Review of Zhang Huan: Sydney Buddha, Carriageworks, Sydney

Carriageworks is a fitting space to house the grand structures created by artist Zhang Huan (b. 1965) in his current exhibition, Sydney Buddha (2015). As viewers make their way down the concrete decline and through the entrance of the large glass doors, they are greeted by two structures standing at more than five metres tall. Made of two pieces, one is an aluminium structure acting as a mould for the second piece, which is a composition of more than 20 tonnes of incense ash. The pristine aluminium sculpture sits facing its slowly disintegrating opposite – a scene that reflects the confronting essence of time.

There is a compulsion to tread cautiously around the ash structure so to not disturb its natural eroding process. The viewing perimeter allows close observation, allowing audiences to search for the next area ready to crumble and give way. The installation entirely depends on its environment and can change at any second, making its appearance unpredictable. Being within the presence of the sculptures is a meditative experience within itself. The large room is quiet and viewers tend to observe silently making it a comfortable space to contemplate the strategy behind what looks to be a challenging and monumental artistic work.

Zhang Huan is an artist who works across a variety of mediums. Recently, his practice has shifted more towards traditional forms of art such as sculpture and painting. Sydney Buddha continues Zhang Huan’s interest in the traditions and rituals of Buddhist, Chinese and Tibetan histories. When Huan visited the Longhua Temple in Shanghai, he observed the incense ash that layered floor created by those who had sat within the temple for hours. The incense is used as way of honouring ancestors and worshiping deities. Huan decided to collect the ash rather than leave it to be discarded as waste. Originally named Taiwan Buddha, the work was first shown in the exhibition Zhang Huan: Amituofo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei in 2010, and in Zhang Huan: Soul and Matter at the Palazzo Vecchio and Forte di Belvedere Florence in 2013.

Director of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah reveals that she had been following Huan’s work for many years. In 2014 she invited Huan to consider presenting a work at Carriageworks to be included in the 2015 Sydney Festival, she explains: “After many discussions we agreed with Huan that Sydney Buddha would sit well within the Carriageworks spaces and within the context of our broader Artistic Program. We also imagined that the work would be loved and embraced by the communities of Sydney which it has been. Our audiences have responded strongly to the scale of the work. When the work first opened it had quite a strong smell which has dissipated a little now. People also connect with the story of the many hands that made Sydney Buddha over many years.”

Building an artwork of this scale did involve some testing challenges, Havilah explains: “We brought two of Huan’s team over from China who worked with our technical team over a period of seven days to pack the ash into the aluminium mould. It was quite tense removing the mould – hoping that that Sydney Buddha would stay together.” The efforts of the dedicated team are meeting the expectations of spectators with many expressing their awe for the stability of the ash sculpture.

Lighting incense and observing its slow and gradual burn can be an enjoyable, therapeutic and moving experience. For those who have enjoyed this engagement can relate to Huan’s fascination and appreciation for incense. Havilah suggests that the exhibition: “allows us to reflect on our place in the world and on our own blessings and dreams that we may have for our own futures and those that we love. This is a work that represents physically the collective souls, memories and prayers of many that in itself give the work a strong presence.” Sydney Buddha sees the evolution of faith presented in a modern context. Art presented through contemporary representation has the ability to convey traditions that have affected the lives of predecessors and undeniably paved the way for future generations.

Zhang Huan: Sydney Buddha, in association with Sydney Festival, until 22 March, Carriageworks 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh NSW.

Sara Sweet

1. Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, 2015, ash and aluminium. Presented by Carriageworks in association with Sydney Festival, courtesy PACE Gallery, New York. Image: Zan Wimberley.