Why would Chinese conceptual artist Xu Zhen establish a company? What is the genealogy of his work as an artist and curator that would lead to the decision in 2009 to become the CEO of an enterprise, called MadeIn Company, with the intention to produce and curate exhibitions? Their mission statement reads as follows: "MadeIn Company is a contemporary art creation company, focused on the production of creativity, and devoted to the research of contemporary culture's infinite possibilities." It is interesting to remark here that the broadening of the activities to "stimulate the creation, support and dissemination of contemporary art," for Xu Zhen is not only formulated in the promotion language of a commercial enterprise, but also invokes a curatorial strategy. Questions arise whether this would influence the art being 'produced' in the company, rather than the classical other way around, whereby the kind of art produced in a certain epoch, moment or place informs curatorial practice. Long before the establishing of MadeIn Company, Xu Zhen started up different projects over and again to broaden his activities beyond the demands of creating an oeuvre as an individual artist.
Xu Zhen has curated exhibitions since his early forays in the Chinese art world. Even before having finished his studies, he developed strategies of visibility, alongside his work as a visual artist. His first somehow precocious activity in this sense was the way he 'curated' himself, in a clandestine way, into Let's Talk About Money - 1st International Fax Art Exhibition in 1996. Obviously Xu Zhen's action was a strategy to be remarked. Because he was not invited, Xu was the only artist in the exhibition that didn't send a fax to the organizers but smuggled in an original mocking a fax. This negotiation between original and fake, between perception and belief becomes a recurrent predilection in Xu Zhen's work and subsequently in the projects of MadeIn Company. Moreover, the fax exhibition's subject matter was money. Though it was a low cost exhibition, on the level of content it dealt with the idea of money in order to locate desire and drive in consumption, and, as we will see, the relation of artistic practice to consumerism is another ongoing preoccupation for Xu Zhen/ MadeIn Company. Let's Talk about Money—1st International Fax Art Exhibition progressively collected faxes with images and texts about the concept of currency and the relationship between money and politics.
In the following years, Xu Zhen will always pair his activities as an artist with organising and producing exhibitions, as possibilities for organising visibility. The list is long but especially in relation to the conception of MadeIn Company there are some projects, which might be foundational. An important moment in this story leading to MadeIn Company is the exhibition Art For Sale, which Xu Zhen co-curated with Yang Zhenzong and Fei Pingguo (Alexander Brandt), in a supermarket. It is considered one of the most important art projects within the development of the Shanghainese experimental art-scene. Taking place in a public, commercial place, which the curators divided in an 'installation space' with artworks remaining in the domain of art, and a 'supermarket place' in which the artists produced works that were at once art objects and commercial goods, thematically linked to their works in the 'installation space'. Even the catalogue, designed to look like a sales prospect contributed to this blurring of categories between art and merchandise. Though the exhibition had to close 3 days after it opened in mutual agreement between the curators and the supermarket owner , it motivated Shanghainese artists to develop a lively art scene on their native soil, whereas previously Beijing had been the only main centre of activity for contemporary Chinese art. The exhibition, as one can even read in the somewhat ironical sponsor file written by the organisers with an almost naive hope and enthusiasm in order to find financial sustain from private sponsors, takes up a deliberately critical relation to the hyper-consumerism that started to characterize Shanghai in those days. Social relations and everyday life, but also contemporary cultural practices were affected by the influx of capital investment and an economy driven by commodity exchange. The exhibition made clear that there was "a need to make 'art' as opposed to it being just another product." Avant-garde culture could no longer define itself in relation to the state and resistance to or dissent from an authoritarian power, observed Charles Merewhether, "the challenge now was to define itself in relation to aesthetics of commodity culture and a latter-day form of the 'society of the spectacle.'" This problematic relationship between commodity culture and critical art practice also informed Xu Zhen's commitment to BizArt Art Space. As a contemporary art centre devoted to support young artists and designers and to offer opportunities for cultural exchange projects, this first contemporary Art Centre in China investigated and promoted new artistic aspects from China and abroad. The word "BizArt" implies both business and art, which are integrated yet independent. It tries to reach two goals: bringing business closer to art and being able to sustain the art activities without compromise.
It is exactly in order to accommodate this range of activities next to his practice as an artist that Xu Zhen set up MadeIn after deciding he had taken his individual identity as far as it would go. The company likes to upset the assumptions of the art establishment in ways both theatrical and humorous. In 2009 they curated and produced an exhibition that purported to show works by unnamed Middle Eastern artists, with the goal of exposing the filters of prejudice through which one culture views another. As Xu Zhen notes, "The West mainly associates the Middle East with death and violence, human suffering and a continuing political and religious deadlock." Contemporary art of the Middle East 'made in China,' for MadeIn, of course becomes a play with the fashionable interest that is now connected to the development of a variety of contemporary art structures that are built in the region, just as it was the case with China since some time earlier. It is also MadeIn's reaction to a play with expectations to be fulfilled, fuelled by a delirious art market that is constantly searching for new tokens of exoticism, and this not out of primitivist fantasies, but rather in order to have a visual counterpart for the phenomenon 'emerging economy'.
For the exhibition Don't Hang Your Faith on the Wall, with the True Image (2010) series of photographs MadeIn Company tackles the power and influence of the media as diffusion of information about art. Each of the photographs has an historical quote as a title like for example Deng Xiao Ping's "Democracy is our goal, but the country must remain stable." Representing installations, paintings and statues, they unsettle the idea of the original, by on the one hand being the documentation of the artworks produced (on their turn bases on concepts and ideas found on the internet, as well as various publications), and on the other hand installing the doubt whether these originals really exist. At the same time the series adopts a sceptical position when it comes to new modalities of access on Internet that contributes to diminish the aura of fetishism around the artwork. Since the advent of minimal and conceptual art marked the beginning of art's dematerialization, it is not self-evident anymore that the artwork embodies art in itself - making it immediately present and visible. Documentation and images recording the ideas become crucial "by-products" of conceptual and conceptualist art. For good or for bad, the blurring of status between object, artwork and document, starting in the sixties, is nowadays totally assimilated in exhibition making. But these new approaches paradoxically also led to a capitalisation of immateriality, through its appropriation by the market. Formerly a space about art, the document art, and from a testimonial, historical and archival value, it acquired authorial value, modifying its artistic and economic status, which is exactly what the True Image series assumes and assimilates.
"The latest project initiated by MadeIn Company, Physique of Consciousness, is the first cultural fitness exercise ever made, composed of more than two hundreds steps and moves, inspired from a hundred ceremonies, worships and traditions accumulated through the History of Humanity. As dance can be a form of expression and as ritual is usually linked to civilizations, the spiritual fitness Physique of Consciousness reflects the diversity of human ideologies. It combines physical and spiritual virtues, enhancing body conditions and wellbeing. Physique of Consciousness consists of ten exercises, as ten chapters, with a progression of levels from easy to hard. The whole set of exercise lasts for thirty minutes. Movements are flowing, peaceful and aesthetic, accompanied by a relaxing music. Open to any public, young people as much as elders, it has various benefits such as maintaining a healthy physical condition, strengthening muscles, joint mobility, and improving the immune system. It can also bring peace of mind, by relieving stress and providing a feeling of wellness. The diversity of the movements participates to the enhancement of memory and concentration. Throughout history, exploration and control of body and spirit have always been a crucial matter, and the establishment of Physique of Consciousness results from research led by MadeIn Company on this topic, to provide a solution to the continuous antagonism between body and mind."
Such reads the promotional text of Physique of Consciousness, a project, which effectively comprises two parts. Firstly, it's an instruction manual elucidating a user how to practice the routine of gestures appropriated from religions around the world. And secondly, it's a video of these very gestures being performed by a master of this "meta-Tai Chi," who floats in a blue-sky dappled with white clouds, which may or may not be a reference to a certain religion banned in China. Additionally there is a very big, unique, one-copy book that traces all the sources, so that for each exercise one can see where the inspiration comes from, from which kind of movement, out of which kind of religion, or spiritual community or even political group.
More than with any of the projects before and probably typical for the 'products' of MadeIn Company, and maybe for some of the earlier work of Xu Zhen, is the extended irony. The question whether something is to be completely 'believed' or not resides at the heart of what they do: exposing human being's will to believe, even in nonsensical and dangerous belief systems, and connecting that to the idea of art 'playing people'. MadeIn Company seems to consider art very much like rhetoric, concerning strategies of controlling people's emotional responses. In that sense Physique of Consciousness is a perverse dispositive of objects, and more than objects—videos and possible participatory performance, levelling out every belief—the belief in religion, the belief in spiritual movements, and the belief in political movements. On a meta-level, although it's disguising itself as something else, Physique of Consciousness is an emancipatory project, a kind of yoga for the Enlightenment.
The corporate image Physique of Consciousness uses, an exercise master floating in a cloudy sky, obviously refers to the aesthetics of certain Chinese films, which could be considered kitsch in the Western art world. But at the same time the Company produced over 300 little photographs of the different essential positions and movements. They're displayed as a series per exercise, so there's 10 series with a number of photographs, varying from 15 to 30. The display of the series mocks the objective looks of very dry conceptual art, which is supposed to be part of a Western tradition. So the interesting thing is that when one experiences a presentation of Physique of Consciousness, one has the choice to adopt a role. Does one adopt the role of the art lover that is interested in conceptual art? Then the little mattress that suggests participation disturbs such distanced view. MadeIn Company plays with the idea whether Physique of Consciousness is art or something else. They bring that question to the viewer, because the viewer that comes to an art institution expects to see art in the more traditional sense; they expect to see paintings and sculptures, et cetera. The viewer doesn't expect to be invited in something like a yoga class in an art space, even if that contemporary art viewer might be used to performative and participative practices in museums. But then again, in a real yoga class there is probably never conceptual art on the wall. So as an exhibition, Physique of Consciousness creates a space 'in between,' that suggests different things, depending on which attitude one comes with. One sees what one is interested in, as was already suggested by the title of the project mocking a Middle Eastern contemporary art exhibition: Seeing One's Own Eyes. Either one sees radical, conceptual art, either one participates in something akin to a tai chi or a yoga exercise. To adopt both attitudes at once proves impossible.
The establishing of MadeIn Company might be the only outcome for Xu Zhen, as an answer to the hyper-consumerism related to Shanghai recently and to the Chinese art-market specifically, exactly by mirroring it. In that sense, after years of formulating critical work as a conceptual artist, Xu Zhen can now use the cover of MadeIn Company to break with the expectations lingering around the construction of an 'oeuvre' of an individual artist. That's why some of the production of MadeIn Company's 'art objects', like the ongoing series of collages based on newspaper cartoons called Spread, or a lot of the sculptures made out of foam, might at first sight recall some of the highly commercial (kitsch) aesthetics and cynical strategies of 'Gaudy Art' and 'Political Pop'. One of these sculptures performs metaphorically the transformation of Xu Zhen into MadeIn: a trophy like schematic animal skin, cut out of foam with sprayed black stripes, yellows with ageing: the zebra becomes a tiger. It recalls involuntary an older Xu Zhen video-work wherein one sees the back of a man progressively becoming red by the slashes of an invisible whip. Between the two works an idea metamorphoses into its own comment and at the same time disguises itself into a supposedly harmless trophy-like decoration that one would like to possess. MadeIn Company's works and projects of course address the issue of commodification, as it relates to object relations, like it obviously exists in the art market, but the 'company' moves this far beyond the production of 'critical art objects' disguised as consumer art goods. In the first place their projects deal with the distribution of ideas and their unavoidable commodification, like the trading of culture (Seeing Ones Own Eyes – Contemporary Art from the Middle East) or the consumption of ideology and religion (Physique of Consciousness).