Zhang's early performances melded public spectacle, bodily themes and at times masochistic treatment of his own body to communicate shared human experience in China. The performance "12 Square Meters" found Zhang sitting in a public latrine slathered in honey and fish juice, his body swarming with flies. Recently, his work has adopted a Buddhist theme, with pieces like photorealistic paintings of Chinese laborers and mid-20th century propaganda made out of burned temple incense ash, and large-scale, dismembered Buddha sculptures.
A stark contrast to his performance days in the '90s, when he lived in Beijing's East Village, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of town that he and other experimental artists named after the New York neighborhood, Zhang is now a multimillionaire represented by U.S. blue-chip gallery Pace Wildenstein. This winter, he's moving his studio and its dozens of employees to a new, larger Shanghai space. There, he'll direct and build sets for his first opera, as well as create pieces for shows in London and in Beijing, where he'll debut his first exhibition in China since moving back from New York in 2006.
Zhang, on art and inspiration: "This thing called art has no standard. You can think about it like a philosopher or a literary writer or a folk craftsman, or just go practice it. There are many different paths. When you are illogical, that is when you can break out of the system. When you don't care about the consequences, that's when you can have your own voice, your own language. Humans, I believe, when they fight or when they struggle, that is when their true qualities come out.
My inspiration comes from daily life, from the most average things, small things that wouldn't grab anyone's attention. Things like eating, sleeping, working and taking a shit every day. Through these insipid activities that go completely unnoticed by people, we can discover and appreciate intrinsic qualities of human nature. Actually I have no inspiration. If I want to do something, I do it; if I should do something, I do it."
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