An Essay on Xu Zhen
The moment you label something, you take a step – I mean, you can never go back again to seeing it unlabelled. —Andy Warhol
Out of a need for comprehension, we like putting labels on artists. But the labels of our age are not made of elegant, smooth matte vinyl lettering, shimmering in a white cube: they are the hashtags that appear, millions per second, on social networks. There is a wide array of hashtags associated with Xu Zhen: #artist, #bossofMadeIn, #Xuzhen (the brand), #curator, #BizArt, #photography, #video, #painting, #sculpture, #performanceart, #internetart, #politicalart, #conceptualart... In the Post-Internet era, the formation and dissemination of concepts are not linear, temporal or geographical—and yet the mainstream art world continues to divide artists into two camps, according to dichotomized concepts such as East and West, modern and contemporary. But how much distance lies between those artists whose concepts operate in idealistic settings, their visions exceeding their present circumstances, and the concepts with which we label them? We must explain unknown concepts with known ones, believing that new ideas do not drop out of the blue, removed from older systems.
From Xu Zhen’s perspective, he has no concept. Indeed, were his thinking conceptual, then perhaps, out of moral concerns, he wouldn’t have hired a Guinean child living in Guangzhou to star in The Starving of Sudan (2008), re-enacting a Pulitzer-winning image of a gaunt African girl lying on the ground; perhaps, due to considerations involving sensitive issues of colonialism, racism and female objectification, he wouldn’t have installed sculptures of nude African women wearing ornate headpieces in Play—4 (2011); perhaps, in resistance to the over-commercialization of art, he wouldn’t have let MadeIn’s tentacles extend into largescale production of art derivatives. It is as the artist himself has stated: “Many things cannot be taken for granted.” It is precisely because he rejects concepts that he can reply to questions regarding his morals with confidence. “People often ask me why I have no sense of morality,” he says. “My initial reaction is, what is this so-called moral sense? You may say that what is intrinsic to humans rarely changes, but the signified changes drastically over time. If you always abide by concepts, it will be difficult for you to understand the world. You must let go confidently.”
We can, on the one hand, examine this questioning of his moral stance on colonialism, racism, feminism and political correctness from a Western perspective; but we can also experience the forceful impact, theatricality and absurdity of his works in a purely aesthetic way. Xu Zhen is keen on proactively exploring various facets of things, and I believe that for anyone who is truly full of creativity and curiosity, the counterpart of happiness is boredom. For Xu Zhen, to work on projects in a familiar dimension, thereby being able to predict their effect, is effectively to do the same thing over and over again. From this point of view, it is perhaps easier for us to understand his longstanding fascination with taboos, and his interest in taking up multiple identities: artist, curator, gallery owner, CEO.
Xu Zhen was born in 1977 and graduated from the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts. For most young students in China, to be accepted into a national art academy is the first step towards success on the path of artistry. Unlike such artists as Fang Lijun, Yue Min, Zhang Xiaogang and Wang Guangyi, all of whom attended prestigious art academies before achieving international success in the contemporary art market, Xu Zhen’s scant educational background gives more weight to his status as a “self-made” artist. As early as 2001, a then twenty-four-year-old Zhen was selected to participate in the 51th Venice Biennale for his video artwork Shouting, marking him as the youngest Chinese artist exhibited at the Biennale to date. This low-cost video piece has an intuitive sense of humor like that of Ban Jan Ader, with Zhen directing the camera at the seething crowd in busy streets, then causing them to reflexively turn around with his unexpected cries. This act, while akin to pranking, is very austere; it seems to reflect an intentional emphasis on or pursuit of a meaningless situation, recalling the early experiments of “father of Chinese video art” Zhang Peili, which similarly lay between boredom, absurdity and amusement. In China, video art began in the mid-’80s. From today's perspective, many prominent early works share fascinating formal similarities with American video art from the late 1960s—the appropriation of found footage, absurd performances, exaggerated representations of pop culture and so on. Xu Zhen’s early video works show similar interests: in Road Show (2001), for instance, he impersonates a rap musician, performing passionately on stage. What the audience actually hears, however, is him imitating the voice he makes when having sex; as he arrives at his climax, the viewers, who remain off-screen, screamexcitedly, as if they’re engaging in some interaction with thelonely musician.
In discussing Xu Zhen’s work from this period, it is impossible to ignore the social and cultural context in which they were produced. Despite their esteemed place in today’s developed art spaces and art market, Chinese video art was for many years a semi-underground movement; as late as 1998, artists like Xu Zhen, Alexander Brandt and Yang Zhenzhong were organizing mixed-media exhibitions in rented basements, only to have them promptly shut down by police order. In response, Xu Zhen joined a group of artists in founding BizArt, the first non-profit artistic organization in Shanghai. As Davide Quadrio, the Italian curator and co-founder of BizArt once wrote, “A group of artists, curators, and gallery managers, committed to creating a suitable environment for the survival of contemporary art in Shanghai in late ’90s... This is how BizArt was founded.” At that time, Xu Zhen was no longer simply an artist, but an activist invested in changing the living conditions of contemporary art in Shanghai. In the absence of legitimate exhibition spaces and official acknowledgment of their works, they produced works and held exhibitions on their own. In 1999, for instance, Xu Zhen was involved in the preparation of a project named Supermarket Exhibition. Held in a shopping center, the exhibition was divided into two sections: one was a parody of the small commodities market, intended as a satire of the commercialization of artworks; the other was reserved for performance art and installations. Although officials shut down the exhibition within a day of its opening, it remains a milestone event in the history of contemporary art in Shanghai.
Interestingly, after an interval of eight years, Xu Zhen created Supermarket in 2007. The installation is a 1:1 reproduction of a typical Chinese supermarket. From soft drinks, cigarettes and dairy product to pickles, dried fruits, newspapers and liquor, the “products” appear to be plentiful, but one soon realized that there was nothing inside any of the packages. Objects that have lost their intended functions become another kind of commodity in an artistic context—at the cash registers near the exit, visitors can purchase any item at its typical grocery store price. Its 1999 iteration had been staged outside an art institution; by 2007, however, Chinese contemporary art had completed its transition to the commercial mainstream. In turn, as Xu Zhen proceeded to exhibit this installation around the world, it also became an artistic concept that could be commercialized.
A year later, Xu Zhen founded MadeIn, an art production company with a staff of over fifty employees based in a suburb of Shanghai. MadeIn not only creates and produces artworks based on Xuzhen’s artistic direction, but also has its own gallery promoting young artists; recently, it also launched the brand PIMO, selling art derivatives. Its business model as both a studio and a company recalls artists like Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, each of whom consistently promote the integration of art and business. In response, Zhen points out, “I paint, and so does he—but why doesn't anyone ask whether there is a difference there?... Our current mode as a company is a kind of art in itself; the company is an artist. In this age, whether you're practicing art or venturing in business, you are nonetheless in a creative process.”
While Xu Zhen claims that the company staff often cannot keep up with his rapid rate of creative thinking, MadeIn’s output in the last few years could definitely be described as “plentiful.” Whether it is the exhibitions “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” and “Lonely Miracle” (both 2009), filled with Middle-Eastern symbols; the comic-themed 2009 series “Spread,” a collage of cloth featuring the style of “Gaudy art” and “political pop”; Eternity, a 2013 installation connecting the heads of the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Tianlongshan Grottoes Bodhisattva; European Thousand-Arms Classical Sculpture (2014), which combines a Buddhist thousand-arms Guanyin statue and Western classical statues; or the 2013 “Under Heaven” series, “painted” with a cream dispenser that piles up pigment on canvas, the artworks produced by MadeIn are spectacular, filled with political and cultural labels without aspiring to profound meaning. They recall various elements of the vanity fair as depicted in the film The Great Gatsby: hedonism, consumption, transience, casualness, sensory stimulation and an impressive display of power and influence.
Of course, this materialistic world does truly exist in contemporary China. When discussing China’s current situation, in which the development of art is largely driven by capital, Xu Zhen believes that commercialism provides an abundance of possibilities, but is in and of itself a massive trap. Nevertheless, Zhen remains adept at weighing situations and puts extreme emphasis on the connection between art and social reality, arguing that it involves aspects of both business and academia: “The academic must be able to survive the challenges of reality. That is the real academia. Otherwise, it is just empty talk.”
Xu Zhen is an artist confident enough to make definite judgments, asserting, “I don’t have to abide by Western rules,” and “We should not focus too much on issues that are personal. It’s that simple: what have you produced? Is it interesting?” From his point of view, to be “interesting” is not only the core issue of artistic creation, but also an important criterion that defines the degree to which one’s sense of existence has advanced. In addition to artworks that exist in physical form, several of Zhen’s performances and installations reflect his “interesting” method of production. For instance, in the performance March 6 (2002), Xu Zhen invited one hundred farmers, workers and unemployed people, along with one hundred college students, to dress up in striped pajamas. He then asked each of them to follow a visitor at a two-meter distance without talking or making any physical contact, thus allowing visitors to experience a silent form of communication in a strange but fun situation. Similarly, for the installation Action of Consciousness, exhibited at the 2011 Armory show in New York, he asked two hidden performers to throw fifty large objects mid-air inside a sealed cube. These objects came in various shapes, ranging from limp Tiananmen Square sculpture models to a half-sized statue of Van Gogh. The audience outside the cube could only see these objects for a split second—an allusion to the real-life scenario of art fairs, where there are too many artworks on display for the audience’s eyes to absorb. The installation was humorous and sarcastic, more recreational than critical, conveying a positive and light-hearted take on recreation and consumption while thrilling the audience’s sense organs at the same time. It perfectly merits the description of being “interesting.”
In 2013, MadeIn founded the brand Xuzhen. While one could wonder, given its name, whether Zhen, prompted by the success of MadeIn, is calling for the further advancement of his sense of existence, he has proven himself to be an open-minded and flexible company CEO. In contrast to many artists who, having practiced art for years, still find it very important to adhere to their original intentions, Xu Zhen believes that as people change with their experiences and environments, their intentions will change accordingly. An empiricist and pragmatist, he is capable of making prompt self-adjustments according to actual situations. From BizArt to MadeIn, from Xu Zhen to Xuzhen, from a nonprofit organization to an art enterprise,from exhibitions in the basement to the forefront of globalcommercial art, from starring in self-produced video works tocollaborating with designers on a platform that sells art derivatives,from artistic practice to consumerism, followed by politicalpop: perhaps even Xu Zhen himself doesn’t know whathis next label will be. But as an artist who advances with thetimes, and frequently benefits from their evolutions, Xu Zhenis keen on explaining reality with reality: whether it be theimportance of social media, the necessity for artists to makeself-adjustments, the relativity of personal beliefs and values,or the triviality of non-core issues, these are “reasonable byexistence.” For Xu Zhen, an artist’s sense of existence must bereflected by present reality; as the Internet has allowed informationsharing to explode, it leaves no excuse for artists notto examine their own positions from the perspectives of spaceand time. Quick-thinking and with endless ideas, he has littleinterest in art that is nostalgic; his practice, a comprehensiveproduction of business, art, and academia, incessantly inspiresour curiosity and excitement. Whatever form his output takes,one believes that he will continue making interesting attemptsinside and outside the realm of artistic production. Perhapsthe end goal of these attempts is to blur and dilute the rigidityof the ideas he explores, such as the East-West dichotomy, globalization,cultural colonialism, consumerism, commercialism,and art-as-entertainment. However, in Xu Zhen’s mind, acceptanceand rejection are one and the same. No matter whatmethod he employs, his ultimate concern is the advancementof his own sense of existence.