“The Artist Is the Messenger Who Shoots Himself” A conversation with Xu Zhen
“This era needs a way of art-making to inspire, stir and destroy our thinking.’ So says Chinese multimedia artist Xu Zhen, who has turned Andy Warhol’s bacchanalian Factory into corporate reality. Since the late 1990s, he has parodied the complexities of being a maker of art in a culture goaded by commerce. His large-scale installations, sculptures and performance works are socio-political provocations disguised as pop art. Ten years ago Zhen transformed himself into a CEO with the creation of MadeIn Company – an enterprise focused on curatorial production, research and publications that forms much of his own artistic practice. China is now the world’s third largest art market after the US and the UK, and there is a lot of money to be made, particularly in Zhen’s native city of Shanghai. His gallery is both a showroom of art product and the meeting place for international artists. For him, ‘the creation of art is almost the same as Internet start-up companies that finance quickly before going public and grow rapidly.’ Today, the template of ‘company and brand is more real’ than the traditional role of the artist as outsider. ‘It’s like a doctor who is terminally ill and just as desperate as everyone else for a cure.’ The artist is the messenger who shoots himself.
MadeIn Company isn’t limited to artistic output alone and includes the media platform Artbaba Internet forum, which brings artists together to bicker and bond over the making and selling of art. ‘Artbaba has maintained the basic requirements of directness, chaos, non-consensus and spontaneity. It is like an indiscriminately talkative child,’ he says. ‘Not pursuing political correctness has always been one of my reasons for staying alive.”
Zhen first unveiled his ‘living sculpture’ In Just a Blink of an Eye in 2005. It has recently been acquired by LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Four actors are frozen in mid-air as if about to crash to the ground; they appear to be waxworks until the blink of an eye or the twitch of a nose reveals the truth. ‘It jarringly forces viewers to question the laws of physics … and it’s something of a meditation on stillness and the fluidity of time. Among other things,’ Deborah Vankin wrote in The Los Angeles Times. These ‘other things’ are what makes the work such a powerful lamentation on the loss of autonomy. The meaning of In Just a Blink of an Eye is ruled by its surroundings, its casting and its timing.
When it was first shown in China it alluded to the instability of working conditions in factories reliant on orders from the West. At the same time, the government revalued the Yuan, ushering in a volatile global economy, putting international trade at risk. The piece has been shown all over the world and each time, its narrative is re-written and new ideas are projected onto it. It is brilliantly malleable.
“Not pursuing political correctness has always been
one of my reasons for staying alive.”
Presented for the first time in Europe in 2009 during China! China! China!!! – a major exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich – it was performed outside on the grass by ethnically Chinese migrants recruited in the area, who brought their own accounts to the piece. Each, trapped in limbo between culture and capital. In 2007, when it was shown during Performa at James Cohan Gallery in New York, Zhen positioned two illegal immigrants he’d met in Chinatown into the centre of the room. Caught in mid-air on concealed steel frames they appeared serene and still despite their precarious existence. The gallery text read: ‘Although the optical illusion can be surmised to be accomplished through a metal frame upon which the model lays upon, the work nonetheless serves to create an anxiety within the viewer that is at once exhilarating, as if the viewer has been liberated from the constraints of time and physics, as well as debilitating, in the failure to see the action resolved.’ Yet, In Just a Blink of an Eye is more than just a feat of engineering or physical prowess. Shown in America against a backdrop of polarising pantomime politics, themes of power, race and truth course through the actor’s arched bodies.
Although Zhen chooses not to apply his own fixed narrative to the work, his hope is that each of us takes the time to make up our mind about what might be occurring. Each of the performers at MOCA worked for six hours – caught somewhere between resting and extreme acrobatics. The piece is poetic, its stillness only ever interrupted by the curve of a mouth or the roll of an eyeball. ‘The movements are daily, fictional, funny and cruel… I am certain that this action can trigger different reactions and interpretations in different cultures,’ Zhen says. ‘The work reflects this empty feeling where one has to leave the here and now.’
The here and now is a world desensitised to touch. How can the body be satisfied in a space that is lived only through the eyes, through a reality that is virtual? I am reminded of a conversation with Director, Digital Artist and Designer Julien Simshäuser. He said, ‘I can see it amongst my friends. They work very hard, putting in a lot of hours in front of the computer and at the end of a day, they are really happy with what they have done but they cannot sleep at night. They cannot sleep even though they are really fulfilled and that’s because their body doesn’t get gratification from their work.’ Our minds are alive, our bodies paralysed by streams of boundless imagination.
Crucially, In Just a Blink of an Eye raises questions about corporeality and spectacle, liberty and coercion, distance and hyper-connectivity. Zhen’s actors wear baggy street clothes so their bodies are ambiguous – the only condition Zhen says is that they ‘look like a local, wearing fashion of all walks of life from this year.’ Their hoodies and roomy jeans help viewers to at once recognise themselves. The potency of archetypal ‘passers-by’ suspended in mid-air gives much-needed oxygen to a universal reading of human nature at a time of polarising identity politics. Zhen is not maudlin about the twenty-first century: ‘We have greater autonomy in this era and I am excited about that. The internet allows us to see more and so we live every day in both affirmation and negation. It’s such an interesting time that there is in fact no time left to be afraid, or happy. I think this world belongs to no one, so you can do anything.’ There is strength in the stillness.