Death and hallucination color new work by Chinese artist Zhang Huan after life-altering Tibet trip

A look into Zhang Huan’s new oil painting series, which explores Buddhism and death rituals.

Konchog Norbu
20 September 2013
A collage created for The New York Times by artist Zhang Huan and the Pace Gallery of work from his upcoming exhibition, “Poppy Fields,” shows how what looks at a distance like an intricately woven rag carpet, revealy thickly layered, interwoven grinning skulls that appear in some Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting.

It shouldn’t be news when an artist turns to a medium as tried-and-true as oil painting. But when the artist is the daring shapeshifter Zhang Huan, and he’s chosen to render iconographic skull elements from Tibetan Buddhism after returning to his native China from New York, that’s a different story.

A New York Times preview of Huan’s upcoming solo exhibition at Manhattan’s Pace Gallery entitled “Poppy Fields” (Sept. 20 – Oct. 26) discusses how “Buddhism and death rituals have been abiding subjects for [him]” but didn’t provoke this latest creative outburst until a journey to the Land of Snows:

“In 2005, a trip to Tibet irrevocably altered Mr. Zhang’s thinking and his art making. ‘One day in Lhasa, I got up at 4 a.m. and went to the Jokhang Temple, the biggest one in Tibet, and I saw men and women already lining up for miles,’ Mr. Zhang said. He said he was amazed by the sight of pilgrims crawling to the site in the middle of traffic, in a seeming clash between modernity and ancient tradition. ‘I have been to the most famous museums in the world, and I have never seen a sight as striking as this,’ he said.

“He also witnessed the Tibetan sky burial, in which a monk eviscerates the human corpse, leaving the flesh as food for vultures and smashing the bones into a grainy dust. The process is supposed to liberate the spirit from the body for peaceful transport into the next life. ‘Most people, when they see this ceremony, think it is gross and they cannot bear to watch,’ Mr. Zhang said. ‘But, when I watch the ceremony, I feel this hallucination of happiness, and I feel free.’”

The Times piece also reveals how seriously Huan has incorporated Buddhist practice, which formed some of Huan’s earliest memories, and has now permeated his life:

“During the antireligious oppression of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Zhang, born in 1965, remembers watching his grandmother go to the temple and burn incense before a statue of a Buddha. In his adulthood, he went regularly to temples; even after moving to New York in 1998, he studied every weekend with the venerated monk Sheng Yen at the Dharma Drum Mountain Center in Queens and later donated statues to the Chuang Yen Monastery, designed by I. M. Pei, in Kent, N.Y.”

Read the full article here, with a slide show of works from the “Poppy Fields” exhibition.

You can explore more about Zhang Huan’s life and work at the Pace Gallery website here, and Huan’s personal site here.


Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu became a Buddhist in 1990 and ordained as a monk in 1993. Since then, he has overseen communications and media relations for several dharma organizations, authored the widely-read blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa during a four-year stint in Mongolia, and filled his begging bowl on occasion with freelance writing and editing gigs.