Xu Zhen, An Animal, 2006, 3-channel video presentation
Set in a quasi-scientific environment–perhaps a laboratory – Xu Zhen's 3-channel video work An Animal unambiguously plays with China's proud national symbol, the panda bear. As a recognizable symbol of China used as an agent of diplomacy, the panda has long been a favorite of the public. Mainly due to the notion that the specie has an appealing baby-like cuteness, and the fact that it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, adds to the image if innocence.
Xu Zhen's work drastically subverts or negates this notion of innocent baby-like cuteness by framing the edgy action of a panda ejaculating. In the first video the camera has been placed below a glass surface capturing piles of semen emitted in loops of ejaculation. An act, putting it mildly, not usually associated with the toy-like imagery of pandas gracing all manner of consumer products.
Neither entirely serious nor obviously ironic, the second video depicts unknown persona practicing masturbation upon the panda. With their faces being blurred and disguised, the viewer is left wondering about the 'purpose' of the characters performing this act of masturbation. If carried out in the name of science and reproductive ends, then why this need for disguise. A sense of foreboding pervades the imagery as if one was voyeuristically witnessing something 'forbidden', something 'perverse'.
The third and last video once again turns things upside down. Here, the panda is captured sleeping peacefully in a crate on a bed of isolation material, as if the animal was resting in a shipping case, ready to be sent off to yet another unknown destination.
Transcending the cliché notion of the panda as a living innocent toy, Xu Zhen enters the arena of a charged agenda. Pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. Killing a panda was punishable by death in China up until 1997. Being in danger of extinction due to socio-political and environmental issues and the difficulties of captive pandas to mate stemming from the bears' lack of experience, Xu Zhen's work conveys multi-layered meanings with a very subtle and simple gesture. You don't need any theorizing to understand the odd performance carried out for the camera. The artist takes intrinsically slight material and plays with it without condescension: An Animal entails theatrical humor as well as social critique.
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