If art is affected by the physical place where it's created, the work of Zhang Huan may be the textbook example. With moves from Beijing to New York and then back to Shanghai, the artist's career is divided into three distinct chapters. The progress can be traced in Zhang Huan: Altered States, his first major North American retrospective, now at the Vancouver Art Gallery (and organized by the Asia Society in New York, where it was debuted last year).
"There are certain constants in his work," says Melissa Chiu, the Asia Society's museum director, and the curator of this exhibition. "The body is a real frame of reference that grounds all of it. But his living circumstances really did change, certain elements of them, and you can see the transition [in his work]"
Zhang, 43, was born in Henan province and began studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1991. There, on the outskirts of town where the cost of living was low, he and other artists established what they called the Beijing East Village (named after New York's East Village).
During this time, Zhang began developing the body-focused performance art that came to be his trademark. He pushed physical endurance to the limits, covering himself in honey and fish oil to attract flies and insects while he sat in a public latrine ( 12 Square Meters, 1994) and suspending himself from his studio's ceiling while doctors drew blood from his body and had it drip onto a hot plate ( 65 Kilograms, 1994).
"This is art - something ordinary people can't imagine," Zhang says (in Mandarin) about his work in a documentary that's part of the exhibition.
In Beijing, Zhang also studied how art (and humans) can alter a physical space, with his landmark works To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) and To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (1997).
For Mountain, Zhang and nine other artists climbed Miaofengshan Mountain west of Beijing, and formed a human pyramid by lying on top of one another, nude. When surveyors measured the mountain with the human pyramid at the top, it was precisely one metre higher than the previously recorded measurement.
For Fishpond, a study in displacement, Zhang and 46 migrant labourers waded into a pond, Zhang with the five-year-old son of the pond's owner on his shoulders. Together, they literally raised the water level of the pond.
In 1998, Zhang went to New York at the invitation of the Asia Society for the Inside Out: New Chinese Art exhibition. For his commissioned work, Pilgrimage - Wind and Water in New York, Zhang prostrated himself, nude, on three blocks of ice for 10 minutes, surrounded by dogs. The performance spoke to the immigrant experience: Rather than the environment (the ice) warming to the immigrant (Zhang), it left him cold.
Still, Zhang stayed in New York and what followed was a series of works exploring his response to different geographical locations. My America (Hard to Acclimatize), first performed at the Seattle Art Museum in 1999, had Zhang sitting nude in a children's pool while some 60 volunteers - also nude, standing on three storeys of scaffolding - threw bread at him. The performance was inspired by a night when Zhang was out looking for food in New York for his pregnant wife and was approached by good Samaritans who mistook him for a homeless person. They offered him bread.
For My New York, performed for the Whitney Biennial the year after 9/11, Zhang put on a suit made of raw meat, which gave him a superhero/bodybuilder look, and distributed white doves to bystanders, who set them free.
In another performance, Family Tree (2000), represented in Altered States through nine photographs, Zhang had calligraphers write the story of a family and its spirit on his face until it turned black. "Nobody knew the colour of my skin, and it was as if my identification no longer existed. I disappeared," Zhang wrote in an essay that appears in the show's catalogue.
In 2005, Zhang moved back to China, but chose the cosmopolitan Shanghai over the capital Beijing. That, says Chiu, is when the biggest change in his work appears. Zhang abandoned performance art almost altogether and began to make sculptures on a very large scale. "The body is still an important frame of reference," she says, "but it's seen through the prism of other influences such as Buddhism."
Zhang began to create works with burned incense ash collected from Buddhist monasteries. Among these works are busts (some self-portraits, some representing Chinese soldiers) and two-dimensional representations of the American and Chinese flags, American Flag No. 1 (2007) and Chinese Flag No. 1 (2007).
"Up to now, this is the material that has given me the most satisfaction," Zhang says in the documentary about the ash.
Other notable works from this period include Memory Doors, a series of doors retrieved from Shanxi province, and intricately carved and adorned with silkscreen prints, using historical photographs as a reference.
The show also features three large copper sculptures based on body fragments, such as a massive finger, from broken Buddhist monuments that Zhang collected in Tibet.
Zhang, once a starving artist on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, is now one of China's hottest artistic properties, with a huge studio in a former garment factory (and some surrounding sites), an army of workers and representation by the prestigious PaceWildenstein Gallery in New York.
He has also started a foundation with his wife that restores inadequate children's school buildings in the countryside (a cause whose urgency was tragically underlined by the recent earthquake in Sichuan province).
But working in China comes with challenges: Earlier this year, what was supposed to be Zhang's debut at the Shanghai Art Museum was cancelled because the authorities refused to grant him an exhibition licence.
Zhang responded by moving the show to his own studio.
Still, to Chiu, Zhang's success, his return to China and his commitment to staying there form a stunning example of how culture can thrive in the new China.
"What we see is this idea of a kind of limitless potential. I mean, for him to set up a studio with 100 people over three factory sites, [it suggests]there are no limits to what the artist can dream of today. It shows a certain kind of optimism for the future.
"So all of this plays into a sense of being a good moment to be Chinese and to be in China."
Zhang Huan: Altered States is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Oct. 5 ( http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca or 604-662-4719).Report Typo/Error