In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, symbols of vanitas and momentum mori signified fragility of life and earthly pleasures. Opulent items such as exotic food, imported wine, and luscious flowers were painted as reminders of inevitable decay and brevity of material possessions. In the twenty-first century, the idea of impermanence is explored in significantly different forms and mediums. The core message, however, remains (more-less) the same.
Two contemporary artists are particularly interesting: Chinese artist Zhang Huan and British Marc Quinn.
Huan has become famous for his five meters tall installations of Buddha made from 20 tonnes of ash from Chinese temples. Instead of ash, Quinn uses blood as a medium. In 1991, he made the first sculptural self-portrait ‘Self’ using 4.5 litres of his own blood, poured into a moulded shape of his head. Since then, he has made the same work every five years mapping his own physical transformation, aging and slow decay. The work is, therefore almost a scientific study of impermanence.
Ash and tradition of burning incenses, as noted by Huan, represents oriental; it is a part of Chinese culture and soul. “Burned by millions of Chinese people, ash conveys and contains collective hopes and collective memories. It brings together all hopes and blessings of Chinese people.” One could argue that blood has a similar resonance in the western culture as it conveys the western set of values and the western reading of the meaning of life. Blood in the West is given in sacrifice (i.e. blood of Christ or blood as transfusional donation) and has a similar ritualistic significance as burning of an incense. What is more, the Buddhist body is literally burned and turned into ash at the life’s end while death in the west is often portrayed as an excessive leakage of blood.
Both Quinn and Huan make their impermanence pieces repeatedly (in the last decade, Huan has made installations of Buddha all over the world) to remind the contemporary man and woman of fragility of life to which, in their view, they are not paying adequate attention. Vanitas images of the sixteenth and seventeenth century had similar moralistic function. They proliferated at the time of unprecedented decadence when chase of earthly pleasures took flight (i.e. seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age).
In comparison with the still life paintings, both Huan’s and Quinn’s pieces are literally impermanent and ephemeral. In somewhat performative fashion, the initially solid works gradually crumble or melt in front of the spectator – the disappearance is thus literal; the idea of vanish physically present, unambiguous. While in the still life painting we needed to imagine the rotting of food or withering of initially beautiful flower, in Huan’s Buddha installation imagination is unnecessary. The initially beautiful object dissolves in front of our very eyes; all we need to do is engage with the symbolism of this disappearance.
However, the meditation on impermanence in Zhang Huan’s work is not as straightforward as it might sound; the work is much more complex than one (the artist included) initially foresees.
First of all, Huan consciously complicates the piece by placing the ash Buddha in confrontation with its more solid and durable aluminium replica (the aluminium is in fact the mould from which the ash Buddha emerged). Two sculptures of Buddha, both over five metres tall, are placed to face each other. This mirror-like reflection between the two draws attention to their initial sameness, but gradually to their fundamental difference. It is the aluminium-cast that endures the tyranny of time; it is the aluminium-cast that immutably observes the crumbling of its opponent. Huan describes the relation as “a monumental stare-off as the ash Buddha falls apart.” The aluminium Buddha could, thus, be read as a signifier of permanence, and permanence could be understood as the one that observes impermanence; watches the impermanent body fall apart.
Interestingly, material wise, permanence is portrayed as more solid concept (made of durable aluminium). It was also this permanence that gave form to impermanence – the permanence is the mould within (and out of) which impermanence emerged. Ash, in other words, needed aluminium to come into existence.
Through this convoluted relationship between the two objects, Huan establishes complex philosophical binaries between life and death, permanence and impermanence. Adding to the complexity, he also chooses to express impermanence in the form of Buddha – the one that (in Buddhism) signifies immortality; the one (the only one) that conquers mortality and impermanence. The ‘truth’ in Huan’s work is therefore from the start multidimensional, perhaps itself fragile and impermanent.
Quinn admits the similar ambiguity in his work. Asked about the physical consequences of significant blood extraction, he says: “I do feel a bit tired the day after but one of the great things about the sculptures to me is that they are about the amazing regenerative power of the human body, in that I exist, and five of these sculptures exist so there are about 60 pints of my blood in the world and I’m still alive.” On the other hand the work, admits Quinn, simultaneously brings inevitable mortality to the surface. While he tries to immortalise himself casting his sculptural replica, the work disallows him to do so. “In a funny way I think “Self,” the frozen head series, is about the impossibility of immortality. This is an artwork on life support. If you unplug it, it turns to a pool of blood. […] I also think that the total self portrait-ness of using my blood and my body has an ironic factor as well, in that even though the sculpture is my form and made from the material from my body, to me it just emphasises the difference between a truly living person and the materials which make that person up. The sort of literalist point that has been missed by the cryogenicists who freeze themselves for supposed future regeneration.”
It is this ambiguity in both of the works that makes them gripping and ‘permanently’ interesting. Huan’s Buddha is, in fact, so inconclusive that the artist himself cannot foresee its result, its final message (if there is one).
In Sydney’s reiteration of the work, the ash Buddha remained solid throughout the exhibition. No crumbling (or a very minimal one) took place and the artist’s intention to demonstrate impermanence ‘failed’, the idea of necessary impermanence was brought into question. Proudly and stubbornly Sydney Buddha kept standing at its five meters tall; the monumental stare-off between him and his aluminium compatriot persisted.
The beauty of such ending (the one that is unpredictable to the author himself) is that it demonstrates that not even the artist’s concept could claim permanence. Every idea that one has is subject to questioning and in need of (permanent) adjustment. Talking about his working process, Huan acknowledges the authority of the work of art. None of his work is decided or even finished in advance, in the maker’s head – the work has a life of its own and the energy that determines its ending. It is the artist that learns from the work, from the process of making. It is the artist (the artist’s idea) that is always mutable. “I like to be changing all the time. If I don’t I feel boring. I always need to search for new spaces and new fields. I experiment,” says Huan.
[TEXT: Ira Ferris, March 2015]
 “Sometime I say STOP during the process – stop, let’s finish like this. Originally I did not foresee that this is where we could end. I pay attention to the process.“ [from Zhang Huan in Conversation at Carriageworks, January 2015]
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