‘Three Heads Six Arms’ add up to one big spectacle 

San Francisco’s Civic Center is no stranger to unusual sights, but a new art piece there takes the cake.

Zhang Huan’s colossal installation “Three Heads Six Arms” is striking, bizarre and fairly overwhelming.

It will be dedicated at 10 a.m. today at the Larkin Street end of the City Hall mall in a presentation attended by Luis R. Cancel, director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission, which is the sponsor of the public art project.

Tonight at the Asian Art Museum, the Chinese-speaking Zhang, whose comments will be translated into English, will appear in a free program in conversation with museum Director Jay Xu.

The 26-foot-tall dark-copper sculpture of intermingling body parts, which weighs about 15 tons, dominates the space across the street from the Asian Art Museum.

The piece’s debut here salutes the sister-city relationship between San Francisco and Shanghai. On loan courtesy of the artist and the Pace Gallery New York, it will be on view in The City through 2011 until it goes on exhibit in several U.S. cities.

Although it’s not good form to ask what modern art “means,” Zhang has said that during a visit to Tibet, while viewing fragments of smashed Buddhist sculptures, “a mysterious power impressed” him. “[Limbs are] embedded with historical and religious traces, just like the limbs of a human being,” he said.

By re-creating desecrated fragments on a grand scale, Zhang said, he hopes to alleviate the pain caused by their destruction.

The faces shown are supposedly the Buddha’s, but they look a lot like Zhang’s self-portraits, with exquisite work on the copper surface.

Zhang is a famous (and notorious) performance artist and sculptor whose piles of naked (real) bodies, sculptures of deformed creatures with cowhide for skin and support for Tibet prompted the Chinese government a year ago to cancel his Shanghai Art Museum exhibit scheduled for this year; eventually, a modified show was allowed to open.

In the Shanghai show, there’s a prominent figure of a pig looking out of a pagoda. It’s believed to be the “Iron Pig,” which survived being trapped for 49 days after the Sichuan earthquake and that the artist subsequently adopted.

Zhang’s work has been exhibited in New York, Barcelona, Paris, Hamburg, Zürich and elsewhere. His performances, photos and sculptures involve his body, usually naked, occasionally blood-smeared or involving masochistic actions.

Last year, he directed the Handel opera “Semele” in Brussels. Zhang placed the story from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in a Ming Dynasty temple, with an immense “Three Legged Buddha” dominating the square outside the theater.


IF YOU GO

Three Heads Six Arms

Where: Dedication ceremony at Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Civic Center; talk at Asian Art Museum, Samsung Hall, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

When: Ceremony at 10 a.m. today; talk at 7 p.m. today

Tickets: Free

Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.sfartscommission.org; www.asianart.org

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