences.

By studying oil-on-canvas, Zhang had already cast his lot with imported artistic practice. Zhang’s brilliance was his ability to appropriate these foreign influences—along with textbook knowledge of Western art history—and to apply them effectively to his particular Chinese condition.

Zhang chose not to threaten the Chinese Communist Party. Instead he followed a model of success that was about to revolutionize the Chinese economy. In recent years, China has seen 10 percent annual growth. It now boasts fifteen billionaires and over 300,000 millionaires. Along with Western collectors, this new super-rich class has become the patrons of contemporary Chinese art.

Like the industrialists who learned to apply the “China price” to international commerce—pushing cheaper work into the marketplace at the expense of quality, originality, safety, and liberty—Zhang struck the mother lode of art-world success by outsourcing the Western avant-garde to China’s economy of scale, employing “mercantile skills for which China is renowned,” writes Vine, “a legacy only temporarily suppressed during the high Communist period.” Artistically, what Zhang was about to create had been done before—it was part of his brilliance to combine the Western practice of appropriation with the Eastern penchant for copyright infringement.

Zhang and a handful of artists christened their benighted Beijing neighborhood the “East Village” after the New York artist district. Then, in 1994, Zhang enacted his defining early performance. For 12 Square Meters, he covered his naked body with fish oil and honey and sat monk-like in a torrid communal outhouse swarming with flies. An hour later he walked out and washed himself in the waters of a brackish pond.

Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994.

As a matter of cultural comparison, the privations to which Zhang subjected himself in this and other performances replicated but never overshadowed the horrors of American performance art in the 1970s. In 1971, in Santa Ana, California, Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in the arm with a 22 caliber rifle. (The art critic Peter Schjeldahl calls Burden “pretty great” and praised this work at “perfectly repellent.”) In another example, Burden spent five days, rather than a mere hour, in a small locker with one bottle for water and one bottle for waste. In yet another, Burden had himself crucified on top of a Volkswagen beetle with nails hammered through his hands.

In terms of abnegation of the flesh, for those of us keeping score, Western art still had Zhang beat. The Chinese have no native tradition of asceticism, and in his monasticism Zhang was making another appropriation, referencing both Christian and Buddhist practice. But compared to the blurry black-and-white snapshots of Burden’s 1970s provocations, the iconic photographs taken of Zhang’s 1994 event, with a chiseled, glistening artist in meditative chiaroscuro, come off as far more reproducible. They would soon make Zhang a star.

In the year that followed, Zhang, gagged and naked, suspended himself from a ceiling by chains while doctors below extracted 250 cc’s of his blood, which they cooked on a hot steel pan (65 Kilograms). For his thirtieth birthday, he lay underneath a highway with earthworms stuffed in his mouth (Original Sound). For an hour, he reclined naked beneath a steel cutting tool as sparks shot over his body (22 mm Treading Steel).

The media-savvy Zhang, who like a dancer understood how to use his own toned physique, recorded these actions by camera and retained the copyright. Sure enough, his hairless, meditative portraits began appearing in Western publications, from Artforum to the cover of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. In 2006, after an eight-year residency in New York (several contemporary Chinese artists have become bi-continental), Zhang moved to Shanghai. He gave up performance art, and his self-abuse, to inaugurate his current studio practice.

In New China New Art, Richard Vine divides his survey by medium. In performance art, Zhang takes the lion’s share of the coverage, perhaps rivaled only by Ai Weiwei, the son of an exiled poet and a more fleshy contrarian than Zhang. A one-time outsider, Ai now enjoys the support of the CCP, serving as a consultant on the “bird’s nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In fact, Chinese artistic participation in the games was widespread; the fireworks-cum-installation artist Cai Guo-Qiang, a self-described Maoist who retains a large studio in New York and a second in Beijing, served as the Olympiad’s Art Director of Visual and Special Effects.

Today in China, Mao is officially said to have been “70 percent correct, 30 percent wrong.” In the 1970s, Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping renounced the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Deng learned to modify the party line to serve the long-term prospects of China’s authoritarian regime.

Such pragmatism accounts for the explosion of China’s new rich. After the death of Mao, Deng updated Chinese socialist principles by declaring “poverty is not socialism; to grow rich is glorious.” It also accounts for the survival of China’s vanguard art once foreign collectors began buying it up. The CCP, which once backed traditional calligraphic work “both as a compensation for the now-renounced Cultural Revolution and as an assertion of national identity,” writes Vine, “has today, however grudgingly, come to value avant-garde art as part of a soft power strategy to enhance China’s global status.”

For a time, in fact, the CCP’s allowances were so broad that they encouraged grotesque artistic attempts at shock, which Vine recounts in graphic detail: “There is very little sentimentality about livestock in China; and for a time at the turn of the twenty-first century, preserved human ‘medical specimens’ were readily available.”

In the early 1990s, Wenda Gu used menstrual blood, semen, and placenta powder in his installations. (Wenda’s website announces that his placenta powder came from “normal, abnormal, aborted, [and] still born [pregnancies], produced according to Chinese ancient medical methods.”) When the British shock team Gilbert and George toured Beijing’s East Village in 1993, Ma Liuming protested their lack of interest by masturbating and drinking his own semen. In 1997 Sheng Qi injected, hacked, and urinated on live chickens (Universal Happy Brand Chicken). In 2000 Liu Jin wrestled a bound pig to death in a fire-heated vat of soy sauce (Large Soy Sauce Vat). That same year Yang Zhichao had grass implanted in his shoulder (Planting Grass) and encouraged Ai Weiwei to scar him with a hot brand (Iron).

“Make no mistake about it,” Perl concluded, “many among the current generation of Chinese artists are in the business of re-educating the public.”

As upsetting as these performances are, the Chinese use of human material has been its most reprehensible artistic practice. In 2000 Peng Yu dripped oil into the mouth of an infant corpse (Oil for a Human Being), Sun Yaun arranged a “dead fetus snuggled against the face of a deceased old man in bed covered with ice” (Honey), and the two artists together transfused blood from their arms into the mouths of Siamese-twin corpse fetuses (Linked Bodies). That same year, in a “protest against groundless strictures forbidding cannibalism,” according to Vine, Zhu Yu “cut a fetus specimen into five handy pieces (two arms, two legs, one head-and-torso) and gnawed—or at least pretended to gnaw—the morsels for a still camera” (Eating People).

“A certain psychological arc is implicit in this development of mainland performance art,” writes Vine, “from utilization of one’s own living body to the manipulation of objects to deployment of the dead bodies of others. The genre seems to have begun by claiming freedom and selfhood, passed into a critique of consumerism, and arrived at a commodification of others for the sake of notoriety and financial gain.”

In 2001 the Chinese Ministry of Culture banned exhibitions involving torture, animal abuse, corpses, and overt violence and sexuality, yet their history reveals the cynicism informing much of contemporary Chinese art. (No surprise, but one of China’s artistic movements is known as “cynical realism.”)

While the handful of Chinese painters who have emerged as celebrities may be less repellent—but perhaps more pernicious—than the performers, they share the same exploitative nature. The painter Wang Guangyi is openly dismissive of artists who fail to game the system. Zhou Tiehai has advocated “exploiting the international art market as a means of personal and collective self-defense.” The top-selling Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Xiaogang have created an iconography of laughing men, bald thugs, and expressionless portraits, which they endlessly reproduce. In China, common artistic practice includes “blatant imitation of other artists’ works, willingness to pay for art criticism and museum exposure, refusal to adhere to dealer-artist exclusivity, an elastic notion of ‘limited’ editions, and mass replication of the artists’ own most successful motifs.”

Yue Minjun, Between Men and Animal, 2005.

The goings-on of artists halfway around the world would be of limited interest were it not also a window on our own artistic culture. “This immense, newly capitalistic country on the far side of the globe,” writes Vine, “has an unsettling way of reflecting our cultural-financial reality like a magnifying mirror.” Chinese contemporary art has entered the “international monoculture.” Western patrons were the first collectors and remain the primary boosters of contemporary Chinese works, some of which have seen price escalations of 2,500 percent. In 2006, Sotheby’s New York took in $13 million from an Asian sale of mostly Chinese art. In 2007 that number jumped to $38.5 million. That same year a painting by Yue Minjun sold at Sotheby’s for $5.9 million. Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang have sold for up to $3 million. How the financial meltdown will play out in the Chinese art market remains to be determined, but it will undoubtedly trigger a significant correction in prices as the global contemporary art bubble pops.

Last June, in an article called “Mao Crazy,” Jed Perl in The New Republic wrote a blistering attack on new Chinese art for its apparent embrace of the personality cult. “Make no mistake about it,” Perl concluded, “many among the current generation of Chinese artists are in the business of re-educating the public. By the time they are done with the Cultural Revolution, it will be just another art event, neither more nor less significant than a performance by Joseph Beuys or Matthew Barney.”

As they say of the Chairman himself, this assessment is 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. Contemporary Chinese artists may use Maoist iconography, but their cult belongs to Warhol’s Mao, not Chairman Mao. Instead of the production, it is the Western consumption of Chinese art that deserves our scrutiny. By turning Chinese art into the latest trend, we have extended the global transformation of serious art into a speculative commodity, supported the soft power strategy of an oppressive state, and reveled in the negative force of an avant-garde linked to an authoritarian regime not seen since the Futurism of Fascist Italy. We have shipped our vanguard dreams abroad, and we have brought back home an imitation art, cheaper, more compelling than the real thing, but containing the fatal taint of melamine.

  1.   New China New Art, by Richard Vine; Prestel, 240 pages, $60.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 4, on page 29
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