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Art Factory: Xu Zhen's Solo Exhibition And MadeIn

A look at the new solo exhibition by Shanghai's enfant terrible Xu Zhen, CEO of the MadeIn art company. Messing with reality and making bank...
Last updated: 2015-11-09

Xu Zhen is known as the enfant terrible in the Chinese contemporary art world. The 37 year-old Shanghainese artist produces witty, ironic, and often humorous works, although his career as a solo artist "ended" a few years ago. Nowadays, Xu is mostly recognized for his role as the CEO of the successful MadeIn Company that hires young artists as collective co-workers/employees to produce and sell art works under the brand of his own name –"Xu Zhen". Indeed this company is an artwork itself.

"Xu Zhen is dead, long live MadeIn", so says the company's website. This is an artist who, amongst other things, re-staged a Pulitzer Prize winning 2008 photo of a vulture waiting to eat a starving Sudanese baby, by bringing a mechanical vulture and a real African baby into a gallery so that attendees could recreate the prize winning shot with their phones. And that exhibition was called "Impossible Is Nothing". Or the time the MadeIn company put out a series of works by "a new generation of Middle Eastern artists" that were actually made in China, but felt Middle Eastern in the way a lot of cliché contemporary Chinese art feels Chinese.

Xu is kind of like the Chinese version of British artist Damien Hirst, in the sense that many may not like his work or agree with his ethic of art making, yet no one can ignore his existence and influence on the art world. So when the news broke that Xu Zhen would have a solo show at Long Museum's West Bund branch, on the museum's one year anniversary, everyone who loves or hates him all came see what this artist is up to.

Claimed as Xu Zhen's biggest solo show so far, the works on display here are a mixture of Xu’s early personal works, as well as collective works MadeIn produced under the brand name “Xu Zhen”. This is a company making a lot of art -- and money. All versions of the same work are displayed together and treated as one whole piece, though it's unclear if this strategy is taken just to fill the enormous museum space.

So there is the early video work Rainbow Xu made in 1998 that got him into Venice Biennale as the youngest Chinese artist on record, and a bunch of sculptures that graft ancient Chinese and Greek sculptures together, in a sort of East-meets-West irony.

Lots of gold and money elements too: one kuai bills made into tanks in a row; gold covered sculptures; golden color necklaces shaped words on mirror as the work "See no evil, Hear no evil, Say no evil”, and an installation of spinning coins on a reflective table. And these dollar bills.

Downstairs you'll find an early video work by Xu Zhen called Shouting, from 1998, which captures people's reactions when the artist screams at them from behind, in public places. Here's the best quality copy we could find online.

This feels like how the contemporary art scene in China has changed in the past 10 years. Back then, when artists made works, their intention was to call awareness to society, and the audience they aimed for was more the general public, in a vague sense, and perhaps the art academia as well. Artists used to self–fund exhibitions and make progressive works under the pressure of getting shut down by the police, whereas now, successful artists are having cocktail parties with governors and emerging rich collectors, and making works that more or less look like luxury goods. Xu Zhen's Under Heaven paintings -- giant canvases drenched in oil paint from an icing bag -- would fit perfectly in a penthouse apartment.

If you go to this exhibition, see the work in context. Maybe the art factory system Xu Zhen is building is indeed his art statement in response to China’s consumer culture reality today. Indeed the MadeIn website cites one of Warhol's famous quotes: "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”.

Xu Zhen’s Solo Exhibition runs at the Long Museum from March 29–May 24, 2015. Ticket Price: 50rmb. Full details.