Performance artist Zhang Huan is known for pushing his body to its limits. In 1994, he slathered fish oil and honey on his naked body, attracting flies as he sat on a toilet in the filthiest public restroom in a village in China. The same year, he suspended himself from a ceiling wrapped in chains as two doctors drew his blood, which slowly trickled down onto a hot plate, sizzling as it landed. Before Lady Gaga stunned the world with her meat dress at the 2010 MTV music awards, Zhang walked around New York City in 2002, releasing doves into the air while dressed in a full-body suit made entirely of raw beef. Visceral and jarring, his art has always been a deeply physical experience for both himself and his audiences.
This is perhaps why the artist’s recent forays into NFTs have elicited surprise. How does one translate a physical practice into a digital one, and why? While using and experimenting with NFTs has been an organic process for digital artists, visual and other more traditional artists have been slower to embrace them. Zhang is one of the few—especially of his generation—who have been so quick to incorporate the medium within his practice. “It’s the artist’s job to constantly create works that are new and fresh,” says Zhang, “and to raise questions, both in terms of the artistic languages they use and the content of their work.”
The artist believes that NFTs are a revolutionary mechanism for art and cultural production, in that the artist or creator maintains a larger degree of agency, which has been made possible by blockchain technology. It enables a redistribution of power via decentralisation, referring to the transfer of control and decision making from a centralised entity to a distributed network. “It’s about decentralisation as a challenge to a central authority—that’s the same responsibility an artist has. I approach NFTs in the same way as my previous works.”