Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s ‘Three Heads, Six Arms’ a monumental shift

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The last time that the Chinese art star Zhang Huan made a public appearance here, just over a decade ago, he was lying face down on an uprooted tree, naked, covered with dog food. A pack of nine dogs, invited to participate in his performance, fought for the chance to lick it off. One bit the artist.

This week, Zhang flew into town from Shanghai for the dedication ceremony for “Three Heads, Six Arms”: a 15-ton, two-story tall sculpture, considered the artist’s largest to date, which has been installed in the plaza in front of City Hall. The San Francisco Arts Commission brought the work to town as part of its public art program and as a way of promoting a “sister city” alliance with Shanghai.

It was, to say the least, a more welcoming event. For starters, the artist was fully clothed, wearing baggy gray pants and jacket. And this time, it was a mixed crowd, with schoolchildren, a few Buddhist monks, and some prominent Chinese American business leaders in the audience and Mayor Gavin Newsom among the speakers.

But perhaps the biggest difference was the artwork itself: a child-friendly, plaza-ready sculpture, from one of China’s most radical artists.

Zhang described this shift in his work, which has been all the talk of the art world, during his brief comments at this ceremony.

“I spent more than 10 years doing performance art,” he said through a translator. “I was young and energetic, and I had strong hormones in my body, so I wanted to use them up. Now I’m 45, and my hormone levels are dropping.”

These days he is a practicing Buddhist and speaks frequently of his desire to achieve a kind of “harmony” through his art. Interviewed before the ceremony, he spoke specifically about the “Three Heads” sculpture, part of a larger series inspired by fragments of ancient Buddhist statues that survived the Cultural Revolution, a time when so many artifacts were destroyed.

Over the last five years Zhang has made, among other body parts, a huge Buddha head, massive Buddha legs, and a giant Buddha foot, using this blown-up scale in the hopes of restoring spiritual power or grandeur to these fragments.

He typically works in copper, a material he said he likes for its “spiritual properties, as it’s often used for fabricating Buddhist sculpture in Tibet and India.”

He sees “Three Heads,” also copper, as an attempt “to bring together the human and the divine into one powerful form.” While two of the heads resemble the artist, the one facing East has the serenity and iconography of a traditional Buddhist sculpture. While some arms touch the ground, others are raised as if making some sort of offering.

“I’ve always wanted to fly,” the artist said. “But since I can’t use my own body for that, I wanted to give that kind of feeling or sensation to the sculpture. I think it looks like it flew here from Tibet and landed in the city.”

In fact, the many-armed creature — “you could call it a god or a devil, either way it’s supernatural,” the artist says — traveled by ship. The San Francisco Arts Commission arranged for the sculpture to be dismantled and shipped (using three crates and one flatbed) from Shanghai to Long Beach, then trucked up to San Francisco.

Matson Navigation donated the shipping services. A $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts covered installation costs.

Before then, the artist kept “Three Heads,” made in 2008, in his vast studio complex — a former textile mill near Shanghai that includes a dormitory for dozens of assistants. He said he was thinking about giving the sculpture to a museum for its debut, when he was contacted by the San Francisco Arts Commission last year.

He and his New York gallery, Pace, agreed to give the work to the city until the end of 2011. Mayor Newsom said after the ceremony that there’s “a chance” of keeping it longer, “but it’s much harder to get approval for permanent works. You know, everyone has their own aesthetic.”

Maybe everyone except for Zhang, who has at least two. Born in the Henan province, Zhang originally gained attention in the early 1990s in Beijing. He was part of the city’s now-lionized “East Village” art scene, where his performances involved feats of endurance and humility that compare to extreme-sport stunts by Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic.

For one work, Zhang sat in a filthy public latrine in intense summer heat, covered with honey and fish oil, as flies gathered on his face. (The resulting photographs are so memorable that it is disconcerting to meet Zhang and discover that his complexion is clear.) Many art critics, who have called his work from this period “brutal,” “violent” and “masochistic,” read it as a critique of inhumane living conditions and government apathy.

His career took off internationally when he moved to New York in 1998 and staged a much-discussed performance at the museum P.S.1 for the opening of the exhibition “Inside Out: New Chinese Art.” For that piece, he created a ritual that involved lying naked on a bed of ice. It also involved dogs, prefiguring the San Francisco performance that took place at the Asian Art Museum.

In 2006, he moved back to China, this time to Shanghai, a return that coincided with his embrace of more traditional art forms. Jay Xu, the director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, calls Zhang “one of the pioneers of contemporary Chinese art” for “courageous performances that take on thorny social issues.”

He sees the artist’s turn to sculpture as “a major change, from being explosive and expressive to being more introspective.”

The artist discusses the change in similar terms, as something personal as well as philosophical. But he sees something of a through-line too, connecting his early, radical performances to later, monumental statues such as “Three Heads.”

“When I was doing the performances, I was trying to transcend my body and achieve a contemplative state, a meditative state,” he says. “This sculpture is another expression of what I’ve been thinking about for the last decade.”