From his early days of flailing dead cats to his recent live reenactment of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s iconic and desperately tragic 1993 image of a vulture eyeing a starving child in the Sudan, 32-year-old Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen has had a penchant for controversial subject matter. Seeing it as a way to communicate with his audience in a meaningful way, Xu aggressively challenges received perceptions of art and reality by removing the fences around territories, both actual and conceptual, that supposedly cannot be breached. In 8848 – 1.86 (2005), a work made up of video, photographs and other materials, Xu and a group of friends apparently climb to the top of Mount Everest, where they cut the equivalent of the artist’s height off the peak during a wild snowstorm. The mountain’s severed tip sat in a large refrigerated display box at ShanghArt, Xu’s longtime gallery in Shanghai, as supposed proof of the implausible feat. During the 2007 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, Xu turned the ShanghArt booth into ShanghArt Supermarket, a new work in which he reconstructed a typical Chinese convenience store, complete with snacks, sundries and everyday essentials. All product packages were empty, but the entire stock sold out, and a collector eventually bought the store itself. ShanghArt Supermarket mocked the art market at the peak of the Western art world’s latest obsession with all things Chinese, and the very people he targeted still wanted to be part of his world. Xu confronted collectors, only to find that they were perfectly comfortable to be both in on the joke and part of its punchline.
Xu’s most recent grand gesture, an open-ended project now in progress, came with the formation of MadeIn. Billed as an art company, MadeIn is Xu’s collective, a group of budding artists, technicians and laborers who help the artist conceive and execute his work. Perhaps as a dig at superstar artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Zhang Huan, all of whom employ scores of assistants to make their work, the artworks created under MadeIn are explicitly credited as such. In a recent conversation with ArtAsiaPacific, Xu explained that “MadeIn is an experiment, and I don’t know how long it will survive or what kind of problems we will encounter under this system. But for now, Xu Zhen the artist does not exist.”
MadeIn’s gallery debut came in September 2009 with back-to-back shows of “Middle Eastern” contemporary art at ShanghArt and James Cohan Gallery in New York. The shows consisted of installations, paintings and sculptures that addressed clichéd perceptions of a region viewed primarily as rich, dangerous and distant. Using stereotypical symbols and iconography—such as camels and oil rigs—some of the works served as simplistic emblems of the issues at hand. Yet other works were genuinely unsettling and convincingly sincere. Indeed, alongside a goofy six-foot-tall tumbleweed of barbed wire bundled up with Middle Eastern artifacts—including furniture, pottery and statues both authentic and fake—and a tree of prosthetic limbs hanging Calder-like in a skillfully counterbalanced mobile, the New York show, entitled “Lonely Miracle,” included several extremely effective paintings of politically themed cartoons. Images of George W. Bush, keffiyeh-clad Arabs, dead soldiers and pirate flags emblazoned with the Star of David were swirled together, caricatures arguing loudly, cruelly and without conclusion. The dizzying, Hieronymus Bosch-like scenes managed to embody both the pointlessness and the real danger of political and religious fanaticism, and placed this brutal paradoxical reality before the viewer’s eyes on gigantic, elegantly painted canvases.
The companion show in Shanghai, “Seeing One’s Own Eyes,” consisted mainly of installations. A floor piece, Perfect Volume(2009), formed a ring of 100 military boots cut down to just the tips, in which the missing parts of the shoes as well as the implied bodies of soldiers spoke of lives lost in war. Another work, Calm (2009), a bed-shaped mound of bricks, debris and dust, initially resembled an unmarked grave; yet on closer inspection, the work appeared to be alive, with the pile moving up and down as though breathing (the sculpture had been placed on top of a waterbed whose motor produced the hypnotic undulations). Ruins usually signify destruction and death, but Calm showed the viewer that there is life in an aftermath, that its presence continues to act as a reminder of conflict and, as in Perfect Volume, that it is caused by human action.
Beyond the satisfying conception and execution of this body of work lies a larger theoretical proposition about the collective ownership of ideas on a local and global level. For “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” and “Lonely Miracle” were shows of Middle Eastern art with no participating Middle Eastern artists, made by a Chinese artist, with Chinese assistants, in China. Are the works less Chinese and more Middle Eastern because they are presented in the broad visual shorthand of the Middle East, with their sandy palette and Arabic calligraphy? Or are the works forever Chinese like the artists who made them? The shows promised their audiences contemporary Middle Eastern art, so why should we consider it to be anything else?
Xu has never been to the Middle East. “I’ve only been there through the internet,” he says. The artist does not like to fly. This might seem odd coming from an international artist who hails from a country that has recently opened up dramatically to the world, but he does not see his position as a creative impediment. “Surely it affects my work, but look at it positively. Whose perspective is correct?” In a daily environment in which there are subtle and outright controls on artists and exhibitions, he is surprisingly comfortable in China, despite his penchant for controversial and often pornographic themes that periodically get him in trouble with government censors. “Nothing so far has made me want to leave China,” he says, adding that the situation creates a challenge to which he is resigned. “I can only make art through my understanding of the world,” he says. And here is where one finds the heart of MadeIn’s Middle Eastern shows. While questioning viewers’ perceptions, Xu is also trying to express his own limited understanding of that region through the available lens of international news media and the internet. “All my work is a reflection of myself, it is not just about the issues that I address,” he states. “I can become a voice of dissent but I don’t dare. The situation is too unpredictable and I can’t afford to be an Ai Weiwei, although I would like to be. Besides, I don’t entirely trust certain people who raise their fists in revolt or dissent. It’s just a performance, and thus not entirely true or authentic.”
“My career is my education,” he says. “After you have worked at it a while, you start to get a rhythm and feel for the art.” Xu’s Middle Eastern work does indeed have an effortlessly cool rhythm, but it does not feel brash or excessively stylish. And it cannot be dismissed as shallow or juvenile, despite brazenly tempting its viewers to declare it a one-liner. It is, ultimately, a treatise on ownership and an artist’s responsibility to himself: confronting the world, through one’s work, with the sort of carefully framed questions that will yield real answers, even if those answers are not immediately forthcoming. This is measured, humble work from an artist who may not be considered controversial for much longer.