A Buddha head sculpture by Zhang Huan is part of Asia Society Hong Kong Center's Transforming Minds: Buddhism in Art exhibition. Asia Society Vice President for Global Art Programs and Museum Director Melissa Chiu, Lead Curator for the exhibition, tells Scene Asia that the exhibition's contemporary artworks — by Montien Boonma, Zhang Huan and Mariko Mori, in addition to Joo — can be read as "a dialogue with the past."
A Buddha head sculpture by Zhang Huan on the rooftop. The new non-profit Asia Society Hong Kong Centre opened in February this year on a hill above several 5-star hotels and a large shopping mall in Admiralty. Located at the former Explosives Magazine Compound built by the British Army in the mid-19th century, three of the buildings on the site were classified as Grade 1 historical structures.
Two Buddhas, representing permanence and transience, face each other. One, a hollow aluminum mould, shimmers in beams of sunlight. Its tranquil head lies severed at its feet. The second buddha is a casting of the first’s interior and is created from 20 tonnes of incense ash sourced from Shanghai temples. As time passes, it will eventually crumble.
“For me [the ash] is souls,” explains Zhang, sitting next to his creation and opening his palms in a gesture of prayer. “This is my Buddha flying here to bless the people and the city.” Otherworldly, maybe. But Zhang, who is taut and wiry with an open unlined face far more youthful than his 50 years, is also funny and humble. For the launch he is dressed entirely in shades of grey, from his hiking shoes to his cap to his grey polo shirt, the collar upturned. There are traces of the grace and physical poise that made his performance pieces as a young man beautiful: as he talks, he sits bolt upright, sometimes resting his toes on pointe like a ballet dancer. Zhang was born Dong Ming, meaning “eastern brightness”, in 1965 to factory-worker parents a year before the cultural revolution erupted. Embarrassed by his revolutionary name (an homage to Chairman Mao) he changed it when he moved to Beijing in the 1990s to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. There, living with other poor migrants and artists, he created angst-ridden performance pieces that brimmed with pain and a meditative masochism. That Zhang – the rebellious, dirty, daring artist who hung naked from the ceiling of his studio, suspended in chains, with his blood dripping on to a pan below where it slowly cooked – is gone.