Shanghai's native son Xu Zhen assumes a new identity. He talks to Xhingyu Chen on what the future holds for him.
"MadeIn is not meant to be an obstacle. It is a means to create more interesting works."
Xu Zhen was an artist known for stunts and pranks. In 2002, he hired actors dressed in asylum outfits to follow gallery visitors during an exhibition opening; in 2005, he chronicled his and his friends' efforts to cut the peak off Mt. Everest and plant the Chinese flag on the new peak; in 2006, he spent 18 days "invading" China's border countries with toy tanks. So it was no surprise that people were skeptical when last September, Xu Zhen announced that Xu Zhen was no longer. In his place was the collective and so-called art company MadeIn, started by the artist himself, which would produce and curate shows. People familiar with his works thought it was just another stunt, that MadeIn was actually work and the artist was on another mission to trick the public.
But it seems MadeIn is here to stay, with a new show at ShanghArt's Huai Hai Lu branch exhibiting works originally shown at December's Art Basel Miami Fair. So the big question now is who is MadeIn really? Simply speaking, MadeIn consists of various assistants, technicians, designers, and artists-in-waiting, all producing works and curating shows under the firm hand of Xu Zhen. The shows in September and current show at ShanghArt were clearly the brainchild of Xu Zhen in the ingenious use of materials and the biting humor present in the works, but the artist is insistent that the works are created with a group collaborative effort. "I understand that [my past works] have made people question my intentions," Xu Zhen explains, "but I am quite sincere when I say that, for now, Xu Zhen the artist does not exist."
While the question of who MadeIn is seems to have a simple answer, the question of what Xu Zhen's intentions were in forming this collective does not. In addition to creating challenging artworks, Xu Zhen also served as the Art Director of BizArt, regularly organizing shows and providing support for inexperienced young artists. Artists like Qiu Anxiong, Tang Maohong, and Zhang Ding have all had their first shows at BizArt. But as with most non-profit spaces, funding is hard to come by and the space has run into financial problems several times over the past few years. The artist freely admits that part of the reasons for MadeIn is for the future of BizArt. "There is no standard way to show one's dedication to art, especially when it comes to funding. One of the reasons for the establishment of MadeIn was to help support more art projects, like the ones we put together at BizArt." At the same time, since BizArt as an organization is finding it increasingly difficult to help young artists, the collective has become a way to foster and educate them. "MadeIn is not meant to be an obstacle. It is a means to create more interesting works," he says, adding that he encourages collective members to go off on their own and start their own art careers if they are inspired to do so. He adds that he has not seen anything exciting or new in the Chinese art scene. In the past few years, especially with the Chinese art market bubble, art has become a "chore, a job like any other. I can see the weariness in other artists and the scene has become exhausted." So MadeIn was formed not only to inject some life into his own career, but also to hopefully inject some new blood into the scene.
He admits that there are challenges with working inexperienced young artists. "They don't completely understand the materials we are working with yet. They think that working in installations and conceptual art is freeing because of the limitless possibilities, but it is precisely because of this perceived freedom that makes it more difficult than most other mediums. You have to know when to stop, what will work. It requires a lot of experimentation." When he was a young artist himself, he created brash works that were "too immature, perhaps too influenced by my mood."As he grows older, he understands that an artist does not need to stand along; in fact, an artist thrives in the company of others. At a time when it seems every big name artist employs hundreds of assistants to do assist in art production, Xu Zhen has taken this one step further and openly acknowledging that he is not alone in his artistic pursuits. By omitting his name from the works, he is doing his part to bring his collective into the light. It will surely take some time before the public gets used to the idea of MadeIn as a true entity and not just a fleeting project, but if the boss insists that it's real, we'll just have to take his word for it.
Arts Specialist & Cultural Guide