Xu Zhen in his Shanghai studio in February. All photographs by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

Xu Zhen

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Winter in Shanghai brings frigid, cruel weather. Ice forms on desultory puddles and residual snow lurks in shadowy corners. The sun hides behind a blanket of pollution and the air is stagnant. Though the temperature inside seems only a little above freezing, Xu Zhen’s studio flows with creative energy. Heavy overcoats, anoraks and thick jackets are de rigueur and no one seems to mind the cold.

The studio is 40 minutes southwest of the city center, close to the apartment where Xu lives with his wife and two children. The artist commutes daily in his black Range Rover. A semi-brutalist concrete and red-brick structure, the studio itself is modest by Chinese standards, with 4,000 square meters spread over four floors, each with two-and-a-half-meter-high ceilings. It is unpretentious and anonymous.

Xu moved to his current location three months ago, after a previous factory space in the Taopu art district on the opposite side of the city proved too small for his expanding practice. He had considered relocating to Beijing, but decided against it on account of the city’s pollution. He now seems settled in this somewhat bleak, corporate-looking building on the premises of Sheshan Club, a failed office development that, suffering a dearth of takers upon completion, invited artists to occupy its premises instead. As a result, the club is now officially an “Artist Community,” or so the signage at the entrance to the estate proclaims. 

Assistants work on the latest version of “ShangArt Supermarket” (2007– ), entering information for the receipt issued upon checkout.

The studio’s cluttered stockpile for “Spread” (2012– ).

The building’s bland exterior, however, reveals nothing of what is going on inside, perhaps aptly paralleling the confounding corporate provenance from which Xu’s career has sprung. Creating art firstly under his own name, then evolving, in 2009, into the MadeIn Company brand, the artist has recently introduced a new title, “Xu Zhen,” while remaining under the MadeIn nomenclature. When asked about the difference between MadeIn Company and Xu Zhen, his answer is logical. “It is a little bit like when you are 20 and you don’t have any girlfriends. Then you get married and have a child. It is just different stages. Over the years we have found that people want a person to focus on rather than a group.”

As a consequence of all this identity shifting, recent works can be found variously attributed to “MadeIn Company led by Xu Zhen” or “Xu Zhen Produced by MadeIn Company.” Semantics aside, it all seems to fit closely with his mischievous approach to art-making and suggests the ideology of a collective, or even a democratic process. But make no mistake, Xu is most definitely in charge. “I am both CEO and boss,” he says, laughing off any suggestion that a democracy operates within the studio. Creative decisions are his, and the artist espouses the beliefs that there are “no equal partnerships,” and that “in art, some people get hurt. Art at times has to be hurtful.” Despite such emphatic claims, there is undoubtedly a communal spirit among the 30 assistants who constantly buzz about the space. That his staff seems so contented suggests that he is a good boss, despite his dictatorial stance. 

The MadeIn Company offices are generic; neglected potted plants struggle for survival, documents are scattered here and there. But on one desk, several kitchen knives are thrust into a pot, perhaps from the same group of knives that was used in the installation Just as Time Is an Object so All Produced Objects Can Be Considered as Crystalized Time (2012), which is currently on view in Xu’s midcareer survey at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Stashed under one desk is a very large garbage bag of biscuits left over from his “ShangArt Supermarket” series (2007– ). Xu confirms that he is currently making a new version for a gallery in Singapore. Leaning against one wall is a canvas from the “Light Source” series (2013), in which copies of classic European paintings come with added trompe l’oeil glares, deliberately subverting the banning of flash photography in many museums.

Work in progress for the “Spread” series (2012– ), with assistants adding more material to the growing collage.

Raw concrete stairs run the height of the building, and on the second floor a space heater struggles to keep the cold out of Xu’s office. Xu wears black—signature apparel for an artist—save for his white laceless sneakers. There is a jumble of artistic clutter spread around: books, more potted plants (this time well tended), industrial steel shelves and, on the floor, a rickety, rather homemade-looking cardboard model of the UCCA exhibition. Glued to the wall is an assemblage of photo documentation related to the show, a dizzying shorthand summary of artistic creation. Precariously balanced on a small coffee table is a maquette for the “Eternity” series (2013), the towering potpourri sculptures that serve as a tongue-in-cheek parody of contemporary art and global culture.

On a nearby table of recycled timbers is a painting from the “Under Heaven” series (2012– ). Thick paint has been applied to a board using a chef’s pastry bag with a variety of nozzles, producing globs of twisted paint with diverse shapes and textures. The canvas would perhaps be more at home in a patisserie than an artist’s studio—the icing-like paint looks good enough to eat. Xu’s assistants have added their own distinct creative flourishes to several more examples that lie flat on the floor drying in protective wooden boxes. The paint is so thick that the works must remain like this for weeks. “It could even take several months,” Xu says. He explains that each piece, once hung, should also be rotated in order to prevent the paint from slumping across the canvas. These impasto works are another example of Xu’s provocative humor, providing a wry commentary on the values of the contemporary art world, where dazzling effect triumphs over substance. Leaning against one wall is a melamine sheet daubed with color samples for the series; spent paint tubes are scattered everywhere.

Posted on Xu’s office wall are photos relating to his midcareer survey held at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing earlier this year.

Empty packages for “ShangArt Supermarket” (2007– ). 

Ascending to the next level, the air seems even colder. Passing through the open studio reveals a life-size model of a tiger wrapped in plastic sheeting alongside one of Xu’s sadomasochistic sculptural works assembled from sex toys in which plastic wrap appears like a voluminous condom. Up yet another floor, one enters into an area of creative mayhem. In what seems to be a cross between a secondhand-clothing market and a recycling center, discarded garments hang on large racks and litter the floor in chaotic piles. A projector throws a guiding matrix over a large canvas, onto which assistants glue pieces of material or stitch tapestry samples in place. Two women nearby craft precise and intricate shapes that seem to jump nimbly from their sewing machines. What slowly emerges from the fray is a phantasmagoric collage that will form part of the ongoing “Spread” series (2012– ), in which randomly sourced images are appropriated and assembled to “use media as a medium . . . to create media,” as Xu puts it. 

Off to one side, several assistants seem engaged in a shamanistic ritual as they siphon wine from bottles, then discreetly reseal them. This cautious opening, emptying and then resealing is part of the new iteration of “ShangArt Supermarket.” An array of brand-new supermarket products—toothbrush packets, plastic bottles of dishwashing liquid, cans of soft drink, round tins of European sweet biscuits, pot noodles and chewing gum—are piled haphazardly in cardboard boxes. Three young women are bent over the piles of empty packaging in a modern tableau vivant. Two hold product lists while the other feeds information into a computer—visitors will be able to buy the empty packages at authentic retail prices—and this data entry is key to the simulation. Xu informs me that the receipt issued at the checkout will serve as a certificate of authenticity. This work is a manifestation of his views on spectacle over substance, with specific reference to the place of contemporary art in an overheated market. 

Xu is determined that he will continue to challenge the art market. “We like to change, and this makes it very difficult for galleries who work with us,” he says. Switching hats to that of CEO of MadeIn Company, he says, “People don’t really know what they want. Artists have to create the market . . . and then supply.” With this in mind, he is currently planning to open his own gallery in New York. 

Xu’s ability to reinvent himself makes him difficult to categorize, which can be a virtue in a market that relishes and courts novelty, frivolity and change. And though his reactions are provocative, outrageous and humorous, he remains staunchly apolitical. “There will always be a market. But you must avoid the cycle where people who like your work are poor and people who have money don’t understand your work,” Xu says. Such are words spoken like a true art entrepreneur—or indeed like a highly successful artist—depending on which particular hat Xu is wearing.

Thick, frosting-like paint waits to dry on Xu’s recent paintings for his series “Under Heaven” (2012– ).