Chinese artist Xu Zhen: “Art can create a new culture” – interview

Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen tells Art Radar about his UCCA retrospective and China’s art scene today.

Dubbed by Barbara Pollack in The New York Times as “a Chinese provocateur” for his role in the Armory Show 2014 in New York, Xu Zhen has garnered a lot of media attention. The artist also recently had a mid-career retrospective in his home country at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Xu Zhen, '8848-1.86', 2006, video, installation, photography, performance, 8'10". Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ’8848-1.86′, 2006, video, installation, photography, performance, 8’10″. Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen: A MadeIn Company Production” was hosted by Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing (UCCA) from 18 January to 20 April 2014. Comprising over 50 installations, as well as videos, paintings, collages and performances, the retrospective revealed the complexity and diversity of Xu Zhen‘s unorthodox career as an artist.

Between 2005 and 2009, Xu Zhen created several works that were based on fake facts or took the shape of pranks. One of the best known works from that period is 8848-1.86’s (2006), which consists of “documentary” photographs, a video and objects from a supposed climb of Mount Everest. The exhibit also featured a 1.86-metre slice off the tip of the mountain shown in a refrigerated tank, which the artist and his team allegedly took after reaching the peak of the highest mountain in the world.

Xu Zhen, '18 Days', 2006, installation view, video, photography, performance, 23'53". Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ’18 Days’, 2006, installation view, video, photography, performance, 23’53″. Image courtesy UCCA.

Another work from that period is a video entitled 18 Days (2006) which documents a trip taken by Xu Zhen and some of his collaborators with the goal of crossing the borders of several countries neighbouring China with remote controlled military toy tanks, ships or planes.

In 2009, Xu Zhen changed direction. He dissolved his art practice and instead formed the MadeIn Company where he served as CEO. As the company’s website explains, the initiative is a “contemporary art creation company, focused on the production of creativity, and devoted to the research of contemporary culture’s infinite possibilities.” With this move, Xu both rejected the over-emphasis in contemporary art on the persona of the artist while at the same time bolstering the significance of collaborative art projects.

Xu Zhen, 'Eternity', 2013, installation view 3.5 x 13 x 1.5m. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ‘Eternity’, 2013, installation view, 3.5 x 13 x 1.5m. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

UCCA’s exhibition explored Xu’s ability to criticise the shibboleths of the global art world, exemplified by the large-scale site-specific sculptural installation Eternity (2013). In this piece, which was made specifically for the UCCA entrance hall, bodhisattvas and other Chinese religious figures were stacked and attached by their necks to statues of the Parthenon. UCCA Director Philip Tinari and chief curator Paul Tsai, who jointly curated the exhibition, described Eternity as a work that “makes literal a rampant cliché of contemporary art and global culture — the idea of ‘East meets West’.”

Art Radar caught up with Xu Zhen over email to find out more about the retrospective, the development of his collaborative art practice and the changes facing Chinese contemporary art today.

Congratulations on your mid-career retrospective at the UCCA Beijing. Does this exhibition provide an opportunity for you to reflect on and also look to the future of your art practice? How so?

This exhibition consists of many works from the past, and it has been put together to re-create a live exhibition. The exhibition space is too small to contain the boundless number of works that have been created. However, I am most grateful to the curators Tian Fei Yu [Philip Tinari] and Cai Bin Qiao [Paula Tsai] who, despite the messiness of our work, were able to maintain great tolerance and acceptance.

Tell us a bit about your installation entitled Eternity that you made for the UCCA lobby, and the inspiration behind it. 

The work entitled Eternity is concerned with the “fixed” point of view. Civilisation is constantly giving birth and inheriting through the process of creation. Only if you accept your own civilization, will you be able to realise that civilization has no boundaries.

Xu Zhen, 'Seeing One’s Own Eyes', 2009, installation. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ‘Seeing One’s Own Eyes’, 2009, installation view. Produced by MadeIn Company. Image courtesy UCCA.

There are some earlier works where you deal with how art is perceived by an audience from a different culture. I am thinking of your mock exhibitions “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” (2009) and “Lonely Miracle” (2009) where you created works supposedly by Middle Eastern artists. What made you aware of this need for a greater understanding of a culture that operates outside of the norm of one’s own?

I have always been curious about the difference between cultures and the alienation between them. And yet, misconceptions can be the beginning of awareness and understanding.

How do you think greater cultural understanding can be promoted between East and West? Do you think art can be an effective vehicle for promoting it?

For me, in order to increase the understanding between different cultures, I need to keep creating. Through the creation of new behaviour, art can create a new culture and, therefore, help us understand underlying cultural forms.

Do you think that by creating MadeIn Company you have been able to achieve what you set out to? Do you feel that it has helped you to put greater emphasis on the production of art rather than on the artist as an individual?

The biggest difference is that MadeIn Company is concerned with the creation of art, and the individual identity of the artist becomes less important. MadeIn Company is one working method; it works for me.

Do you prefer to work collaboratively on art projects? What are the advantages of working in a group rather than as a single artist?

MadeIn Company is not a creative community, it is a company’s organisational structure. In the creation of art, it is very different from a [creative] team. In a company there is no democracy, decision-makers look for targets, [which they can] resolutely implement.

Xu Zhen, 'ShanghART Supermarket', 2007, installation, 15.7 x 11 x 4.7m. Image courtesy UCCA.

Xu Zhen, ‘ShanghART Supermarket’, 2007, installation view, 15.7 x 11 x 4.7m. Image courtesy UCCA.

ShangART Supermarket, one of your pieces that debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007, is again on show at UCCA. It is a fully stocked Chinese convenience store with an attendant at the cash register encouraging visitors to browse and shop; but all products are, in fact, empty and only the packaging is on display. What do you hope to convey with this piece? Why?

With this work I want to precisely convey an attitude to the media. I want to tell people that, from beginning to end you need to face your real world. I think in a supermarket there is a convergence of energy, which is timeless. A supermarket that has no specific content or function is very safe. I did not have to worry whether the food in the packages would expire as they are all empty, and it will never be consumed.

What is the idea behind these mock invasions as documented in 18 Days

This is an incident of a real invasion that occurred. What else can aggression explain?

In 1998, you co-founded Shanghai’s first independent, nonprofit art centre, BizArt, which funds experimental exhibitions of young Shanghai artists though its graphic design, art advertising and other commercial services. What is your advice to young artists today? 

To see more, think more and don’t trust others.

With your multifarious roles as art practitioner, curator and promoter of art you have been described as a “key figure” in the Shanghai art scene. In your experience what is unique about the Shanghai art scene both in China and internationally? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How would you like to see its future course unfold?

For me Shanghai, Beijing or New York are all the same. Wherever I go, I will get restless, but then I can find something to do that suits me. The future can be anywhere.

MadeIn Company, 'Physique of Consciousness', 2011, exhibition view with video in background and one detail of installation. Image courtesy of NA.

MadeIn Company, ‘Physique of Consciousness’, 2011, exhibition view with video in background and one detail of installation. Image courtesy of NA.

Over the years, how have you found working with galleries in China? What has changed most since you started practising?

Chinese artists and galleries are both facing an era of great change. So we all feel a bit dizzy. In fact, it is very good. In the future, when we look back to this time we will see it as a period of great struggle.

Nooshfar Afnan


Related Topics: Chinese artists, video art, interviews, installation, events in Beijing

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