Child labor | Zhang Huan

Child labor 2007 | Mixed technique 79 x 99 inch

Discover the biography and all work of the artist

Dating from the end of the 1970s, the work of Zhang Huan embodies the excitement present in the art scene in China after the Cultural Revolution and the events of Tiananmen Square. A prolific artist using a variety of media, Huan has worked as a painter, printmaker, draughtsman and photographer. He has also created installations and performances, in a passionate and direct manner reminiscent of the work of Marina Abramovic and Chris Burden.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Zhang Huan moved to « Beijing East Village », a poor area of the city where a community of avant-garde artists had established themselves. Conscious of the many social and political challenges facing the country, his work had a political message openly questioning the foundations of the post-Mao society. With no qualms about placing himself in the work in physically gruelling situations, Zhang Huan created ritualistic pieces that used his own blood, or involved wandering in the street with his body covered in insects or bound painfully.

Created in 2007, Child Labor comes from a different perspective, coinciding with the artist’s return to China after seven years in the United States. Zhang Huan gradually moved away from performance art and began to focus on painting and sculpture. This change signalled the emergence of new themes in his work, in particular a series of reflections on Chinese artistic and cultural identity, expressed through the systematic use of traditional Chinese iconography and Buddhist ideas.

Buddhist spirituality lies at the heart of Child Labor. This piece of work was created over a long period by collecting incense ash from over twenty temples in Shanghai, such as the Longhua temple visited by the artist regularly. A subtle, ephemeral image emerges as if from a cloud of smoke, giving it a metaphysical and fiercely intimate quality. By using these ashes, Zhang Huan makes a record of the daily prayers carried out with the incense taken from Chinese temples. His work crystallises, in a highly lyrical fashion, countless shifting sentiments, capturing the faith of believers and the memory of loved ones. This is demonstrated in Ash Painting no. 9, a nebulous and abstract composition made from the ash of incense used during funeral ceremonies that seems to contain within it the mourning for someone lost forever.

An unknown and universal portrait, Child Labor was created using a photograph taken in 1937 showing the displacement and famine suffered by rural Sichuan populations fleeing the Tchang Kaï-Shek armed forces. A harsh reminder of the Sino-Japanese war, this work also questions the place of the individual in a Chinese society where individuality is not encouraged. The child’s face, here reminiscent of the celebrated Richter photo-paintings, suggests a prayer, a symbolic appeal to hold onto one’s childhood dreams in a country consumed by the excesses of communism. It is also, more directly, a sharp criticism of child labour in a country enjoying a period of extraordinary economic growth.