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New limits of unbounded ugliness.
Interview with Xu Zhen

Xu Zhen (born 1977 in Shanghai) is one of the most creative and controversial of a new generation of young artists in Shanghai. He studied at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts and was ‘discovered’ soon after his graduation, participating at the Venice Biennale 2001 at an age of 24. His work is shown at a growing number of national and international exhibitions.

IC: Can you tell me something in short of the development of your artistic work from 1998 up till now?

XZ: A few years ago I was still interested in subjects that were related directly to my personal life and a corporeal apprehension of the world. The video
Rainbow (1998), for instance, shown at the Biennale of Venice in 2001, was a very simple work. It is a video of four minutes in which you see the back of a male person getting red from slapping it.[fig.1] [fig.2] [fig.3] The process of the slapping is not shown, just the faint red marks which are almost beautiful. Actually it is quit a violent action, though. This work is still very much related to a direct, physical awareness of things. For me, the body is not so much a material as a medium. I use the body as an expressive tool because it is direct; a way of thinking without having recourse to the mind. Later on I became more involved in the experience of my environment, on a social level as well as a geographical level. Of course this work is also related to my personal experience, but more in an environmental way.

IC: Is the work Careful don't get dirty, which you showed in gallery Waldburger in Berlin two years ago, a good example of thinking in 'a more environmental' way?

XZ: Yes, this work was about the kind of machines they use to clean the streets. I made a scale reproduction of a cleaning-car but instead of water it was filled with saliva of people in China, referring to the habit of Chinese people spitting on the streets. [fig.4] [fig.5] Of course at that time, I didn't know yet that this would become such a ‘hot topic’ because of the outbreak of SARS, later on.

IC: In China Zhang Peili is regarded as the most important representative of the first stage of Chinese video art. In some articles it is stated that you and friends of you like Kan Xuan and Yang Zhenzhang, that is to say the younger generation of artists from Shanghai, were much influenced by him. Do you agree with that?

XZ: For sure, us being friends living together and starting things, it is merely obvious that we influenced each other. But the influence had more to do with a kind of general spirit, a general common feeling that inspired us at that time. Yang Zhenzhang and I discussed a lot of personal problems together, which we also related to our artworks. But I don't think my work is influenced by Zhang Peili in an obvious way. We only shared the same spirit of the nineties. If you compare my work with that of Zhang Peili the differences are more obvious than the similarities. First of all: not the medium but the idea behind the work is important to me. Of course the use of, or shifting with different media like performance and video is a part of this, but it is not the main thing. Zhang Peili uses video too and took interest in the human body as a subject of his work, but his works start from a philosophical, more or less rational level. While I was working with the idea of the body as an actual physical entity related to my own personal feelings: that's a very different approach.

IC: An early video of you is called: I'm not asking for anything (1999). The video shows you, slapping a dead cat against the floor, which you appeared to have strangled yourself before recording the action. [fig.6] I read in an interview that you were driven to make this work because you were fascinated by sex or the tensions between man and women in general. That's of course a very personal thing; but it does fit into a general tendency of that time. An art-critic stated that 'one of the characteristics of art in the nineties (in China) was the tendency by artists to explore marginal aesthetics: the body performance, expression of human extremity in art that involved real animals and human bodies.'

XZ: It is actually quit simple. It had to do with me being part of a generation of artists who tried to find our own way of expressing things. We wanted to express that art doesn't have to be derived from a philosophical or rational idea, but that it is connected directly to life. This specific work embodies this very clearly: it was the result of a personal depression translated in a very simple action. I wanted to address the issue of violence, and had to find a metaphorical terrain for it. But this work is actually less about the body, than it is about time. In any video work, time is a crucial element. Forty-five uninterrupted minutes of bashing the cat gives the sense of expanded time.

IC: What are you working on at the moment?

XZ: I just finished a piece for an exhibition in Shenzhen called:
The Fifth System: public art in the age of post-planning. The work is called Less then 10000000 m2. I made a scale reproduction of Taiwan; an island made of fibreglass. This island disappears under water and rises up from it again. One moment it is there, the other it is gone. [fig.7] [fig.8] [fig.9]

IC: You made this work for Porto Fino, a gated community, recently built in the OCT (Overseas Chinese Town; area located in the central Western part of the Shenzhen special economic zone). It is situated in a mixed area with business districts, residential neighbourhoods and theme park attractions, featuring replications of such places as the Eiffel Tower and Mount Fuji. You were asked to react on an architectural surrounding were everything is a kind of facade. Is that the reason why you choose to make a work that hints at the tense political relationship of China and Taiwan?

XZ: The people who live in these new neighbourhoods want to believe in the dream world the advertisements of it, sell them. If you look at the same adverts everyday it's annoying, it becomes like a forced thing: you force yourself to see it and maybe also to believe in it. The work deals with that. According to the officials Taiwan should become a part of the new economical successful growing and developing nation: China. With the work
Less then 10000000 m2 I try to reverse this process: it acts like sort of a ghost appearance because the island Taiwan only rises up from the water when the night falls.

I: Less then 10000000 m2 was a commission work for an exhibition in Shenzhen that deals partly with the relation of art and architecture. In Europe there seems to be a tendency of artists getting annoyed by curators who make up the themes of exhibitions. Some critics feel artists are becoming too docile and should raise their own voice again. How do you feel about making an artwork as a commission for an exhibition?

XZ: You have to consider the context of the situation for contemporary art in China at the moment. Contemporary art in China needs more attention, so if there is a chance to do an exhibition you take this opportunity with both hands. Just because overall the possibilities are still poor. And next to that: making an exhibition and working together with a curator is a game that both parties play. You can have all the influence you want as an artist or decide to mock the theme of the exhibition.

I: What do you think in general about Chinese artists being presented in exhibitions overseas?

XZ: There is quite some attention now for Chinese art, but it is clear to me that overall the exhibitions show a kind of European attitude towards what they expect from Chinese artists on a cultural, political or personal level. Most curators choose artworks which, in a sense, reflect their own background or a search for something oppositional to it. At the moment there really seems to be no other way, unless there is a kind of equal openness.

I: You don't think the global community of art reached a kind of level of communicating about contemporary art on the same level?

XZ: No, I don't think we are that far yet. It is very difficult to accomplish. For instance I'm doing an exhibition next year in France. If I want to express something to the public that visits this exhibition, than I have to think very carefully of how I want visualize this. What I want to express has to be done in relation to the exhibition itself, to start with.

I: Do you mean that you adjust yourself to the wishes of the institution or the public you work with?

XZ: No, of course not, when you do an exhibition it always comes from a personal point of view. But you do have to think about the reception of the public, because if they don't understand what you want to express with it, the artwork fails altogether. There is great difference between the public in China and in Europe in terms of how they receive art.
I don't want to easily adjust myself to that as a sneaky and easy way to be successful; I'm just saying that I take the context for which I make something, into account.

I: Next to you being an artist you also curate exhibitions at BizArt. Can you describe your curatorial stand?

XZ: In our, or at least my opinion art should not be functional in any way. That sounds like a very simple thing to say, because it is so obvious. But it is very easy to fall in the trap of continue making exhibitions to cater the public or to repeat yourself. If you want to show true art than it should not become an easy or professionalized thing to do. In that sense what we are doing now is a sort of defeat.

I: Defeat, in what sense?

XZ: What I am saying is that I feel that the art we are showing at the moment doesn't have a real problem anymore. It doesn’t create problems anymore.

I: And before it did? Do you mean in terms of the censorship by the government?

XZ: No, I don’t mean the censorship by that, or the idea that art has to be shocking in any way. It has to do with the conviction that art in its essence should be problematic.This also relates to how we motivate our presence in the city as an art institution. If you feel that the art you show doesn't put the world to the test anymore than you realize that you have to find a new critical stance. At the moment we are thinking about how to do that. Next to that: one of the main challenges in Shanghai now is not the lack of spaces, but the need to work on building an audience. At
BizArt, we can do more cutting-edge things than in state-run institutions. Museum shows in this country are so boring it is unbelievable! Take the last Shanghai Biennale; it was enough to bore you senseless. And there are more and more biennales in China, all in the image of the government. I might take part in them, but I don’t really give them a second thought, and I have no expectations of them.

IC: Do you think of yourself as a “Shanghai artist”?

XZ: I was born here, and to some extent everything I do is inseparable from Shanghai. But what I find lacking here is the fact that there is no competition, no meaningful peer evaluation. For instance you produce something half rate; you are still successful – simply because there are so few people in Shanghai who do art. There is a lack of resistance. In this environment, you have to have real drive and discipline to improve yourself . But what I like is the change: the development, the architectural explosion, the urban changes, and the instability it all. You are familiar with the skyline of the city and each year, you say to yourself: ‘this building is so ugly ’or‘this one is just unimaginably dreadful.’ And then the following year brings even more buildings that are even uglier, that you really need high-speed, real-time adaptation skills to deal with it. What fascinates me is: just how ugly can it actually get? It is a sort of unprecedented experiment in ugliness on a city scale. I am very optimistic because Shanghai defines new limits of unbounded ugliness!