NEW YORK – Since the 1990s, Zhang Huan has enthralled the art world with his daring performances, arresting photographs and monumental sculptures. Michael Slenske considers the artist’s allure.

"It is fair to say that our work in China began with Zhang Huan," says Marc Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, which opened a branch in Beijing in 2008. "Zhang Huan, as anyone who has met him will tell you, is a force of nature," adds Glimcher. The Beijing-born, Shanghai-based artist is known for his performances, paintings made with temple ash and large-scale sculptures of fragments of Buddha figures. Zhang burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s while living in the so-called "Beijing East Village," just outside the capital's Third Ring Road, an area at the edge of the city where he and other artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun lived and created avant-garde photographic and performance pieces. "These artists not only rewrote the rules of art making in China but pierced the international barrier, allowing Chinese contemporary art to explode onto the world scene," says Glimcher.

Zhang Huan’s My New York, 2002, will be sold on 6 April at Sotheby’s Hong Kong during the Contemporary Asian Art sale.

In 1998 Zhang relocated to New York, where he lived for eight years and completed numerous groundbreaking works, including the memorable performance My New York, for which he walked the streets of Manhattan wearing a muscle suit made of raw meat. The action was documented in video and in photographs, one of which will be offered in a sale of selections from the Ullens Collection at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 6 April. My New York carries an estimate of HK$120,000–$180,000 (US$15,500–$23,200). "Chinese collectors are especially interested in Zhang's performance-art photography from his early activities in the Beijing East Village," says Sotheby’s Hong Kong senior specialist Jonathan Wong. 

While Zhang was in New York he also completed his seminal photo piece Family Tree, 2000. For this project the artist enlisted calligraphers to mark his face and head with Chinese characters until at the end of the nine-image sequence his entire visage was covered with black ink. In 2012, an edition of Family Tree sold for just over $103,000 at a Hong Kong auction, and in London last fall, one brought $478,000 – the artist's top price at auction. A detail is also on the cover of the catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's current Ink Art group exhibition of Chinese artists, on view until 6 April.  

In Miami, Zhang is represented in another group show of Chinese artists at the Rubell Family Collection, and at Pace's London outpost this month, he will exhibit a group of hallucinatory paintings with thickly impastoed forms, which are based on Zhang's growing collection of Tibetan death masks and other Buddhist ephemera gathered during his travels in India and beyond.

Zhang Huan, Three Legged Buddha, 2007. Steel and copper, 28 ft. 2 1/2 in. x 42 ft. x 22 ft. 7 5/8 in. Gift of Zhang Huan and The Pace Gallery. Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY. Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson.

Meanwhile, in the US is the much-anticipated solo presentation at the Storm King Art Center, in Mountainville, New York. On view from 3 May through mid-November and co-curated by the Asia Society, the show will bring together all aspects of Zhang's wide-ranging studio practice and underscore the impact of his Buddhist faith on his work. "We’re focusing on his experience of going to Tibet and collecting sarcophogi and other antiquities," says Storm King director David Collens. Zhang will also orchestrate an incense ceremony like the one performed by monks to inaugurate Storm King's 2010 acquisition of his Three Legged Buddha, a 28-foot-high steel and hammered-copper figure whose head is partially buried in the ground. The sculpture will be the centrepiece at Storm King, complemented by Peace II, a 22-foot-tall cast bronze bell sounded by a gong in the shape of the artist's body and covered in gold leaf. 

As these shows demonstrate, the scale of Zhang's work is oftentimes part of its power. To wit: the unforgettable 2009 Pace exhibition of the artist's imposing Buddha figure made of ash that emitted incense smoke that filled the gallery. While interest in these larger indoor/outdoor works may be stronger in the West, as Collens stresses, "Chinese art is such a wide topic and it's hard to grasp just through the auction houses and galleries. The dust just hasn't settled on this area yet." Moreover, to understand a prolific artist like Zhang, market analysis only tells part of the story, argues Glimcher. "Attempting to understand what he is trying to do will benefit the collector much more than trying to decode his market."

Michael Slenske writes about art for W, Architectural Digest, DuJour, Modern Painters and other publications.

Zhang’s My New York, 2002 will be offered in the Contemporary Asian Art sale on 6 April in Hong Kong.