“Great works are something you discover, not something you create. I feel I would be limited in what I could discover if I were working on my own.”
Born 1977, Shanghai. Lives and works in Shanghai
Having taken his artistic identity as far as it could profitably go, Xu Zhen formed MadeIn Company in 2009. Although—or perhaps because—MadeIn set out to mock the contemporary art market, his fake “corporation” was eagerly embraced by that same market. Perhaps inspired by this success, in 2014 Xu Zhen resumed his own persona, but with a twist: rather than being MadeIn’s chief executive, he is now one of the company’s “products”. Eternity (2013-2014) fuses artificial-stone replicas of ancient Chinese sculptures with copies of statues from the east pediment of the Parthenon. A long-vanished section of that pediment showed the goddess Athena and her father Zeus, from whose head she sprang fully formed. The inverted Buddhist deities on the shoulders of the Greek ones could be rising like Athena—or crashing into a culture whose philosophical and ideological descendants have shaped the contemporary world.
European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture (2013–2014) is a variation on the same theme, this time fusing Western gods and heroes with Buddhist iconography. Nineteen statues in a variety of poses are lined up so that, viewed from the front, they resemble a “thousand-armed” Guanyin, a Buddhist symbol of compassion. The sculptures are radically simplified, all-white versions of 11 originals, including Athena Parthenos, Zeus, Hercules, Odysseus, the crucified Christ and the Statue of Liberty—chosen on the basis of their arm positions, copied in mirror image, and rescaled to the same 3-metre height.
Calm (2009) was originally part of an exhibition of works by “anonymous Middle Eastern artists”; in fact they were all produced by MadeIn, with the goal of exposing the filters of prejudice through which one culture views another. A pile of rubble conforms perfectly with the region’s acquired image as a place of violence and destruction. But this rubble moves, gently undulating as if alive—a reminder that people can be buried by stereotypes as well as bombs. Under Heaven 20121018 (2012) is a lavishly overdecorated cake-canvas, smothered with thick blobs of paint squeezed directly from an icing bag. The idea arose from a playful experiment, but the swirling pattern suggests cityscapes and landscapes seen from the perspective of the gods. Under Heaven 0302VS0137 (2013) uses a similar technique but eliminates all colour—revealing that even black contains colours, degrees of depth and sheen that vary with the light and the viewer’s position.
In the baroque extravaganza of Immortals’ Trails in Secret Land (2012), random selections from Chinese and European mythology ran rampant on a crazy quilt of stuffed snakes and exotic birds. At their centre is an empty frame within a frame: a mirror, a window—or perhaps a doorway to nowhere.
Spread B-041 (2010), part of the same series as Immortals’ Trails, is a fifteen-square-metre collage of cloth, thread and other materials that deconstructs and reassembles imagery from magazines, newspapers, cartoons and comics. Xu Zhen says the Spread series “uses media as a medium … to create media.”
The performance piece In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005– ), whose original version employed illegal immigrants Xu Zhen met in New York, uses hidden steel supports to make two performers appear frozen in an endless backward fall. By challenging both gravity and logic, the piece is intended to make viewers feel anxious and helpless—sentiments that would probably not arise if the performers were obvious dummies.