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Xu Zhen | John McDonald

Xu Zhen

December 8, 2017
Xu Zhen's 'Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana' gets installed at the National Gallery of Victoria
Xu Zhen's 'Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana' gets installed at the National Gallery of Victoria

In 2009 Xu Zhen decided he would “set aside his identity as an individual artist” and become a corporate entity. For the next four years, MadeIn Company (as in “Made in China”) would produce a dazzling variety of work for international museums and galleries. In 2013, its booming success encouraged the Company to release its new brand: “Xu Zhen”. From that time onwards, all pieces have been credited to “Xu Zhen [Produced by MadeIn Company]”.

Today, at the age of 40, the brand “Xu Zhen” resembles a youthful software tycoon. Wearing dark-framed glasses, jeans and a black T-shirt, he would fit smoothly into any firm in Seattle or Palo Alto.

Xu Zhen - the artist as corporation & brand

Xu Zhen – the artist as corporation & brand

Xu Zhen’s actual corporate headquarters is a multi-story office block in an industrial park in an outer suburb of Shanghai. He has only to cross the street to arrive at the MadeIn Company workshop – a cavernous factory space the size of an aircraft hangar, divided into sectors catering for many different manufacturing processes. He has at least 50 full-time employees working regular business hours.

Xu Zhen got his start in 2001 when he took on the role of artistic director of the BizArt Centre, a not-for-profit space in Shanghai set up by Italian curator, Davide Quadrio. In that same year, at the age of 24, he became the youngest Chinese artist ever to show at the Venice Biennale.

Between 2006-09 Xu Zhen was instrumental in setting up a website that allowed artists and artworkers to exchange ideas, images and information. In the words of Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Contemporary Art Centre in Beijing, that site – Art-Ba-Ba – had a “transformative” impact on the local art scene.

Xu Zhen claims to have become a corporation to escape from the idea of the artist as “a sensitive, solitary genius”. He admires the way figures such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami have acted as art entrepreneurs, affixing their label to works made to order in factories and workshops. Koons, in particular, he sees as a liberating force in contemporary art.

Where Xu Zhen differs from these artists is in his willingness to structure his entire operation along business lines. As a ruthless detector of clichés he can see how the artist-entrepreneurs still trade heavily on the idea of “the sensitive, solitary genius”, as if it were required of them by a public brought up on movies such as Lust for Life.

His own methods, as both CEO of MadeIn Company and its most successful brand, are completely in line with creative corporate practice. Rather than simply supplying a market Xu Zhen is creating a culture. He is the Steve Jobs of Chinese art, making us want things we never knew we wanted. He’ll workshop bright ideas with his employees and assign tasks: sourcing materials, investigating freight options, dealing with advertising and promotions, or developing new product lines. Like all successful bosses he has come to depend on a loyal and highly professional team.

Regardless of his commercial instincts, Xu Zhen is very far from being a cynical purveyor of commodities, vide Warhol’s late silkscreen portraits, or Hirst’s endless series of spot paintings. His basic material is “the unlimited potential of contemporary culture”, which has led him to work across every possible platform, from video to performance, from stuffed toys to large-scale sculpture.

'Under Heaven' (detail)

‘Under Heaven’ (detail)

If he has a staple, reliable product it is an ongoing series called Under Heaven, consisting of luscious, abstract oil paintings made with the pastry bags used by cake decorators. Each picture is different, and most are snapped up by collectors for ever-increasing prices.

I visited Shanghai to view Xu Zhen’s 16-metre-long sculpture, Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana, shortly before it was dismantled and shipped to Melbourne, where it dominates the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria’s St. Kilda Road premises.

Searching for a suitably spectacular work to launch their new Triennial, director, Tony Ellwood and his team were bowled over by the big Buddha. An exact replica of a Tang Dynasty carving, it was inspired by a visit to the Buddhist caves in Datong, and reproduced by means of a 3D scan. The material is a new kind of artificial stone much lighter than the real thing.

The monumental Buddha seems unruffled by the white, life-size casts of Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Neo-classical figures that cavort all over its elongated torso. One thinks of the Lilliputians clambering over Gulliver, or insensitive tourists looking for the best spot to take selfies.

Ellwood told the ABC the work is meant to represent “multi-faith, harmony, tolerance in what can be a turbulent world today.” That’s one interpretation, but every work by Xu Zhen offers up multiple layers of meaning. The piece could just as easily be seen as a critique of the way museums and the media allow one or two iconic pieces to stand for the complexities of an entire culture. Xu Zhen is satirising the superficial tendency of western viewers to reduce Chinese – or Greco-Roman or Renaissance – art to a handful of exotic clichés.

Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana may be about religious tolerance, but it is also about cultural misunderstanding and incompatibility. Such a reading is entirely consistent with the works Xu Zhen has made over the past decade. His Light Source series of 2013 features images of famous paintings obscured by the flash of tourists’ cameras.

When the Uli Sigg collection of Chinese contemporary art was shown in a landmark exhibition called Mahjong in 2005, the curators sent a questionnaire to all participating artists, asking: “Are there special features in the works of Chinese artists, or a way of looking which – to whatever degree – is different from the global mainstream, ie. something that could be described as specifically Chinese?”

Xu Zhen’s response was to return the question, substituting “Swiss” for “Chinese”, and “collectors” for “artists”.

With this gesture he separated himself from generations of Chinese artists and intellectuals who have fretted constantly about questions of identity. Accepting “modernity” as a western invention they have struggled to isolate a range of “Chinese characteristics” that preserve distinctive traditions.

Xu Zhen, by contrast, prefers the idea of an all-inclusive “Great Culture” which dispenses with concerns about what is local and what is global. He suggests that the more self-conscious we are about cultural barriers, the more prone we are to exoticise and caricature the Other.

This belief came through clearly in two exhibitions of imaginary “Middle-Eastern contemporary art” he put together in 2009, under the banner of MadeIn Company. The works made credible poliitical statements while containing enough signs of “Middle-easternness” to please the credulous.

'Calm' (2009) at White Rabbit

‘Calm’ (2009) at White Rabbit

One memorable piece, an installation called Calm (2009) has ended up in the White Rabbit Collection in Sydney. It consists of a square of rubble from a demolished building that subtly rises and falls, as if drawing breath. It may be a comment on bombing in Palestine, but could just as easily be a reference to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

Unlike Ai Weiwei, who goes out of his way to confront the Chinese authorities, Xu Zhen’s work has a studied ambiguity. He makes broad critical points about social and cultural issues, but never in a propagandistic manner. His first tactic is to astound the viewer with some extraordinary image. It’s only as we begin to consider what we’re looking at that deeper questions emerge.

'Play' (2012) at White Rabbit

‘Play’ (2012) at White Rabbit

In Play (2012), another work in the White Rabbit collection, Xu Zhen has created a room-sized model of a Gothic cathedral made entirely from bondage gear. The black leather, studs, chains and other items portray religion as largely a matter of dominance and submission – which is not to say it can’t provide pleasure, or fulfill some deep, personal need in its adherents.

Xu Zhen describes himself as a Buddhist but he has a fascination for all forms of religion and ritual. In 2011 this led to a 10-part work called Physique of consciousness, in which gestures from different forms of religious observance were combined into elaborate exercise routines, recorded as a photo sequence and a video.

Cosmic callisthenics: 'Physique of consciousness' (2011)

Cosmic callisthenics: ‘Physique of consciousness’ (2011)

This work led to a fullscale research project, the Physique of Consciousness Museum in 2013. Although the “museum” remains in Xu Zhen’s workshop it has accumulated more than 20,000 items, 40,000 images, and a million written words, from cultures as distant as ancient Egypt and Rome.

Among other projects Xu Zhen has recently established a gallery on Shanghai’s rapidly developing West Bund, where he is showing the works of younger artists, making him not only a corporation, but a corporate philanthropist. If ever he floats MadeIn Company on the stockmarket it would be a moment of mystical transformation, when culture and commerce finally become one.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 December, 2017