Ten years ago, three young artists and friends put together an exhibition entitled Useful Life. The works in this exhibition showed the start of promising careers: Yang Fudong debuted a multi-channel video installation that has become his signature; Xu Zhen solidified his jokester image with photos of men menstruating; and Yang Zhenzhong displayed a cynical humour in his work I Will Die, a video showing people saying directly to the camera, 'I will die'. Each artist displayed angst characteristic of youth and inexperience, and the works reflected their unease with the world. A decade on, and three storied careers later, these same artists have come together again with new works in an art scene that has seen astronomical changes since the original exhibition debuted. Likewise, their practice have evolved, some drastically, while in other cases, like with Yang Fudong's work, he has refined on his work from 2000 . His seven channel installation for the current show, The Fifth Night, was shot with seven cameras to provide viewers with simultaneous angles of the same scene. It is a challenging work that requires several viewings but therein lays the beauty of piece: mystery is conveyed not only through traditional means used in film like cinematography, but also through the absence of a straight forward narrative. The way the film is both viewed and shot is like a jigsaw puzzle, leaving viewers to piece it together on their own.
Yang Fudong's works display a definite change of tone in his work. I Will Die and its accompanying photographs meditated on the morbid. His new works, particularly Extras, a series of photographs capturing subjects while simply smiling, are brightly lit and effervescent in nature. Viewed individually, each one seems to be a portrait of happiness. But viewed altogether, one gets a feeling of unease; smiles of joy slowly become something more insidious, and one begins to question the sincerity of the act. Of the three, Xu Zhen (now called MadeIn) has made the biggest leap. Early on, his work combined video, photography, and performance. With his art company, MadeIn, he now has the freedom to play in all mediums. For this show, MadeIn created intensely coloured, comic book inspired sculptures and paintings, a continuation of his Spread series. A standout is rainbow coloured plastic plants and trees, arranged like an artificial garden, flanked by gaudy neon paintings. The artist, as he did with his work from 2000, toys with expectations and perceptions. How does one define beauty in art? We consider plants 'beautiful' but what if they were extravagantly splashed with colour? His works may have gotten bigger and brighter but there is still the hint of the mischievous young man from ten years ago.
Xhingyu Chen, author of Chinese Artists: New Media 1990 to 2010, Schiffer Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org )