In August 2005 word began to spread through the Chinese art community that the Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen had scaled Mount Everest and, what's more, managed (with a band of expert climbers) to saw off the top 1.86 meters of the mountain's peak. A month later, this icy trophy became the pièce de résistance of the artist's installation 8848-1,86 at the Yokohama International Triennale of Contemporary Art in Japan – preserved inside a refrgerated vitrine surrounded by video and photographic documentation of the climb as well as by the team's equipment. The natural reaction among audiences was, of course, to doubt that the evidence was real, even if the artifact's presentation conjured a seeming veracity (one thinks of those installations found at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles). Yet soon it was the audience's own distrust that was cast into doubt: Only a month after the triennial opened, the People's Republic of China Everest Exhibition Team publicly revised its official estimate of Everest's heigh, knocking four meters off the previous measurement of 8,848 meters.
It is precisely this slippery character of socially accepted reality that Xu calls "mobile public fact," something the artist addresses often in a practice that is notable for its political punch. Born in 1977, Xu started out making videos that focused on the body and public space in a manner reminiscent of early Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci: For example, the four minute video Rainbow, 1998, shows a person's back growing increasingly red, the result of slaps heard on the sound track but never seen. In another video from the same year titled Shouting, a moving crowd faces away from the camera until, startled by screams behind them, they spin around (a reaction that elicits laughs from whomever is behind the camera). The next year Xu extended the implications of the latter work by engaging viewers more actively. In From Inside the Body, 1999 (an installation that appeared in "Art for Sale," a 1999 group show that he co-organized at a Shanghai mall), viewers sit before three video monitors in a room outfitted with a single couch: The central screen shows the same couch, empty; the left-hand screen shows a man, and the right-hand screen, a woman. While the middle image remains static, the man and the woman begin to sniff the air, as if suddenly aware of an aroma. They smell themselves, stripping off their clothes to locate the source of this intoxicating scent. Finally, in their underwear, they walk off camera only to reappear together on the central screen, where they sit on the couch and start to sniff each other. During the course of the video piece, an aroma is released in the room, as if inviting viewers to mimic the actions on-screen. Government officials shut down the exhibition after just three days, calling the work "pornographic."
Xu's practice since has become only more provocative in the political realm, even though he – in a manner perhaps befitting a provocateur – claims that "Shanghai artists don't pay attention to politics." One of his most compelling recent pieces 12'91", 2005, is a sculpture of a military tank, made out of high-density foam, iron and resin. Sullied with dried dirt, its exterior imprinted with the marks of people's hands and feet, the work seems a angst-ridden cast burdened with a continuing history of rebellion and oppression. The sculpture was first shown in 2005 at the Second Triennial of Chinese Art (held at the Nanjing Museum in China), but its power supersedes its immediate Chinese context, as evidence by the public's emotional reaction when it appeared as part of "China Power Station Part I," a Serpentine Gallery projects I co-organized with Gunnar B. Kvaran and Julia Peyton-Jones last fall at the Battersea Power Station in conjunction with the Red Mansion Foundation and the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo.
This past year Xu drew the interest of Chinese officials again with An Animal, 2006, featured in "38 Solo Exhibitions," a large show in Shanghai's Creative Garden that he cocurated. This three-channel video installation shows a panda variously ejaculating (with the assistance of a group of men, faces digitally blurred) and sleeping. (Not surprisingly, as Xu put a national symbol through the wringer, Shanghai authorities shut down the entire exhibition only half an hour after the opening.) The artist's irreverent humor also took the exhibition space into the private sphere with Temporary Expansion, 2006, for which Xu rented out sections of friend's apartments, installing his own objects within their homes – placing a skeleton in one window, hanging dirty laundry in a garden, even positioning a traffic light in a living room. These interventions were documented in photographs and videos.
Clearly, Xu's sociopolitical appraisals distance him from the hers of contemporary Chinese artists. And the breadth of his practice, in all its seeming spontaneity and surprising inflections and turns, only complicates the attempt to pin him down to any single position within his country's art scene – or, indeed, within cultural production at large. Ironically, at a time when China's cultural activities are on the map as never before in the modern period – driven by successive waves of economic expansion, new galleries, museum's, biennials, and record-breaking auctions – these qualities might make Xu emblematic of his moment.