Xu Zhen is a pioneer within Chinese underground contemporary art and an influential figure in Shanghai’s scene. In 1998, along with Davide Quadrio, he founded Bizart in Shanghai, a platform to support local and international artists, which has been at the forefront of the most innovative art exhibitions and curatorial practices in China for years. In the late ’90s, when new media art was not even classified as art by Chinese institutions (and looked at with suspicion by local authorities for its unorthodox and potentially subversive content), Xu Zhen—together with Yang Zhenzhong and Alexander Brandt—helmed “Jin Yuan Road 310,” one of the early multimedia shows, organized in a basement and quickly shut down by police. The same group was also behind 1999’s “Supermarket,” a curatorial experience inside a shopping mall, where art objects and products were sharing the same space, a reflection on the boundary between art and consumerism—a show that is still quoted as a milestone of Chinese contemporary art. This year, he was the chosen commissioned artist for the Armory Show 2014
Since then, Xu Zhen has been active on several projects ranging from painting to performance, using his own name or under the alias of MadeIn Company, an enterprise he founded and dedicated to “contemporary cultural creation.” His ongoing solo exhibition—”A MadeIn Company Production”—at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing (curated by Philip Tinari and Paula Tsai) is a unique immersive experience across two decades of Xu Zhen’s work—which boasts a strong sense of satire, an ironic reflection on art creation and a specific interest in the creation of symbols and cultural archetypes.
At the center of the exhibition, a statue in which a Bodhisattva is attached head-to-head with the Winged Victory of Samothrace powerfully questions the dichotomy of East and West. Silicon sculptures of naked women accessorized with tribal jewelry and feathers, suggesting an African origin, are hung to the ceiling as often found in traditional Japanese bondage.
This play on the shifting cultural inertia of the observer continues with “The Starving of Sudan,” a video installation that recreates the stage of Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer-winning photograph of a starving infant and a nearby vulture. Elsewhere, Xu Zhen’s sense of satire re-emerges in “8848-1.86,” an installation which focuses on the rigor of contemporary art practices: a video documents the artist while ”removing” a chunk of Mount Everest equivalent to his own height to take it away and display it in the museum.
This play on the meaning of archetypes, spirituality and the material world permeate the exhibition. On a pile of undulating rubble stands a colorful Buddha, while two “crucified” ginger roots face him from both sides. Behind the statue, a supermarket showcases a world of empty packets—a beautiful but hollow image echoing the contradictions of art world. By means of an ethnographic approach, a series of glass vitrines displays the meaning of specific symbolic gestures through a collection of artifacts from various social, religious and political situations. All the while, middle-aged local performers stroll around in their pajama uniforms (a sight which is not unusual in Chinese cities). The constant tension, the spiritual irony, the humorous solemnity; these contradictions make Xu Zhen’s exhibition an inspiring immersion in 20 years of paradigm-breaking contemporary art practices.
Xu Zhen’s “A MadeIn Company Production” is open until 20 April at UCCA.
Photos by Alessandro de Toni