Studio Visit: Artist Xu Zhen

A Warhol-like factory of paintings and sculpture, an hour outside of central Shanghai

by Alessandro de Toni

An hour drive out of Shanghai—far from the urban glitter and the lavish skyscrapers, into a land where Chinese cities tend to look all the same—lies MadeIn Company. Amid storage spaces and small factories, it’s a warehouse like many others surrounding it, and yet this is a place that has shaken up the Chinese contemporary art scene. We have arrived at the creative forge of Xu Zhen.

In 2001, Zhen was the youngest Chinese artist ever to participate in the primary exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Video was his medium and works like “Shouting,” where he filmed people’s reactions to him screaming among the crowds of Shanghai, left his mark on the Chinese and international art world. As he opened the doors to his studio today, Zhen is considered a creative mastermind with a double identity as one of the Mei laoban (in Chinese “boss of MadeIn,” but ironically also “there’s no boss”), a sort of nickname for his business persona. As CEO, curator and gallerist, the scale of Zhen’s operations have changed dramatically. His fame now has global reach and names like Damien Hirst become associations when talking about his work.

Some wondered if his business would overshadow his art when he established MadeIn in 2009, or when he founded MadeIn Gallery in 2014, but it rather seems that the overlay of art and business is part of his modus operandi. Or in Zhen’s words, “what you read on media is just part of the picture, the fact is that to make an impact in contemporary art you need to think big, you just can’t do things alone.” But Mei laoban is not really the CEO you might imagine and MadeIn is not about yearly targets and marketing plans. Xu Zhen is the leader and supervisor of a workshop where collectively created ideas take shape. As he says, “the amount of simultaneous projects and exhibitions would make it practically impossible to stick to a business-like plan, even if we wanted to.”

It is enlightening to visit his huge factory and understand the extraordinary scope of projects happening at MadeIn. A visitation room is filled with his most iconic works, like the global mesh-up of his “EAST WEST” series or the vitrines from the Physique of Consciousness Museum,

showing artifacts and ritual gestures from different traditions. Other unreleased works are waiting to be shipped to Paris for the upcoming exhibition “Civilization Iteration” (opening at Galerie Perrotin on 18 May). It’s another cultural remix of iconography from different traditions and a challenge to common taboos. But the most interesting part of his studio is behind the scenes: the busy workshops where the artworks are produced.

In a huge room, stacks of “Under the Heaven” paintings lies on the floor, and craftsmen are carefully pouring oil paint through pastry bags which leave a tridimensional flowery texture on the canvas. Nearby is the textile and mixed media collage workshop. Once the design is approved by Xu Zhen and his creative team, the sketch gets transferred to paper, then tailors and the artist work together for up to two months to achieve the final result. A painting booth, beyond this space, allows groups of four or five young collaborators to sit tightly together in front of a canvas, simultaneously working the details of an elaborate composition and applying a painting technique inherited from old Eastern frescos.

Most striking about the monumentality of the work going on at MadeIn is the massive casts room: a white dusty lab where workers create fiberglass and resin reproductions of classic statues from 3D scans or original models. This practice, much like Warhol’s in the past or Koons’ today, addresses the conflicting relationship between originality and copycats, creativity and mass-production. Here, a giant piece of scaffolding lies on the floor and fills the center of the room, holding a massive undisclosed statue commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Among the staff or 40, it is interesting to notice the diverse mix of people with varied expertise: from middle-aged women who cut and sew components to young artists for whom MadeIn represents not only the possibility to work with a top artist but also a potential incubator for their future career. Since the developmental times of Shanghai contemporary art scene when he cofounded the influential gallery BizArt, Zhen has always been committed to promoting young artists and fostering dialogue between artists. Further, several of his collaborators exhibit their own artworks at MadeIn Gallery or have refined their positioning in the art market under the guidance and support of Zhen’s team.

Hero and Long Museum image courtesy of Thomas Fuesser, all others courtesy of MadeIn Company