[This work] was inspired by an old saying, ‘Beyond the mountain, there are more mountains,’ which is about humility. Climb this mountain and you will find an even bigger mountain in front of you. ‘To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond’ was an extension of this idea. It's about changing the natural state of things, about the idea of possibilities.Zhang Huan, in an interview from his 2009 Phaidon monograph with curator, critic and art historian RoseLee Goldberg
For more than 20 years, Zhang Huan’s body of work has explored complex and controversial issues relating to poverty, nomadism, identity and spiritualism. Though his practice is multidisciplinary, the artist is perhaps best known for investigating these issues through provocative, endurance-based performance art that often pushes his physical and mental wellbeing to impossible limits. To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond documents his 1997 performance in Beijing by the same name.
Zhang Huan invited more than 40 men––laborers, fishermen, construction workers––who had recently migrated to Beijing from other areas of China to participate. In a single file line, they followed the artist into a pond, then dispersed to raise its water level by one meter. The present image shows Zhang Huan carrying a young child on his shoulders as he wades, alluding to his own childhood experiences of playing in fishponds with friends.
Though his fellow performers were all strangers, their collective journey into the water resonated with the artist’s personal memories of him and his friends intimately connecting with nature. His collaboration with men whose work positions them on the lower rungs of Chinese social hierarchy was also significant: Only together could they raise the pond’s water level, suggesting the urgency of collective, organized action to effect change.
In the end, however, the act of raising the water level was futile as it did not accomplish anything significant. After the performance, the men would return to their daily lives. “That the water in the pond was raised one meter higher,” the artist says, “is an action of no avail.”
In the gallery below, several works from the collection pair well with Zhang Huan’s photograph To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond (Water Child).