An Interview with Xu Zhen
Chen Xiaoyun (Chen): You were born in 1977 or '78, right? You're really young. Everyone is already referring to you as a rising star. Can you tell us how you've "arisen" (laugh)? I feel this "rise" has been a bit quick. Its as if you appeared out of nowhere. It's not like it was an imperceptibly slow movement. You did several good pieces of work and then "bang, you're here." You have talent. You've had a few opportunities. You've been in several important exhibitions that have provided excellent exposure. You've worked hard. And, the art circle here seems to hold you in fairly high estimation, which is a very positive criticism. How do you view this matter? Give us an idea of how you view yourself.
Xu Zhen (Xu): That's kind of hard to say. In fact, my background is not all that good. Let's just say I've been lucky.
Chen: This era has provided excellent opportunities to a lot of youth and some have been able to take advantage of it. Because I feel that people your age are relatively accomplished and that this is something you perhaps care about, then this is also an important element in making you what you are today. While you may have never entered into the formal education system, or never received into a structured training, yet, you have become what is somewhat crassly referred to as a "self-made man." While a university education is in many ways useless today -- this we all know -- still it continues to give a kind of opportunity to youth today. It's a kind of choice. Did you want to attend university?
Xu: I wanted to go to university, but didn't get in.
Chen: That's to say, you were screened out by the university, discarded by the system, excluded. It strikes me as strange that so many of the young people who did not test into the university or never entered into art school, never entered into this kind of cyclical system, in the end simply gave up the opportunity to get a higher degree. Perhaps, it was that their self-expectations were just too low. As contemporary art tends toward refinement, towards the fine arts, how have you been able to sustain yourself?
Xu: Because I'm not refined, I guess.
Chen: I wasn't referring to whether or not you were refined or whether or not you felt you were refined. You know what refinement means. So, how do you sustain yourself under these circumstances? Because I feel it would be difficult . . . There are so many divisions of labor in society today, so many choices. You never received formal training. Yet, you've clearly decided to embark upon the path you're on now and you seem to hold yourself up to a high standard and to be doing well.
Xu: I try to work to the best of my ability.
Chen: But, this kind of ability has its limits. What is the price you pay or how do you continue to manage to propel yourself forward?
Xu: There are certain environmental elements. In Shanghai, everyone tries as hard as they can. While the force that propels us spiritually must come naturally from within, still it is also sparked on by interaction.
Chen: So do you think that art in and of itself is a very pure thing?
Xu: It's really very simple if you can keep things separate, namely the way you think about a work before you make it and the way you sell it afterwards.
Chen: These are two separate issues. They are not mutually conflicting.
Xu: If you can't control things, they can get mixed up together.
Chen: So how do you view the kind of art that you are producing? Is it a job or labor of love?-is it a way of communicating or is it a kind of amusement?
Xu: I think that art is first and foremost something that belongs to the artist, then a product of its surroundings, then ultimately it becomes something for the so-called market. These are all essential.
Chen: Because you are now one of the more successful of your generation, you will naturally have some commercial opportunities, some things that you probably thought you would never have and you will continue to see and get such things. You're able to separate this issue from the rest... You say art is first and foremost. It is relatively independent and not subject to other elements: ie., it's immediate surroundings, the market and so on, specific, concrete things that might interfere. These things could even be thoughts. Yet, there are some young artists, let's say in Beijing and Guangdong, who don't really care about such things. For them, art is like a commercial enterprise. I want a good price for my works. This too is a level of art. Art inherently contains an element of its future sale. In fact, it is a form of trade. It's just that this form of trade seems or appears to be less transparent than most forms of trade. What do you think?
Xu: I feel if you can sell it, then sell it. Don't try to get clever in the making of the art though.
Chen: You're going to participate in this year's Venice Biennale. Everyone knows that this is a very important exhibition. Even if different people view this exhibition in different ways and have varying opinions of it, still the exhibition itself is an international exhibition that represents a substantial presence in the art world. What kind of mindset do you have going into this exhibition? For instance, is it an exchange of ideas, competition or simply a chance to show your works?
Xu: It's [a chance] to learn.
Chen: Learn in what respect?
Xu: To see as much as I can. I think that my works are not what I would consider good enough to participate. I'm simply lucky that my work was selected or that my work fit the main theme perhaps. That said, I'm still going there to learn.
Chen: When you say you feel lucky, are you saying that you feel the Biennale is that important or that you feel you haven't attained the goals that you've set for yourself?
Xu: I think, as a contemporary artist, I consider participation in the Biennale as an honor, I guess.
Chen: Do you feel this is glorious somehow?
Xu: No, no, no. I don't feel that this is glorious. Anyway, people say that it is [an honor] and so I've come to believe it to be so. But, personally I feel that actually this is just the way things happen. The work participating in this exhibition is an old work. Its called "Rainbow."
Chen: If I can be crass for a minute, I would say that this work doesn't look like the work of a young artist. Nor, does it look like the work of an old artist. Of course, it doesn't look like the work of a middle aged, complacent artist either. But, I feel that one cannot understand your work from this one work, "Rainbow." I feel that there is something on-going about your work. Each seems to have certain elements of spontaneity. How do you reflect upon or understand your own works? Or, how would you like others to understand your work? You can talk freely to us about this, including about your method of creation, method of work, the way you approach the realization of each work, etc...
Xu: My approach to my work is to do a lot of thinking at home.
Chen: Do you think randomly or do you think with a purpose? Or do you have a particular interest in certain sensations or emotions?
Chen: For instance, let's talk about "Rainbow." When did you make it? What were the circumstances out of which this work grew?
Xu: I made it in 1998. Actually, I felt really bored back then. I wanted something that would stimulate. I began by taking a set of photos. Sometime later, I felt the effect wasn't really that ideal. So, I tried videotape. After shooting it, I edited it. After editing it, I felt it was pretty good. That's all.
Chen: When did you start to formally produce artworks?
Xu: The end of '97. When I returned to Shanghai from Beijing in 1997, I stayed at home and painted. After painting for three months, I began slowly to make [art].
Chen: In 1999, there was a fairly important exhibition in Shanghai - "Art for Sale". Prior to this, as I recall, the Shanghai art scene wasn't really that vibrant. The significance of the exhibition, at one level, is that it made people aware of the extraordinary activities of this group of artists, not all of whom were outstanding artists in their own right. Still, it created a kind of environment. Because you and Yang Zhenzhong were two of the curators for that exhibition, can you tell us what you had in mind when you curated the exhibition?
Xu: At the time, we were thinking a lot about what kind of exhibition we should do in Shanghai? In Beijing, the ideal exhibition would take place in the Great Hall of the People. In Shanghai, we thought a shopping mall would be best. This was right for Shanghai. After some more thought, we decided on the concept of "Art for Sale". Next, we contacted artists and found funding. This took half a year. The overall effect was pretty good. Everyone felt that it was a small success. After that we began to embark upon the road of art.
Chen: Everyone knows that there is a new fashion in China and abroad today. [Artists] employ their bodies and/or animals to reference moral taboos. Without pre-judging whther this is good or bad, it was certainly inevitable. I noticed trace elements of this tendency in some of your works. Both your photographic works and video works, in some ways, also seem to test what is morally taboo. What is behind such an endeavor? Is it simply that you feel you have to go where others have forbidden you to go? Or, is there something else behind such competition and such violence?
Xu: I guess it's a little of both. In the last year, I haven't really touched that much on violence. This is enormous subject. And, it's not really where my interest lies. With regard to sex, this is a subject I'm interested in, in as much as I've discovered that I am a person who really likes sex. At the same time, I'm a normal person. For me, there is some good raw material with which to work.
Chen: Did you suddenly discover that sex was something real or that it would be good subject matter for your work?
Xu: I cannot escape it.
Chen: Is it something you want to escape? Is it this feeling of inescapability that draws you into sex?
Xu: I just can't get it out of my mind.
Chen: I don't see anything related to the body in your works. What is perhaps most revealing is that which relates to the dressing up of certain desires. It's hard to see the underlying components of these desires in your work. In fact, all we see is outward expressions of the physical body in conflict or some really farout concepts. This includes a work that I can recall vividly. It was called "Shout." I'm very interested in issues related to control and being controlled. Maybe I've misread the work. Can you talk some about "Shout," including how you created this work on such a primitive subject.
Xu: At the time I did "Shout," I felt that a single shout could be shocking. Later, I got several people to go out on the street and shout "ahhh." Seeing all those people turn their head to look in response was even more fun than the actual "shout" itself.
Chen: You felt that the reaction evoked by "Shout" was even stronger than the work "Shout" itself?
Xu: I felt this later. Through some things that were visual.
Chen: I sense that you often encounter unexpected things when you create your works.
Xu: That's true.
Chen: Because the history of Chinese contemporary art is fairly short. As far as I know, it actually didn't begin until 1985, this being a year associated with westernization, a period in which productivity was transformed, everything was imported and all [Western] education was accepted. After this came a period in which imported raw material was "processed" and "assembled," followed by a strategy of localized self-management of goods that were self-made and self-sold. Maybe this is the right strategy. How do you understand this?
Xu: When I was studying, modern art was what I saw when I looked at the works of Yu Youhan and Fang Lijun. It was like all of the sudden I felt that this stuff is really fun. This is how I got my early direction.
Chen: Another question, when performance art first came onshore, it was a fairly advanced mode of art. Perhaps today for some artists, the feeling is that to take a jab at it is wrong, but to jab at it is to feel that you've somehow allowed some really low stuff to continue to take the stage. How do you view performance art within the context of Chinese contemporary art?
Xu: I really don't think it's that big of a deal.
Chen: Are you saying that this form of art is without problems?
Xu: These artists are not [morally] bad. It's more that recently performance art has become a fairly active area [of artistic expression]. That said, I feel that a lot of Shanghai artists' understanding of art is still a bit shallow. Their artistic level is not up to par. Maybe they didn't go to college. I don't know. I just don't feel their works are done well. If they can improve the quality of their performance art, that is to say if they can really make their works substantive, then I would have no problem with it even if the audience could not accept their work. But, the situation as it is now is such that the audience finds these works unacceptable and I must admit I don't really know if I can accept [these works] either.
Chen: On this point, we need to look at specific works. Often the complexity of an issue is such that it is easy to evaluate under varying circumstances?
Xu: No, I think to stick to the line that given the circumstances that there is a problem with public morality, a problem with communication, a problem with the artists, a problem with the audience, a problem with everything, under such circumstances, you cannot say that the same thing in China can develop without problems. It's going to have problems. If the problem can be minimalized, then its just a matter of difference.
Chen: You've visited some countries and participated in overseas exhibitions. Do you feel that the environment overseas - I don't know how much you got to understand - but maybe you can talk in general terms. How is the environment for artists abroad different from that at home here in China? Including the methods by which exhibitions are organized, the way in which artist organizations are formed, sources of funding?
Xu: On the surface, it seems that the difference is not that great except that we are perhaps a little more constrained here. That said, sometimes the lack of any constraints can be a constraint.
Chen: Do you think that such constraints can result in more opportunity?
Xu: Yes. It can offer you some ideas. I feel it's like this. I guess I am the type that takes life as it comes. If you don't feel comfortable, then leave. If you like it, then come back. To date, I feel that staying here is pretty good.
Chen: Sometime ago, you did a work, "Throwing a Cat," that was pretty bloody and a lot of people found objectionable. When you exhibited this work in Italy, a lot of viewers could not deal with it, that's not to mention a lot of people inside the circle of "those in the know." Can you talk a bit about that situation?
Xu: I had gone out to have some fun when they called to tell me that my work had been removed because a lot of people had found it objectionable. I felt that since it had already been removed, there was nothing I could do about it, I guess.
Chen: Did you consider protesting?
Xu: I wondered why they decided to remove it. At the very least, we should have been allowed to put forth our argument. If you don't allow me to argue my case, then isn't an injustice being done to me? In the end, I never got a chance to argue my case. We simply talked briefly with the chairman. The chairman simply said, "Sorry, sorry." That said, this was their exhibition, in their country. If there was a problem with the work in terms of the law or the system there, then so be it. We have to forgive.
Chen: This was a Western exhibition. Art in the West is supposed to be relatively open and free of constraints. In their eyes, they perhaps thought that artists from the East were relatively rule-abiding, being from countries with lots of taboos and constraints. In submitting such a work, in a country in which there are supposedly no inhibitions, in a place where there are supposedly no restraints on art, you were censored and your work removed. Don't you find something odd about this?
Xu: First, there is a big gap between West that exists in our imagination and the West that really exists. This case should serve to help us better understand the West. Second, while I was really upset at first, it also occurred to me that the situation was not that different from that of China. I figured that's just the ways things are.
Chen: How was it you came up with the idea of throwing a cat?
Xu: Cats？-I think are kind of sexy. They are sexy animals. At the time, my sexual desire was swollen like you wouldn't believe. It was like I was starving. And, I couldn't get any. So, I guess that's how I came up with the idea of throwing a dead cat.
Chen: So the cat was dead.
Xu: Yes. I wanted a dead cat for the work. Of course, everyone thinks that I killed the cat.
Chen: In fact, did you kill it?
Xu: It's true. I did it. I killed it in a garage.
Chen: So the cat was alive?
Xu: Right. It was a live cat. I bought it early one morning at a food market. I had wanted to catch one, but couldn't.
Chen: So how did you kill it?
Xu: I strangled it. After I did it, I was really scared for a long time. We've got several cats in our house that meow all the time. Later, I got over it.
Chen: So what was the process by which you exhibited it?
Xu: I set up a TV set there. Lots of people suggested I throw the cat as a live performance. But, that would have been too cruel.