Rainbow (caihong) is the title of a short video by Xu Zhen, four minutes of tension in which an anonymous back, of undefined sex, naked, gradually changes color, a pale flesh-colour with a few moles scattered about turning into a diffused red becoming bright fuchsia. The rhythm of the shots is uneven, with caesuras that coincide with the sound of a slap, unexpected an unseen, striking the skin, whereas the mark on the flesh and the intense sense of pathos preceding the next smack are clearly defined. As the blows hail, the single handprints merge in a more diffused flush.
Xu Zhen's world, here as in other works, is circumscribed to what has to do with the body, his own and that of others': general categories such as life-death, male-female…are real only when experienced by the individual, insofar as they belong to what the five senses can perceive. Thus in the long video I am not asking for anything, a dead cat is repeatedly struck against the paving, in a mysterious ritual where gratuitous-ness blends with a disquieting, sinister cruelty. Or else, in an unfinished work, Xu Zhen massages at length the body of a dead man to verify the different consistencies of flesh.
In Sewer, parts of the male and the female body are photographed and then "sewn" together so as to merge in a series of smooth surfaces surrounded by corporeal creases arranged like a frame. In
A Problem of Colourfulness, a nude body, unmistakably male, photographed in its entirety and its parts, but always from the back, exposes between his legs trickles of menstrual blood, producing an effect-that grace Fan deems a constant in the young artist's work-of "beauty and violence". The work titled Actually, I Am Also Dim (2000) is utterly simple and "poor" in materials. Here photographs of parts of the body are printed on yellow post-its that, arranged in a disorderly, random manner on a surface, remind us of a boundless proliferation of bodily fragments that will never, despite their number, be able to reconstruct a body in its wholeness.
In the artist's works we always find the viewer's dual relationship of detachment and involvement. Detachment is produced by the unquestionable difference there is between "being seen" and a "seeing" that here often has voyeuristic features. On the other hand involvement is sought and obtained by simple but efficient modes, devices that challenge the viewer's secure intimacy. In a video-installation presented at the show Art for Sale in Shanghai in 1999, titled From inside the Body, the viewer, seated on a brown imitation-leather couch, witnessed a video showing a boy and a girl, part naked, intent on smelling their own body and the other's, meticulously and with a seeming nonchalance, seated on the same couch. In another exhibition, Developing Time, again in Shanghai (2001), the action designed by the artist is set up so that when the spectator goes in, some people hidden behind a fake partition raise their arms and point at him, following him as he moves. Obviously embarassed, the visitor is given the final surprise of being confronted with his own image on the mirror-wall in front of him when, turning around, he goes toward the exit. Xu Zhen ironically questions the widely accepted borderlines between one's own space and that of others, passive and active roles, male and female connotations, volumes and surfaces, the use of our five senses, challenging prejudices and commonplaces.
(in 49a esposizione internazionale d'arte, La Biennale di Venezia)