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Meet China's Most Famous Artist Not In Custody

With eminent artist-activist Ai Weiwei whisked away by an increasingly repressive regime in Beijing, star performance artist Zhang Huan shows how to be careful with his words, but fearless in his work.

Florence de Changy

MACAO - Dressed in the bluish-green uniform worn in old factories, sporting sneakers and a cap on which sit a pair of hip designer sunglasses, Zhang Huan gives himself over without hesitation to the requirements of being the star that he is.

During the opening of his latest show "East Wind, West Wind," which occupies the second floor of Macao's Louis Vuitton store, he smiles a satisfied smile before his monumental statues of Christ and Buddha made from compressed ash. Zhang poses with one arm up and one arm down with a group of super chic visitors in front of a wall of photographers for the show, which runs through June 19. The artist is serene, determined, energetic. One quickly realizes he is one of the greats.

"In the West, all eyes are on China, but in China, we look at what is happening in the West. If I put Buddha and Christ face to face under the same roof, it is because I believe they have things to say to each other," Zhang tells us. He is a Buddhist, a fervent one. Hence his preferred medium in recent years: the ash from incense sticks used in temples, which he uses for both statues and paintings.

"The ashes symbolize hope for the future, since death for a Buddhist is rebirth. It is turning humanity toward its future while paying homage to the past. Reconstituting it through ashes is a work of remembrance," Zhang says. Conceptual art is not yet easy to propose to the Chinese, who are at the moment crazy about ‘Mao pop," a sweet non-challenge of sorts.

Born in 1965 in Henan province, Zhang Huan started as a teacher of art history. Eventually he would begin using his body, mostly naked, as a canvas, as a brush, as a language toward the world. In 1994, he covered himself with honey and fish oil and offered himself up to the flies in public bathrooms in his Beijing neighborhood.

In 1998, at the age of 33, he took the "new Silk Road" from the Pacific toward the United States. A series of stunning photographs immortalize his work during that time.

Performance art that lasts

"Zhang Huan is certainly the greatest performance artist," writes the exhibit's curator and art critic William Zhao. "He integrates his established work into his performance and, inversely, transforms his performance into enduring work."

On April 3, a few days before the Macao show opened, the artist and blogger Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities as he tried to board a plane. His family says the famous artist has not been heard from since.

Upon mention of his fellow artist's plight, Zhang smiles before an oblique reply. "If you are the president of a large country and you have an enormous scar on your face, a scar that you see every single day when you wake up and with which everyone identifies you, do you really need someone to constantly point it out for you?"

He says that he does not feel at all threatened. Zhang says he is like "a fish in water because the earth is my earth." He adds, weighing his words, "I don't know of any country in the world where people are freer than China." He explains that anything that is banned exists underground and that the government is perfectly aware of it. "We may never have had so much freedom as now."

Zhang knows Ai Weiwei, eight years his senior, very well. "Like Ai Weiwei and like all Chinese artists, we love our country. And in spite of all the bad events of the past, we hope to build a better world. It is this which we must keep in mind, not only a better China."

What they share

The two artists have much in common. Both left their native lands for the United States. Both delight in the "artistic concept" brilliantly. Both work on the theme of memory and remembrance. Both chose to return to China where they are less well known. And both are wealthy.

Zhang Huan, for his part, could hardly be anything but rich. He is one of the artists of choice for two great patrons, French billionaires Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. For the moment, he is no longer complicating his life. If he has an idea for a piece that he knows will please one of his patrons, Zhang will make something similar for the other.

In his immense three-hectare workshop outside Shanghai, he employs nearly 200 people. "The masters of the Renaissance who filled orders from around the four corners of Europe operated the same way," says gallery owner Edouard Malingue, who will host the artist at the end of May in Hong Kong.

But it is the future of humanity that Zhang Huan mines for material. "Man is facing an amusing dilemma: He would like to live longer and does much to this end, but at the same time, and much more efficiently, he destroys what could guarantee his survival," he says. "How is man only able to spend so little time on the planet? Is he too stupid or too smart?"

Photo - Steve Punter

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