'Seeing one's own eyes' is the inaugural exhibition of MadeIn, a new company devoted to creating art and led by Xu Zhen, a leading Chinese conceptual artist.(1) The exhibition is subtitled 'Middle Eastern Contemporary Art Exhibition' (Mec[c]a) and the title itself is drawn from the Koran:
My way, and that of my followers, is to call you to God, on evidence as clear as seeing with one's own eyes. (Sura 12, Verse 108)
This refers to the duty of reflection, exhorting the devout to be critical rather than blind followers. Obviously the exhortation is one-sided: not too critical, not in the wrong way - but critical nevertheless. Before you even enter the exhibition, you have been put on notice.
Witnessing miracles these days is difficult (unless you attend the artist's simultaneous exhibition in New York at James Cohan Gallery, "Lonely Miracle" - same subtitle) and yet MadeIn manages a minor one - upsetting clichéd norms of art, the Middle East and China through the subversion of his own status as artist. The exhibition, sprawling across ShanghART's principal gallery space and its nearby H-Space, is composed of some 30 individual works, dramatically different and yet in many ways also typical of Xu Zhen (it's difficult to escape one's own shadow). Themes which have developed in Xu Zhen's practice over many years are again present in Seeing one's own eyes: the parodic subversion of received thought; the playing with scale, substance and space; and the obsession with notions of authenticity, sincerity and truth.(2) What is new for Xu Zhen is the conscious desire to create an entire, single artwork from diverse exhibits by, at least notionally, diverse artists. This involves the presentation of the curated exhibition, of its very curation, as art work. Hense it is the exhibition of an exhibition: that is, a new 'exhibition-ism' enunciated through its own exhibitionism.
Before we can fully discuss this point however, we need to look at the diverse elements of the exhibition itself. Because Xu Zhen has frequently challenged prejudices and pre-conceptions with, at times brutal, parody, he has often been presented as a 'trickster', provocateur, or jester. The truth is more complex but then, that is the very stuff of his trade. Upon entering the main gallery one is met by a large, round pool of water surrounded by potted palms. Floating in the pool is an inflatable dinghy wrapped in an oriental carpet. Originally it carried a figure wearing a black burqa, the enveloping garment worn by many Islamic women. This version of Seeing one's own eyes (2009) appears in a cut-down form. The 'water' is actually glue that will harden as the aqueous component evaporates, eventually leaving the dinghy stranded - a desert island. In the meantime it drifts aimlessly within the pool's walls, occasionally shoved along by a visitor, leaving a wake in the scummy surface, which is picking up dust, insects and other detritus during the exhibition.
The oasis is a mirage, but one surrounded by swirling siroccos. In contrast to the oasis's act of desiccation, six lively paintings recall Pollock's 'all-over' works. Attractive swirls drawn from Islamic writing and decoration crowd the surface in a chaotic jumble, their aesthetic poetry transmogrified into graffiti-esque gibberish, a new empty aesthetic. These works are intentionally flippant, self-subverting representations of non-representational art, an undercutting of the Islamic edict against representational art. But you have to look, because interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. In MadeIn's New York show, on now at James Cohan Gallery, one can view their counterparts, an alternative to emptiness: paintings gorging on content, an absurd collision of provocative cartoon images relating to the Middle East and published on the internet. The themes remain the same however, but don't they always in the Middle East? Or have we just been suckered into another cliché?
The exhibition continues in the H-Space. Here we find another circle, Perfect Volume (2009), comprising the severed toes of 100 anonymous military boots, all inward facing. It recalls various Middle East conflicts but the boots also stand in contrast to the completeness of the Xi'An terracotta army that memorialises China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (Mao's paragon). Stepping into the ring elicits an eldritch feeling. The boots are silent. You look through their absent owners or bow your head to their minimal remains. In a nearby corner, a small Mecca/no toy oil pump bobs up and down. Machine for perpetual motion (2009) is plugged into an electrical socket and is constructed of razor wire.
The next work encountered is the Damien Hirst-ian sounding Indivisible reality comes from uncertain needs in our mind (2009).(3) It consists of a giant pair of fallopian tubes composed of children's soft toys lashed together with criss-crossing, transparent packing tape (not unlike some Thomas Hirschhorn work). The ends, in the shape of camels, respectively open into two claw-foot baths filled with (fake) 'oil' - black painted Styrofoam sheets. Camels, ships of the desert, are of course not only found in Africa and the Middle East but, among others, also China, particularly in its Western Provinces, including on the Silk Road, that great high-way of trade between China and the Middle-East and Europe. Equally importantly, there is an association with one of the Chinese words for alpaca, 草泥马, or Cǎo Ní Mǎ, literally 'Grass Mud Horse', a type of goat or lama (strictly speaking 羊驼, or yángtuó: alpaca). Including associations with grass and dirt (Cǎo, in particular, also refers to 'illegibility' and 'draft', as in 'draft copy'), Cǎo Ní Mǎ carries a popular association with an obscenity: 肏你妈, cào nǐ mā or 'fuck your mother.' 'Mother China' herself has been less than delighted by this, not least of all when a photo-shopped image of the scandalous China Central Television (CCTV) Tower fire in Beijing last year presented the face of a lama in the billowing smoke, which, funnily enough, Xu Zhen's giant plush toy-fallopian tubes resembles. The associations are vertiginous.
Painting (2009), an oil painting, leans against a wall. The discreet notice nearby states it is made of 'Oil, Light bulbs'. It is an oil painting of oil. But as the Castrol slogan says, oils ain't oils. Blinking red lights scattered across its surface are connected with thin, red wires. It looks like it's about to explode. And in the expressionistic morass of its surface can be divined a road or a tank. It's difficult to say: as usual, the oil gets in the way.
At the end of the hall stand three monolithic white sculptures. Closer inspection reveals them to be made of Polystyrene, an oil by-product. Polystyrene, whose baubles expand to fill negative space, are here employed to create packaging to protect valuable Middle Eastern clichés, such as crescents, mosques, minarets, (self-referential) oil barrels and Kalashnikov rifles. The monumental packaging is presented in glistening white formalist glory and recalls the polystyrene recyclers who peddle their heavy tricycles around Shanghai, hemmed in by a mountain of boxes precariously lashed together. It is a sculpture about what is not there, or rather about all the things between the things that are not there, all those things which occupy a zealot's mind: monuments, religion, power and its walking-sticks.
Stepping into the next room an overwhelming black carousel greets you, stirrups hanging from its eaves: Soul has been replaced by anxiety (2009). This version lacked the burqas that would normally fly around it, minding one not only of Haj pilgrims circling the black Kaba in Mecca as well as the pepper-grinder in Duchamp's Large Glass but also, at least for me, of Bulgakov's liberated witch in his The Master and Margarita, out to have fun. Adjacent is a 'map' of miniature paintings of almost charming miniature explosions, each carefully contained beneath a separate piece of glassware, whether a wine or beer glass or occasional carafe. It is called The Colour of Heaven (2009). In China the colour of heaven is yellow, hence the colour of temple roof tiles. For a Persian, it is green. In Afghanistan it is blue. Here it is an abstract palette of hues. Does this expressionism refer to the containment of freedom of expression? What sort?
The exhibition is beginning to draw to a close. In its farthest corner, four rusted iron seismographs hang on the walls above head-height (Dah...Dah...Dah...Dah; You're going to heaven tomorrow; Battle is our mission and Global peace is the mission of this country (2009)) Only these are really the voice-graphs of speeches by four non-identified politicians connected with the Middle East. For the present, we can only pontificate whose they might be: Osama bin Laden, George Bush, Ahmedinejad, and Sheik Omar? Here their 'iron' words have been frozen forever, or at least until they are melted down. Below the voice-graphs lies a large, rectangular 'bed' of rubble: Calm (2009). Looking at it, you detect movement; its surface is slowly rolling. The rubble appears to breath.
The question of whether all this amounts to just 'frivolously ironic conceptualism and cynical provocation' or whether it changes the game of the role of art will be debated for some time to come.(4) In my opinion, dismissing MadeIn's practice as merely glib theatricality misses the point: indeed, by making such allegations you are in fact entering into the prefigured strategy of the work, the questioning not only of truth and authenticity but also of notions of sincerity and stereotyping, sympathy and prejudice.(5) How you react to MadeIn's opulent platter of excessive clichés is the real point of the exhibition. 'Seeing your own eyes' (note the crucial absence of the preposition 'with' from the original quote) means that the exhibition is as much a mirror as a critical arrangement: you yourself are on display, the flaneur stripped bare of his burqa, even.
"Seeing One's Own Eyes - Middle East Contemporary Art Exhibition"
Curated by MadeIn
September 6-October 10
50 Moganshan Road
Gallery, building 16 and H-Space, building 18
"Lonely Miracle - Middle East Contemporary Art Exhibition"
James Cohan Gallery in New York
Curated by MadeIn
September 10- October 10
533 West 26th Street, New York
1. The Chinese translation of 'MadeIn', 没 顶, or 'méi dǐng', is 'no roof'.
2. The confection of 'MadeIn' no doubt in some way relates to Ai Wei Wei's 'Fake' company, whereby the Chinese transliteration of 'fuck' is 法克 or 'fǎ kè'. 'Fuck off' was the also the name of the short-lived, seminal exhibition curated by Ai Wei Wei in 2000.
3. Indeed, Joerg Heisser ("Shanghai Postcard", Editor's blog, frieze online) referred to the aforesaid paintings as mere doodles, so perhaps they bare some 'relational aesthetics' with Hirst's 'superficial' dot paintings: after all, it wouldn't be the first time Xu Zhen has poked fun at Mr Hirst. See for instance Xu Zhen's Untitled (2007), a divided 'dinosaur' preserved in a formaldehyde-filled vitrine.
4. Heisser, again.
5. A highly ironic incident occurred in relation to the show, along these lines, which unfortunately there is insufficient space here to discuss.
Chris Moore is a writer and a partner in the contemporary art investment firm, mooreandmooreart.co.uk. He lives in Shanghai and specialises in contemporary Chinese art.