The East in the West

Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan's Three Heads Six Arms at San Francisco's Civic Center

A tour of San Francisco neighborhoods conducted by our dear friend Kathy began with the extraordinary sculpture “Three Heads, Six Arms” by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan.  This huge copper statue (26 feet high and weighing close to fifteen tons) rests in front of the city’s Civic Center, where it will remain until next year, in commemoration of thirty years of sisterhood between the cities of San Francisco and Shanghai.

For all its weight and girth, the sculpture appears to rest lightly in front of City Hall, gleaming golden-brown in the sunlight – just an elbow here, a hand there touching the concrete.  As you approach it, the head of a Buddha tilts at an angle towards you, smiling gently.  As you draw nearer, the two human heads come into view – one, with strong lean features, is actually a self-portrait by the artist, while the other is a broad, contemplative face that could be Tibetan.

Zhang was actually inspired to create this piece as one of a series, when he discovered religious sculptures that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in a Tibetan market.  The artist was born in 1965, just before this time of destruction, in a small town in Henan Province.  The sculpture is, in essence, composed of such fragments of Buddhist iconography, with his own emotions, his own spirit, fused into them.  Zhang says that while his sculpture embodies his own Chinese tradition, “it is also about our common humanity.”

The Petchary sensed this as she gazed up at the half-closed eyes of the artist-face, and stroked the knuckles of the hand resting on the ground, warmed by the morning sun.  The tranquility and benevolence of the piece seemed to embrace everyone who stood near it and examined it from every angle.  Tourists posed for their photograph, leaning on a finger.  A young couple pointed upwards at the faces, holding each other close.  Children ducked underneath an elbow, stretching up to reach it.  It is approachable, it is warm, it welcomes you.  It wants to be touched.

Zhang began training as an artist at age fourteen, attending classes in the “Soviet style.”  In 1984 he took undergraduate classes at Henan University in Chinese ink painting, drawing, oil painting and art history.  He then studied oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he started experimenting with performance art.

Now performance art seems a different, very introspective and personal domain, which displays itself in public as if to say, “Here I am; you can take it or leave it.”  Or, “Here is this idea; I don’t care whether you agree or not.”  Zhang joined a group of young artists calling themselves the “Beijing East Village.”  He attracted attention with two pieces.  In one, called “Twelve Square Meters,” Zhang sat for an hour, covered in honey and fish oil, in a fly-infested public latrine.  In another, “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain,” nine people lay on top of each other to raise the summit by a meter.

In 1998, Zhang relocated to New York City after he was featured in an exhibition of new Chinese art.  He created thirteen performances and exhibited in five solo exhibitions as well as many other group shows in the United States over the next eight years.  Then he moved back to China in 2005.

Zhang now lives in Shanghai, where he has opened the Zhang Huan Studio and has established the Gao An Foundation, which helps fund school buildings in under-developed regions of Western China and has established scholarships for university students.  The statue that now gracefully embraces the frontage of the white-columned City Hall was created in Zhang’s copper workshop, one of nine specialized workshops in his studio complex in Shanghai.

May this bridge of strong arms and shining faces, stretching from East to West, continue to foster the spirit of tolerance and appreciation – which is so much a part of what San Francisco is about.