As one of China’s most intriguing and prolific contemporary artists, Xu Zhen has too captured the attention of the international art world. With his fearless approach to creation, Xu’s artistic projects are as ambitious in their scale and number as they are profound in meaning. In a recent interview for Vantage (September 2014), we caught up with the artist to see inside the mind of a provocateur, and how he works as a benchmark for other contemporary artists working in China.
For our interview questions to Xu Zhen- China’s most irreverent contemporary artist to emerge in recent years- sent via email- we were looking forwards to a series of lengthy pontifications on the subject of art, contemporary culture, and the artist’s stance on his unique branding and corporatization of ‘MadeIn Company’.
What we received instead were abrupt and seemingly satirical rebuttals, some of which were even shorter than the question itself. After our initial surprise and wondering if he had taken offence at our questions, we chanced upon Xu’s past interviews and found similarly brief responses to interviewers. On this note, there is a famous quote from former US president Woodrow Wilson, who, upon being asked how long he needed to write his speeches, replied: “That depends. If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation. If 15 minutes: 3 days. If 30 minutes: two days. If an hour, I am ready now.” While this may not be the case with our interview for Xu Zhen, it is worth noting sometimes that which is not said bears the most important message. We concluded that this is an aspect of the artist’s outward relations to media and its audiences: Xu Zhen is opaque, and quite deliberately so.
Those familiar with Xu’s work will know his modus operandi has since his emergence onto the contemporary art scene been one based on acts, performances and concepts veering towards the bizarre and irreverent. As critical acclaim rolled in (notably Xu’s 2004 win of the Contemporary Chinese Art Award) his artistic enterprise expanded to comprise a working studio – assistants who execute his increasingly large and complex projects. In 2009 however, Xu took this to the next level by forming ‘MadeIn Company’. This so-called ‘contemporary art creation company’ is structured as a corporate entity, with Xu himself installed as resident CEO.
In a further twist to the tale, MadeIn announced in 2013 their launching of the ‘Xu Zhen’ brand as a product of MadeIn Company. Aside from his extensive body of work, Xu Zhen also works as a curator, actively organizing a number of diverse art activities within China’s important contemporary art circles. Increasingly, Xu’s renown has spread onto the international art stage, most recently with his being chosen as the commissioned artist for the 2014 edition of the Armory Show in New York, focusing on his works from the recent Under Heaven series blown up to gigantic proportions. This series, the title of which is a joking reference to Jeff Koons’ infamous Made in Heaven series, made waves for Xu Zhen upon making its debut at Christie’s April Shanghai auction. Realising a total of 650,000RMB (almost twice its mid-estimate) amidst avid bidding, the sale signifies that MadeIn Company works are at the point of having a universal international sale value, rather than just a high sale value in their native China. More than works with a blue-chip sale value however, Xu’s work at MadeIn and his stewardship of the ‘company’ on its journey are at the forefront of those who are challenging and defining China’s creative contemporary culture.
VANTAGE: What can you tell us about your early life as an artist? Was the artistic atmosphere different then to how it is now?
Xu Zhen: The 90s art scene to now is like comparing a young girl to a married woman.
VANTAGE: To what do you owe your success?
Xu Zhen: To the fact that every day I wake up and see myself in the mirror, and tell myself that I want to succeed.
VANTAGE: Do you feel that the cultivation of the brand and company MadeIn and ‘Xu Zhen’ detracts or enhances your role as an individual ‘artist’?
Xu Zhen: These are two great brands.
VANTAGE: Why did you adopt a corporate structure for MadeIn Company? Did you want to hierarchize the people working for you, or to empower them instead?
Xu Zhen: I consider that in the future, art items and projects are growing bigger, to even abnormal sizes that stretch beyond the experience of just one individual. So what we need is not only rich experience and powerful ability to execute works, but also abundant curiosity and courage to remain independent.
VANTAGE: It has been suggested that the title of the series Under Heaven was a pun on Jeff Koons’ series Made In Heaven. Koons’ work is famous for his corporate attitude to maintaining a studio, and also for high prices at auction. How do you feel when you see works from Under Heaven sold?
Xu Zhen: When I see that more and more people own Under Heaven, it makes me very excited.
VANTAGE: What’s the future of MadeIn? Will it grow bigger? What would you like its legacy to be?
Xu Zhen: We’ll continue to adjust our working pattern in the future. This is something we are confident on. Our company is not bound to become some kind of top ranking organization.
VANTAGE: What does the branding of MadeIn Company, and of the brand ‘Xu Zhen’ bring to audiences? Was it created with the public art consumers in mind or a self-reflective decision?
Xu Zhen: We started MadeIn Company with the direction of ‘producing artistic creativity as our core, commiting to exploring the possibilities of contemporary culture’. Since then we’ve seen this idea implemented and expanded. At the same time, we also continue our extreme curiosity.
VANTAGE: When and where were you happiest?
Xu Zhen: At the birth of my two children.
VANTAGE: Your work Eternity, made specially for the 2014’s retrospective at the UCCA center was described by Philip Tinari as “making literal a rampant cliché of contemporary art and global culture — the idea of ‘East meets West’.” Was this your intention? Does this suggest that you find this concept as comical, farcical, or even improbable?
Xu Zhen: In many cases, the significance of a creative work is in saying goodbye to the pre-established frame of meaning.