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Yin and Yang

Three Chinese artists bring their separate world visions

Two exhibits, "In Houston: A Site-Based Performance and Installation" at DiverseWorks and "Temporal Mood" at Barbara Davis Gallery, bring together work by three Chinese artists: New York-based Zhang Huan and Zhang Jian-Jun, and Houston's own Weihong. As the titles suggest, some of these works are specific to Houston, and they all take time as a tool and a subject. And they are rich in poetic allusions.

Zhang Huan's work most obviously deals with time, since his preferred MO is performance. He's known for endurance trials like Twelve Square Meters (1994), on view in video at DiverseWorks, in which he sat, naked, for three hours in a public toilet in a poor village on the outskirts of Beijing, covered with honey and fish oil to attract flies. Part political protest and part existential affirmation of identity, his theater has occasionally incorporated other performers, as in To Raise the Water Level of a Fishpond (1997) and My America (2000), included in the videos on view at Barbara Davis. Here in Houston, while Zhang was assisted, She Li Zi (2003), performed on opening night, was essentially a solo.

Several covered forms sat on the stage, a large one stage left, about six smaller ones circling a cloth-covered armature at the center. Some in the audience had donned the blue surgical masks they had been handed as they entered, and four attendants, masked and dressed in nurses' scrubs, distributed incense sticks among the assembled. A guzheng began playing, slowly, solemnly. The attendants removed the cloths to reveal six stone pagodas and a stone sculpture of a boy seated on a horse with a bird in his mouth. Zhang entered naked, slowly walked over to the stone horse and mounted it behind the stone boy. He sat there for a few minutes, staring straight ahead, before dismounting and attempting to push the horse, straining against the three-ton statue. Giving up, he walked to the statue's head and took hold of invisible reins, preparing to lead rather than push. Moving to the pagodas, he first perched on one, then stood atop another, before crawling under the armature and rising through the hole in the top, becoming himself a pagoda. Two attendants brought to him a shallow box containing yellow bundles. Large cordial glasses of alcohol were produced, set aflame and handed to the artist, who slammed them against his chest, where they (usually) stuck for a period of time. Some of the bundles produced pigeons, most of which flew up into the rafters, while some were tethered to the glasses and the man. Throughout the escalating confusion of glasses crashing to the ground and pigeons flapping about, Zhang's face maintained an impassive, stoic expression. He produced a toothbrush and paste from a pocket inside the "pagoda," added some red liquid to it and brushed his teeth, allowing the red foam to run down his torso. Finishing his ablutions, he pulled a last bird from another pocket and inserted its feet in his mouth, leaving the bird dangling and flapping against his face. He held that tableau for several moments before releasing the pigeon and tripping a container suspended above him, dousing himself with flour.

Artist Zhang Huan sits among the pagodas while red foam runs down his torso.
Artist Zhang Huan sits among the pagodas while red foam runs down his torso.

She Li Zi is Zhang's response to the SARS crisis that has plagued his homeland. To attempt to unpack the symbolism of the performance, consider that, in Buddhism, the horse symbolizes the indestructible, hidden nature of things, while in Chinese symbology the dove or pigeon represents longevity, fidelity, spring. Bring in Western associations with the Holy Spirit and purity, the sterilizing utility of alcohol and ritual purification by fire, and the performance becomes a dense complex of allusions. Flour, the prime ingredient in bread, the staff of life, has the pallor of death. And white is the color of mourning in Chinese culture.

It's also the color associated with yang, the activating principle in the primal duality of yin-yang, the duality that is continuity, a concept that Weihong has been exploring in recent works. Her 255-0+Ping Pong (2003) divides the gallery space equally into black and white: the walls, the table-tennis balls in their plastic bins, even the referee's chair. In opposing video projections, two players, one in black, the other in white, are seemingly engaged in a match across the space. If you do any digital printing, you'll know that the numbers in the title refer to the values for absolute white and absolute black, respectively. Weihong takes these measures of color values and turns them into measures of time -- at the bottom of each video projection, the values appear as timers, 255 counting down, 0 counting up, for each smack of the ball. Of course, given the context of a sport, it's easy to see a more Western, Manichean duality, especially in the current for-us-or-agin-us political climate. Still, without the opposition, there wouldn't be a game.

Weihong explores time and duality in a different way at Barbara Davis. Golden Horse Diary 021202 -- 013103 (2003) is a daily record in digital prints of the artist's life during the lunar Year of the Horse. Each eight-and-a-half- by 11-inch panel represents a single day, while the prints, trimmed to thin strips, ascend from earth to sky in another manifestation of the yin-yang principle.

Zhang Jian-Jun takes a somewhat longer view of things. For Vestige of a Process, Houston Project 2002-2023 (2002-2003), Houstonians were invited to pick a site that, for them, personified Houston. A photograph was taken and printed using a process that ensures the photo will gradually fade away over the next 20 years. Zhang then added a painted element -- an elevation to a roof, a bulge to a building -- to render the photo more abstract. In 20 years, only the abstraction will remain of the image, at which time the artist invites someone to return to these sites and photograph them again, continuing the process on into the indefinite future. Given the record of preservation in this town, it seems a particularly quixotic project. But paired with the artist's 2000 Years in Motion, 200 B.C. -- 2003 A.D. (2003), perhaps it'll get folks thinking more about time and history. Three photographs of ruins, again with painted additions, are almost lost on the gallery walls. You're also distracted by the three columnar sculptures, made of silicon and set on motorized wheeled bases, that wander randomly in the space, bouncing off walls and continuing on their absurd journey. Each column is a facsimile of a column in the photographs, and each is topped with a piece of Han Dynasty (202 B.C. -- 220 A.D.) crockery, to marry past and present and produce a humorous and dizzying meditation on time's inexorable passage and our own emphemerality.

Zhang has two related pieces at Barbara Davis. Blue Mountain and White Mountain (both 2003) are large silicon castings of a scholar's rock. These rocks, kept by the Chinese literati in their studies as contemplative tools, suggest fantastic and timeless landscapes. Cast in silicon, their timelessness is wedded to a weird contemporaneity, as Zhang vaults not only a temporal gulf but an aesthetic one as well.

Through June 14 at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.

Through May 31 at Barbara Davis Gallery, 5701 Main, 713-520-9200.

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