Shanghai, Feb. 2014: When Xu Zhen was twenty-one-years-old he made a video piece called Rainbow (1998) in which a man’s back is turned red from a lashing that is heard, but not seen. The piece debuted at the 49th Venice Biennial. In another early video work, Not Doing Anything (1999), the artist whipped a dead cat’s body against a wall until there was little left. If there is an extreme end to an idea, Xu Zhen will take it, and his consistent willingness to push boundaries has made him a stand out figure in the contemporary art world.
Xu Zhen’s art moved from a bracingly visceral level to a more conceptual plane in the mid aughts. He staged performances that played on illusion; 8.848-1.86 (2005) “documented” his team blasting the cap off Mt. Everest. His installations have recreated supermarkets, famous photographs, a spaceship. He recreated Neil Armstrong’s lunar footprint on a scale so tiny it might be the world’s smallest artwork. But perhaps the most unique recreation Xu Zhen has managed thus far was to recast himself in the model of a CEO. This transformation took place in 2009 when Xu Zhen founded “MadeIn” (playing on the “Made in China” stamp), a company that would produce all Xu Zhen work and exhibitions going forward
Though Xu Zhen’s artwork has graced these Western shores – most notably in James Cohan’s gallery – this will be the artist’s first time in New York City. In the lead up to his Armory commission, for which the Chinese artist will conceive and execute a branding strategy for this year’s fair, ArtSlant correspondent Vivian Xu put a few questions to Xu Zhen, and, in turn, received these responses.
Xu Zhen, 8.848-1.86, 2005; Courtesy of the artist.
Vivian Xu: Much of your work seems to evolve around art production and the market, for instance, the ShanghART Supermarket installation. What are your views of art production and commercialism? Some might compare your work to Andy Warhol and the Factory. Do you consider yourself in dialogue with that tradition?
Xu Zhen: I live in such a commercial reality, so I'm just expressing my experience. Andy is like the Jin De Zhen porcelain; they all provide nourishment for me and I love them all.
VX: In 2009, you dissolved your individual practice to form the “contemporary art creation company” MadeIn. What was the motivation behind MadeIn?
XZ: Today, art is a commodity. What I am interested in is "making products into art." A company, from the perspective of its function and approach, can enrich this process.
VX: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing is currently hosting your Xu Zhen: A MadeIn Company Production retrospective. In a way, the formation of the company has extended your reputation and influence even further. What are your opinions on the response and reception of MadeIn?
XZ: Art is something that easily attracts attention. This is indeed what we have done.
VX: You are often described as “a broker of all sorts, an entrepreneur, an activist, a philosopher” as well as an artist. What is the relationship between "Xu Zhen" the artist, “Xu Zhen” the brand, and "MadeIn"? What role do you play in these relationships?
XZ: Besides the roles mentioned above, I am also a son, a father, a husband. But I am still just me.
VX: How does a model like MadeIn fit into (or not fit into) the rest of the art community both at home and internationally?
XZ: The power of a role model is endless. We will become such a role model.
Xu Zhen, Physiques of Consciousness, 2011; Courtesy of the artist.
VX: You have been referred to as a “chameleon of concept”. Works such as In Rainbow, 8848-1.86, In Just the Blink of An Eye, The Starving of Sudan, and Physiques of Consciousness experiment with performance, video, painting, sculpture, photography and installation, in some cases within a single series. How would you describe your body of work? How has your art and practice developed?
XZ: From an actual perspective, professional artists like myself can only and must sustain and live through creating work. Basically, I am like a sheet of glass, I am what you see in my art.
VX: Chinese contemporary art is often associated with its first generation artists. Many well-known works are distinctively “Chinese”. Your work at times challenges this Chinese-ness, for instance, Seeing One’s Own Eyes: Middle East Contemporary Art. What are your views on the environment for art discourse in China? How has it shifted over the years? What are some of the new developments in the emerging new generation of artists?
XZ: Civilization is creating a huge unknown. A few decades is too short; it's hard to describe. Chinese contemporary art is very much like the Iraq war; the new generation of Chinese artists are just like the Arabic soldiers in pictures: blind, confident, aggressive.
Xu Zhen, Seeing One’s Own Eyes: Middle East Contemporary Art, 2009; Courtesy of the artist.
VX: You are a younger generation than artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi… Do you see a noticeable difference between artists of their generation and yours?
XZ: Besides a similar reality, we have nothing in common.
VX: What is your experience of the New York art scene thus far?
XZ: I have never been to New York, but from everything I've heard, the New York art scene is full of struggle, the best of the best are all gathered in this city, it's full of temptation.
VX: What can we anticipate from your upcoming Armory show in March?
XZ: Come and see it.
(Image on top: Xu Zhen, ShanghART Supermarket, 2007, installation cash register, counter, shelves, refrigerator, products packages, dimensions variable; Photograph credit: James Cohan Gallery, New York, U.S.A.)