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Xu Zhen Is Trolling Shanghai Pretty Hard

The infamous Shanghainese artist just opened a convenience store near Zhongshan Park and all the items are empty.
2016-04-12 18:56:44
"Huh!? Everything in here is empty? I don't understand..." – a grandpa in Changning District, as he walked out of the new XuZhen Supermarket, which opened near Zhongshan Park last Friday. Every item in the shop – from bottles of baijiu and Nongfu Shan water to boxes of condoms and laundry detergent – is completely empty, yet still for sale at regular prices.

XuZhen Supermarket is the most recent work by one of China's biggest contemporary artists (and sharpest businessmen), Shanghai's own Xu Zhen. Well, the concept is not that recent -- "XuZhen Supermarket" debuted at Art Basel Miami back in 2007 -- but this his first supermarket outside of a gallery and on the street.

Is this some deeper statement about consumerism and materialism, and the void in our lives that we fill with products? Or is the dude just trolling everyone? I met with Xu Zhen at his shop to find out.

Xu Zhen working the cash register at his new shop on Yuyuan Lu, near Dingxi Lu

Xu Zhen, who is 39 but looks a decade younger and smiles and laughs a lot, is known for giving vague and effusive answers in interviews. As an artist, he is highly conscious of the way he is presented and consumed in the media. Just read the description for his MadeIn Company:

"MadeIn Company was established in 2009 in Shanghai by Xu Zhen, it is a contemporary art creation company, focused on the production of creativity, and devoted to the research of contemporary culture’s infinite possibilities. In 2013, MadeIn Company launched the brand 'Xu Zhen'." Another part of the website says "Xu Zhen is dead, long live MadeIn."

Right. I knew I wouldn't get great answers to any deep questions about art, so I rolled up with my own convenience store snacks and tried to see if I could out-troll him, but ended up getting caught off-guard by how nice he is.

Note: This interview was conducted in (mediocre) Mandarin, with assistance from super nice MadeIn employee Louise Lam. SmartShanghai's Jin Qian and Rhiannon Florence, who did the photographs, assisted with the translation.

Thanks for taking the time to do this. I brought you some snacks.

[Everyone laughs. Xu Zhen thought the snacks were something I bought in his shop, and seemed surprised and slightly annoyed when he discovered they were full.]

So we've got some Baijiu, some Er Gou Tou, some Disney snacks, and...some Pockey.

Rhiannon: Can you empty these?

Xu Zhen: Oh…the person who helped us make the packages empty is not here.

What's your favorite convenience store?

Xu Zhen: This one. It's definitely more niu bi [fucking rad] than those other ones. It's empty. Those chains are all the same -- just different brand names.

So, the first XuZhen Supermarket was in 2007. Why'd you wait so long to open one on the street in China?

Xu Zhen: Because this year we started promoting our "Xu Zhen" brand, and we'll have a lot more art activities in public spaces this year.

What's the difference between a brand an an artist?

Xu Zhen: A brand is something a bunch of people work on, while artists [only] have assistants. [We want to make] it look like a real brand; it’ll have the promotion, manufacturing, and creative branding. There’s a team [behind it].

What's your favorite thing about convenience stores?

Xu Zhen: Actually it's the feeling of safety. If there's a supermarket nearby, life feels safer.

[Laughs] But how about actual products… like a snack.

Xu Zhen: Ummm... Oreos.

That's good because... we brought you some Oreos! [I pull out a bag of Oreos; Xu Zhen laughs and looks surprised]. Anyway, I went to a KTV in Minghang that has some of your artwork. Have you seen it?

Xu Zhen: Shanghai Zhiye? Yeah it's my friend's place. He bought some of our work.

I think it's the best contemporary art gallery in Shanghai. Ummm... Are you gonna go to Shanghai Disneyland when it opens?

Xu Zhen No way, too many people! There's no opportunity to go there this year.

What's the difference between a brand like Disney and a brand like XuZhen? Both make art but are businesses too.

Xu Zhen: No difference. We're a bit cooler, a bit more fun. Cha bu duo.

So with this project, are you really trying to make some statement about consumerism, or are you just trolling people, like "let's put this fake shop here and see people's reactions"?

Xu Zhen: It's very serious [everyone laughs].

But is it kinda like your "Shouting" piece, where you're more interested in peoples' reactions?

Xu Zhen: It's not the same. "Shouting" is more of a visual work, it's a moving subject presented on a screen. And viewers would feel "ah, I'm probably that kind of person in this video, too." While this... I think when you imagine there's an empty subject like this in a city, it will be good feeling. You don't have to purchase anything. Of course, if you do purchase then it helps us lower the cost, but [the idea of] imagining is more important.

Does your store have a license?

Xu Zhen: This is an artwork, we don't need a license.

No? But you're still selling stuff.

Xu Zhen: No problem, we're a gallery selling artworks. We add tax. The boss is outside [laughs].

You're probably not gonna answer this, but how did you get everything empty?

Xu Zhen: I heard it's really difficult. I don't know much, either, because there's no hole [on the products].

Isn't this kind of an old concept? You came up with this in 2007 -- why not come up with some new concepts?

Xu Zhen: Because it's a good concept, so it won't become outdated. So, yeah, you can play around with it nowadays as well. Also, if you compare Chinese convenience stores in 2007 with convenience stores now, there's a big difference. The products are different…

What's the neighborhood's reaction so far? Any good stories?

Xu Zhen: Yesterday an Ayi came in looking really happy and left shaking her head. I think that's great.

Is this the end of the project? Or will there be some kind of movie with peoples' reactions -- where does this project go after this shop closes?

Xu Zhen: We'll record some stuff, and then I wanna open an even bigger shop [it will still be fake].

Ok so you're trying to make this statement about consumerism, and the theme is "fill the void" and that's kind of sarcastic, but isn't this really just a big branding exercise for XuZhen and MadeIn, and at the end of the day, isn't that just consumerism? It's kind of a contradiction…

Xu Zhen: Art is just like that. It's always kind of a contradiction. You go outside wearing something weird [to feel good about yourself] and end up being criticized by other people. It makes those people feel good about themselves but doesn't make you feel good. So there always has to be someone standing in the middle of the road.

How's the Chinese art market these days? I heard it's going down. Is this store your response to that?

Xu Zhen: Everyone keep saying it's not good, but it keeps going up. Last week, three paintings sold for six hundred million. It's all a bubble, it doesn't matter. It's all a "void" [like this project].

What do you do with all your money? Like, from selling art and being rich?

Xu Zhen: I spend it all [laughs].

Thank you very much, appreciate it.


Talking with Xu Zhen and looking back at his early work, where he went into train stations and screamed at crowds of people and filmed their reactions, or got people to recreate that Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a vulture about to eat a starving Sudanese baby, it's clear that he is someone who enjoys fucking with people. I can dig that. That's not to discount his considerable talents in fine arts, but projects like this are more about trolling the public and building hype than anything else. Xu Zhen and MadeIn are brands, and brands – from Disney to Supreme to Franck – need hype to grow and stay alive. Look, we're adding to his hype machine right now. Dude is literally selling empty bottles of Coke and baffling the neighborhood, then turning around and selling his paintings and sculptures at Art Basel for millions. He's a smart business dude, for sure.


XuZhen Supermarket is at 1386 Yuyuan Lu, near Dingxi Lu. It's open daily until Friday, April 29.