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Xu Zhen

Critics'picks on Artforum Author: Colin Chinnery 2008

In 1993, photojournalist Kevin Carter took a picture in southern Sudan of a starving and emaciated young girl trying to make it to a feeding center with a vulture in the background, waiting for her to die. This harrowing photograph earned Carter the Pulitzer Prize, but just three months later, he took his own life. Fifteen years after those events, the scene has been restaged by Xu Zhen in Beijing with a very real three-year-old African and a lifelike vulture. This time, Carter has been replaced with an exhibition audience unwittingly reenacting his bittersweet moment of glory with their digital cameras and cell phones.

Next to this hot, bright facsimile of Africa, viewers enter a cold, dark room, barely illuminated by the occasional blips of little red lights and a tiny illuminated hatch. As the one’s eyes adjust to the darkness, it is possible to make out a life-size satellite seemingly floating in the gallery. Live-feed cameras broadcast two “astronauts” who appear to be living inside the spacecraft. These two volunteers are spending one month inside this tiny, cramped vehicle, which symbolizes the future of mankind.

Xu Zhen is a Shanghai-based artist who has always played with ideas of power in unpredictable ways. In The Starving of Sudan, 2008, as well as in Decoration, 2008, a seemingly endless list of political issues flits on the surface of the work, from China’s involvement in Africa and its high-profile space program to the problems of globalization and the soul-destroying utopia of technology. However, thinking about these issues leads to a dead end, as it is ultimately not the political content that matters in this show, but the challenge for viewers to understand the politics of viewing itself, and the relationship between viewing and experience.

— Colin Chinnery


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