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His performance art is bound to provoke
By Cate McQuaid (Globe Correspondent)
Updated: 2005-09-29 14:17

Zhang Huan is the type of artist whom many outside the rarefied world of performance art label a crackpot.

"Zhang Huan: Seeds of Hamburg" [zhanghuan.com]
He has covered his naked body in honey and fish oil and sat in a public toilet, attracting flies.

For his piece "Zhang Huan: Seeds of Hamburg," documented in a series of photographs on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, he coated himself with honey and birdseed and closed himself in a cage with 28 doves.

Under rainy skies Monday evening in "Zhang Huan: My Boston," a live performance, he had himself buried under a pile of books.

Zhang, 40, pioneered performance work in China in the 1990s. He moved to New York in 1998. His work fits neatly into a tradition that includes Joseph Beuys (who wrapped himself in felt and shut himself in a room with a coyote for five days in 1974) and Yoko Ono (who sat stock still while audience members took turns cutting her clothing off in 1964). In work like this, the artist's body becomes a metaphor for us all, as well as our existential agonies, which are sometimes no less absurd than being pecked at by pigeons.

Eloquent and haunting, "Seeds of Hamburg" depicts a 2002 performance in Germany. The 12 large-scale color photos distill it down to a series of poignant moments. Zhang, coated in dark seeds, looks more stone than flesh, a contemporary-art version of a comic-strip mutant. A slender man, here he appears to lumber into the giant cage.

He attracts the birds like the Pied Piper attracted rats. The interaction is strangely moving, a tender interspecies collaboration. In one photo, Zhang lies on his stomach as doves perch on his back and buttocks. In another, he rises to sit, setting the birds fluttering in front of his chest. At the end, he sits atop a throne of crates, Buddha-like. After a dove pulls a red ribbon from his mouth, Zhang cradles that dove in his hands and exits the cage.
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