As I approached the White Cube gallery in posh St James’s, I could hear a curious snuffling and snorting emanating from the building. Who was in there? Brian Sewell? Pete Doherty? It turned out to be neither of them, but a pair of charmingly spotted pigs given temporary shelter in the gallery by the pushy Chinese artist Zhang Huan. The pigs apparently belong to a breed called the Oxford Sandy and Black. Their real names are Gertrude and Elsie. For the purposes of this show, however, where they needed to engage in a tortuous symbolic relationship with a faraway pig in China, they have been rechristened Oxford Flower and Her Child.
One thing I do not wish to tackle here is any sort of argument about the rights and the wrongs of involving live pigs in a gallery installation. The relevant animal-welfare agencies have been consulted, and the official view is that, compared with most pig situations, the one organised for the Oxford spotties by Zhang is delightful. Straw everywhere. Expensive exotic plants to dig up and eat. A football to play with. A tyre to swing on. It’s pig heaven. Which is the biggest thing wrong with the show.
The installation is intended to be a tribute to a particularly famous Chinese pig known as Zhu Gangqiang – the Cast-Iron Pig – which survived the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 in remarkable circumstances. That earthquake, you will remember, shook China just before the Beijing Olympics and killed nearly 70,000 people. A matching number are still officially unaccounted for. In this terrible sea of human loss, one small story of hope bobbed to the surface. A month and a half after the earthquake – 49 days later, to be exact – a survivor was found: the Cast-Iron Pig. Snuffling its way weakly out of the rubble, the pig had managed to survive underground on a diet of rainwater and rotten wood. When it came out of the ground, it weighed half of what it had before the earthquake.
The unkillable pig duly became a national hero. And its story, I read, “resonated” on a deep personal level with Zhang Huan, who bought the pig from the farmer who owned it and had a special pen built for it next to his studio. Zhang now employs a full-time guard to look after the Cast-Iron Pig until it dies. He has made it his personal responsibility, and tries here, I suggest, to steal a rasher or two of its heroism for himself.
The original idea for the show was to fly over the Cast-Iron Pig itself and install it in a pen in the gallery, alongside a video telling the uplifting story of its survival. Fortunately – for even a cast-iron pig would surely have suffered severe displacement from such a transport – the UK’s animal-import laws forbade it, and Gertrude and Elsie were drafted in as proxies. They are certainly lovely pigs – too lovely. Their sty is too nice, their manner too playful, their appearance too sweet, for any of the darkness or miraculousness of Zhu Gangqiang’s story to be felt in the gallery. Instead, a note of rural wellbeing has been captured that belongs in a village fair in Oxfordshire, and feels deeply inappropriate, deeply un-Chinese, too giggly by far. Zhang has at least arranged for a live video feed to be beamed into the White Cube from Zhu Gangqiang’s actual sty in China. This grey and grainy footage seems mostly to record a slimy concrete floor in faraway Shanghai, but the sacred pig does occasionally slip muckily across the shot, and even from these flickering bits of distorted digital information, it is clear that the real Zhu Gangqiang lives in conditions far removed from the Farmer Brown fantasy organised for us by the White Cube.
One of the most resonant aspects of the Cast-Iron Pig’s survival in Sichuan was the fact that it lasted underground for 49 days. In Buddhist theology, I read again, 49 days is the length of time that the soul remains on earth “between death and transmigration”. Zhang is famous for incorporating aspects of Buddhist thinking into his work (which Chinese artist doesn’t?), and the 49-day survival struck him as momentously significant. More than that, he seems also to have embarked on some manic identification with the pig’s fate, and now views Zhu Gangqiang as an animal embodiment of himself. “The pig’s fortitude resonated with Zhang Huan, who drew broad parallels with his own narrative as both outsider and survivor,” it says here. The entire installation is to be understood as a self-portrait.
All of which makes me boil, frankly. Putting aside the grotesque quantities of self-pity involved in the adoption of such a view of yourself, how dare this pampered modern artist, showing in the plushest gallery in the plushest corner of London’s Mayfair, toy so glibly with Buddhism and death, with human survival and the real meaning of the Sichuan earthquake? Even the accompanying video, in which Zhang retells the pig’s story, is so badly shot that it constitutes a disgrace. It was with relief that I made my way downstairs, where a selection of paintings on the subject of the Cast-Iron Pig’s survival finally bring a note of genuine sadness to these badly misjudged proceedings. Painted with the ash left over from Buddhist incense ceremonies, confined therefore to tones of murky grey and black, the pictures of Zhu being captured and hauled to freedom are the best things here. In one of the paintings, the pig looks up and fixes us with an expression that I swear to be one of accusation. My anthropomorphic button was definitely pressed.
Facing the accusatory pigs, on the other side of the gallery, is a row of human skulls, painted with the same grim ash, that are just about haunting enough to survive their awful familiarity. Usually, these days, if I see another skull in art, I scream. Zhang’s skulls, though, are particularly bare and vulnerable, and they lead me to suspect that he is a better artist than this show suggests.
The poor old animal kingdom is currently being roped into some frightfully busy symbolic duty in art. Most of this beastly symbolism is set in the no man’s land between ecology and self-image, where the animal’s plight stands in for our own. The message of David Harrison’s well-meaning but clunky show at Victoria Miro is that we are trashing the natural world: poisoning its health, polluting its vistas, destroying its magic. Harrison’s peculiar little paintings combine stretches of toxic landscape with weird and tragic appearances from the animal kingdom. A wild-eyed hare sniffs the air under a fiery sun. A black heron dabs forlornly at a rubbish-strewn stretch of canal. I like the way he has somehow arranged a marriage between contemporary Greenpeace story lines and the ancient ones you find in German fairy tales. What lets him down is his touch, which is stiff, dry, awkward.