Skull Obsession: Religion and Opium in Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Zhang Huan, Poppy Field No. 8, 2010. (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy of Pace Gallery)

NEW YORK - Although I grew up as a Christian, I must confess that when it comes to aesthetics I am more drawn to Alexander McQueen’s skull-embellished clutches than those in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome in His Study or Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas. Even Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull fails to enchant me. This weekend, however, a visit to Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields solo exhibition at Pace Gallery did manage to transport me on a psychedelic journey to Tibet.

Drawing on the rich iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, known in China for its penchant for esoteric teachings and symbolism, Zhang Huan turned a colorful Tibetan art motif into a kaleidoscopic abstraction of the human search for freedom from the unending suffering of rebirths and deaths. One of the lynchpins underlying Buddhist philosophy: birth, not death, is the source of human suffering. All sentient beings are subject to endless rebirths. Only true enlightenment can liberate one from the entrapment of reincarnations. In this light, death is not an end-point of life, nor is it a fearful state of non-existence.

In Tibetan Buddhist rituals and religious art, the skull is a ubiquitous iconographic symbol. At the top of a club or a drum, as a part of the libation vessel for Tantric ceremonies, or in the form of a garland, a necklace, or a crown, skulls are talismans against human beings’ helpless attachment to the self and attending sufferings. For a Buddhist, death itself promises no greater suffering than endless rebirth and reincarnation do.

Tibetan religious art that has inspired Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields series in terms of iconography and color schemes.  As depicted therein, smiling skulls adorn the foreheads of some deities.  (© An Li).

Zhang filled his canvases with the smiling skulls of Tibetan Buddhism. At a distance, their vibrant colors suggest a state of hallucination, resulting from the “addictive” sentiments of cravings inescapably experienced by all human beings. Upon closer examination, the flower-like circles become piles of toothy smiling faces, large and small, that seem to be laughing at the human attempt to avoid mortality. Some pictures clearly delineate the contours of individual skulls, while others have a thicker impasto applied where the outlines of the skulls seem to have dissolved.  All in all, these images are not macabre, but are captivating because they draw on our imaginations.

Tibetan religious art that has inspired Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields series in terms of iconography and color schemes.  As depicted therein, smiling skulls adorn the foreheads of some deities.  (© An Li).

Zhang’s fascination with the skull dates back to his adolescence. His previous paintings, most notably from the Ash series, as well as sculptures, have made ample allusions to the skull’s power of mystery. But his Poppy Fields paintings are both a continuation of and a departure from his previous efforts. Here, the skulls have become abstract, all-encompassing references. Their happy faces, conjured up by thick, impenetrable layers of paint, have replaced the grim hollowness of previous renditions. Unlike the monochromic color scheme in his other skull-themed works, the pigments of the Poppy Fields paintings are dazzling. While Zhang’s color combinations differ from those in Tibetan art, which are traditionally centered around red, green, blue, yellow and white, they often give rise to a similar explosion of ecstatic hues.

Zhang Huan, Ash Skull No. 25, 2007. (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy of Pace Gallery)

As I wandered through the gallery, I could not help wondering: under what circumstances would one see a mound of skulls?

As the Dalai Lama wrote in My Land and My People, during his meeting with Mao on the final day of his visit to Beijing in 1955, Mao preached, “ . . . But you need to learn this: religion is poison . . .poison. Like a poison it weakens the race. Like a drug it retards the mind of people and society: the opium of the people. Tibet has been poisoned by religion and your people are poisoned and inferior.” Alluding to Karl Marx’s maxim that religion is the opium of the masses, Mao’s cautionary admonition sent a chill through the Dalai Lama’s spine.

Zhang Huan, Poppy Field No. 16, 2013, detail (© Zhang Huan Studio, Courtesy of Pace Gallery)

But Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields is more than just a reference to a specific historical context. Cushioned in Tibetan Buddhist symbolism, Poppy Fields represents a resistance to an overly politicized interpretation of anything that has to do with Tibet. It invites us to explore a deeper layer of the universal human condition as unfolding through these skulls.

This sub-buried skull made of braided ropes graced one of the courtyards at Zhang Huan’s Shanghai studio when I visited him in January 2011 (Photo by Chiu-Ti Jansen).

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's