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Family Tree: the Inheritance Between Generations

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Family tree is a Chinese traditional culture that carefully records the origin, rules, marriages, cultures, and members in a family, and it is usually recorded in a notebook and handed from generation to generation. Zhang Huan, the Chinese visual artist born in 1965, who created his family tree on his face with ink gives me a new way to present the history of a family, and it also shows the contemporary Chinese people’s views on family and blood inheritance. I think this artwork is good because it strikes me and makes me think about my situation. I think this artwork is good in four ways which are material, the spirit inside it, the express of the heritance in Chinese families, and the exploration of personal identity.

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In China, it can rarely see artists draw or write on their bodies. Since ancient times, Chinese art never considered physical beauty as a pursuit or a way to express. Moreover, in the decades after the founding of the People Republic of China, this overlook of physical art was inherited, so the expressive force of using the human body was so strong. Thus, I think it can be considered as a contemporary innovation. However, calligraphy is a very traditional Chinese culture. With the combination of both contemporary and traditional elements, I think it is creative and unique. In addition, I think Huan is using his body as a platform to bring out his idea and emotion, and I think it strongly expresses his idea because this experience is very direct and specific which paper and other writing carriers cannot have the same effect. I think the using of the human body also creates a connection between Huan and his family. The process of writing down his ancestors’ names on his face is also the process of making the connection. Also, as more characters writing on his face, the daylight is getting darker, and it also makes a connection between humans and the environment. Thus, I think the material that Huan chooses makes this art good.

On his forehead, there are four Chinese characters “愚公移山 (Move the Mountain by Fool)”. It is a story about the “Foolish Old Man” who wants to remove the two mountains which block their village. The “Wise Old Man” laughed at him, but the “Foolish Old Man” says that if he cannot finish this, his son will follow his footsteps; if his son cannot finish this, this will inherit from generation to generation. Finally, God hears his story and help him remove the mountains. I think the using of this story is to express the spirit of Huan’s family which is full of determination and challenging. It makes me think about if the contemporary Chinese young generation is too eager for quick success. Back to 1938, before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao used this story to encourage his fellows to face the great challenges; with this spirit, they went through the hardest years. However, with the change of the times, the “fast-food culture” becomes popular, the Chinese young generation is more likely to take short cuts and get away with it. Students attend school for diploma to make better profit in the future instead of learning skills and knowledge; Professors are obsessed with publishing articles and earn profit that they do not think about what their research can help the society; companies cut corners in pursuit of speed and do not want to invest in long-term or uncertain projects; industries use inferior raw material and exaggerated publicity to pursue higher interests. Also, when people encounter difficulties, they would like to find other ways, and they will give up if they cannot resolve it. Even though they know it could happen if they try hard, they will not do so because they want a quicker success. I think we need to reflect on this because if this social mentality continues to develop, it will form a vicious circle because one is willing to work for the progress of society and science.

Huan uses 9 photos to record the process of making this artwork. In the first photo, there are only a few Chinese characters; with the creation of the artwork, there are more and more Chinese characters writing on his face, and finally, his face becomes completely black. In the first few photos, the characters on his face can be identified, but as the number of names increasing, the characters become blurred and hard to identify. I think this can somehow represent the inheritance of the Chinese family. In China, the family is a very significant idea. When people are born, they became the continuation of the family. They are taught to make their family prosper and not to make their family shame. In Huan’s artwork, the process of writing ancestors’ names on his face is also the process of getting the inheritance from his family. In the last photo, even though the ancestors’ names cannot be identified, they are in the blood. Finally, he becomes an extension of his family, and he also loses his identity. I think this provokes the audience and make the audience think about the relationship between their family and themselves. Are they independent people? Or they are just someone’s son or daughter?

Also, I think there is another explanation for the disappearance of personal identity. Based on Huan’s experience, he settled down, attended and held art exhibitions in both China and America. When his face is completely covered with ink, the identities of race and culture are also disappeared, and he can integrate into the new art environment without prejudices. This has a similar idea with black quiet which using a peaceful way to improve or even eliminate the racial and cultural prejudice, and I think this expresses one of the most important functions of art. Also, I think that people should not judge an artwork based on what race the producer is, and audiences should focus on what the artwork wants to express. If people can ignore the differences of race and culture, there will be great progress in society and the world of art.

To sum up, In Huan’s artwork Family Tree, he uses a unique art carrier to express his view of the relationship between individuals and families, and he also gives some philosophical speculations about self-identity. It makes me reflect on my shortcomings, and it also inspires me and lets me think about who am I as a person. Thus, I think this artwork can be considered as good.

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