Cover An still from Zhang Huan's Seeking Satoshi Nakamoto in Space Flower 2, an NFT created exclusively for Tatler's March 2022 Cover

Artist Zhang Huan creates an exclusive NFT artwork for the Tatler cover, and discusses his performance art in both the real world and the meta one

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. 

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Above Zhang Huan's Exclusive NFT for Tatler

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.”

In Seeking Satoshi Nakamoto in Space Flower 1 & 2 (2022), the artworks Zhang created exclusively for this month’s Tatler, the artist came up with a visual metaphor for decentralisation. He depicts himself in heavily pixelated form, wearing the meat suit seen in the aforementioned performance My New York (2002) and subsequently in his NFT work Celestial Burial of an Artist (2021). The image is composed of noted individuals from the blockchain world, creating a whole which visually signifies decentralisation. The title pays homage to Satoshi Nakamoto—the pseudonym for Bitcoin’s anonymous inventor(s), who proposed a decentralised approach to verifying transactions. This led to the creation of blockchain technology, without which NFTs would not exist. 

Zhang is inspired by the philosophical beliefs behind decentralisation, blockchain and NFT technology. Seeing the success of Beeple, who brought NFTs to the world’s attention thanks to the record-breaking sale of one of his artworks, piqued Zhang’s interest. But as he started to learn more about the technology behind NFTs—which he admits was the most demanding part—he came to realise similarities between the philosophy behind NFTs and his own practice. 

The production of NFT art requires a collaborative approach, which is something Zhang has long employed. “I’ve always collaborated with film production teams or other volunteers,” says Zhang of his practice. “In that way, making NFTs is similar; I’m constantly working with many different teams—whether on the business, marketing or technical side.” 

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Through his work, Zhang has always sought to engage, question and challenge. NFTs provide him with a new way to accomplish this, serving as an extension and reflection of his career. His first NFT project is a trilogy based on existing artworks. “Every work represents a genre I have worked in,” says the artist of the project. The first part, Ash Square (2021), is based on his Ash painting series; the artist started creating these pieces in 2005 using residue of burnt incense he collected from outside temples in and around Shanghai, creating textured paintings that highlight the temporary nature of the material. 

Ashes can symbolise life, death and rebirth, and reveal what our physical bodies actually are or can be—a concept Zhang consistently thinks about, especially in the context of Daoism and Buddhism, which inform his practice. In Ash Square, the ash disintegrates, visually reinforcing its ephemeral quality. Two works from the series were exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in the 2021 virtual group show The Ethereal Aether. 

The second part of the trilogy, Celestial Burial of an Artist (2021), is an extension of Zhang’s My New York (2002), the work that brought him to international attention and the one he considers his first performance NFT. My New York was conceived post-9/11 as a performance piece for the Whitney Biennale, in which the audience participated by releasing doves into the air and walking through the city with the artist. The meat suit’s fleshy aesthetic was inspired by Tibetan sky rituals, in which bodies are left out for vultures to consume. Celestial Burial of an Artist took this concept and configured it as a game, almost akin to a digital version of that ritual.

In this NFT version, Zhang’s digital avatar dons the same suit and is made up of hundreds of pixelated, miniature meat men created and customised by 2,500 people who played the game. They extracted body parts and “devoured” them, thus creating NFTs which in turn were all used to create the final pixelated image. Zhang is “inviting people to feel the ecstasy of grabbing and eating the body, and to experience this very spiritual and sacred process of reincarnation”; through gaming and digital immersion, he continues his Daoism- and Buddhism-influenced queries into the cycle of life and death. 

The conception of NFTs and the metaverse has allowed Zhang to further this discussion in another dimension. With his new venture Space Flower, the first virtual graveyard, where you can buy your own virtual grave, the artist is thinking about the possibility of eternal existence in the metaverse. Poppy Fields, the last part of Zhang’s trilogy, is still in development; it reflects on the artist’s experiments with oil painting for the exhibition of the same name at Pace Gallery, New York in 2013. Skulls—not poppies—feature as repetitive motifs in the paintings, emphasising Zhang’s existential questioning. “I’m curious about the nature of the universe and the nature of my existence in the universe,” Zhang says. “Are we even living in this world, or is it just an illusion?”  

Ash Square and Celestial Burial will be exhibited and auctioned on Pace’s NFT platform Pace Verso.

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