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Xu Zhen: Provoked and Provoking Art

Author: Lu Leiping Translator: Wu Liping Jun,2006

Battling with heaven is endless joy, fighting with the earth is endless joy, and struggling with human beings is endless joy.
Mao Zedong


In August, 2005, Xu Zhen, together with his team, reached the summit of the 8848.13 meters' high Mt. Everest, sawed off part of it (1.86m) and moved it downhill.

In September, 2005, Xu Zhen attended the Yokohama Triennale with this exhibit, including the top 1.86m of Mt. Everest, a video documentary of the team sawing off the peak, the related photographic works, textual and archival materials and tools.

In October, 2005, the PRC Bureau of Mapping published the updated height of Mt. Everest, 8844.43m.

In March, 2006, Xu Zhen's Solo Exhibition "8848-1.86" was held in H Space, Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai.

The confusing chain of events has attracted extensive attention from home and abroad on Xu Zhen's "mountain-sawing".

Then did he really saw off the peak of Everest? In the exhibition hall all the proofs were out there to make the audience believe, and some audience did believe that. Some voices criticized the behavior as being "too crazy"; some questioned the legality of the action; someone even called the hotline of South Weekend to complain about its harm to the environment. Most of the audience, though, knew clearly that this was just another kind of PS (Photoshop) in contemporary art. They don't believe that, the same way as they are certain of the 8848 meters' height and rarely question that figure. This relationship between belief and doubt is, most probably, a smoke screen deliberately produced by Xu Zhen. In this game, what he hopes to achieve is more than the self-confidence of challenging the real height of the world highest peak, but a platform open to all which is realized by his engraftment of the "universal truth" and his inconceivably absurd performance. Moreover, on that platform, he turns those "plain facts" into "vague truths" by contrasting such concepts as art and joke, fiction and fact, authority and individual, even crime and law, whose borders are gradually blurred in the collision.

The work "8848-1.86" is not intended to explain some profound philosophies or some thought-provoking morals. It cannot be defined or interpreted so easily. Seemingly, it is an overturn and disruption of those established social and historical values. But perhaps his critical attitude towards social status quo and received common knowledge is his artistic way of provocation. Who knows?

Different from the complicated "8848-1.86", "In Just a blink of an eye" inherits the simplicity and directness that can be found in his early works. At first sight, the work is a group of static figural sculptures, half-fallen and half-floating in the hall. But when approaching, the audience will find they are actually live performers "frozen" in a weird moment of almost falling down. What's happening in just a blink of an eye can be captured by means of photography, painting and sculptures, but can that be done without such aid in real life? Who has conjured up this amazing scene? In fact, Xu Zhen employed special brackets inside the clothes to support the performers, which makes the capture of "frozen" moments possible. Bracket is the key in this work, which is like a supernatural mystical power against the gravity that pulls everything down. Meanwhile, what the audience assumed to be sculptures turn out to be a fake fact. This work has the same undertone of satire as "8848-1.86". The well-received common knowledge is again mocked at.

Despite the disparate forms and expressions, these two works share obvious similarities. More than that, in retrospect, we will find the same confidence in provoking almost everywhere in Xu Zhen's artistic works since 1998. Such courage to provoke is from a man of defects instead of a hypocrite, which lies deep in the blood of the grassroots. The errantry advocated by gangsters in Chinese traditional Kungfu novels and the ridiculous lifestyle in Steve Chou's movies are also the voices of provocations. They all together have stricken an anti-mainstream pose and thus structured an open and liberate artistic platform.


Xu Zhen was born a rebel. In his world of art, the ivory towers composed of so-called sublimity, ideals and classics are absent, which have already collapsed and substituted by mischievous satires and curses and those "evil" ideas. He claims that, "Generally speaking my works are not concerned with truth or reason, and perhaps there is something mischievous about them, they use art to bring you a piece of the world. That is to say, perhaps at the time I was realizing these works my state of mind was the same as a hooligan going out for a fight."  And "Hooligans have attitude! Hooliganism is a way of life, an attitude towards life."

For a time Xu Zhen was an arrogant and impetuous young guy, who was obsessed with stimulating physiological reflections. Human body, sex and violence were irresistible basic instincts to him. They were the source of his early works which confronted openly the established moral standards and were thus labeled as "The Liminal Body", "the cruelty of youth", etc. It's undeniable that he got his inspiration from human body, sex and violence, but he was by no means a devoted narrator or mania of that. Like a naughty boy, he once made the burgees for promotion in the form of women's trigonal and hung them in the exhibition hall (The hairiness is black, print, 2001); he magnified sanitary napkins and made them into a never-fall toy to let people push it (Big Cotton, 2002, installation); men in his works had period (The problem of color, 2000, photography) and a male singer even performed how to troat on a tour performance (Road show,2002,video). The videos "Rainbow" (1998) and "shouting" (1998) seemingly dealt with violence, but the focus was in fact on the instantaneous stimulation of the objects in the course of violence. Therefore, under the mischievous game, we found Xu Zhen's real role—he studied, anatomized and subverted body, sex and violence whose stark stimulation and seduction led to the irresistibility of Xu Zhen's works.

As an artist, he is quite special, for he puts the same emphasis on creation and curating exhibitions. It was a reasonable and reluctant way to make a living for young artists in Shanghai during 1998-2000 when the conditions for contemporary art were arduous. However, with the booming of Chinese contemporary art home and abroad after 2000, when abundant exhibitions keep coming, he is still passionate about exploring and curating exhibitions in all possible forms. As the Creative Director of Shanghai Bizart Center, Xu Zhen, together with various young contemporary artists, such as Yang zhenzhong, Alexander Brandt, Yang Fudong, Jin Feng, and Tang Maohong, Etc, has organized a great variety of extraordinary and innovative exhibitions. Art For Sale (1999.4) was a perfect combination of Shanghai's commercial character and her artistic touches. The Same but Also Changed (1999.9) showed the interest in conceptual photography. Inertia and Disguise (2000.7) explored the possibility of retesting paper works. Fanminzhen & Fangminzhu-Twins(2002.9)challenged the idea that works of art couldn't be repeated in the same exhibition space. 62761232 Courier exhibition (2004.9) delivered art to the audience by courier, which changed the passive role of audience. Shanghai Duolun Exhibition of Young Artists(2004.10)was held with all the artists' names kept anonymous, whose intention was to break the limits of "fame". The recent "Solo Exhibition" (2006. 5), joined by 38 artists, was another attempt to break the constraints of themed group exhibition. Each exhibition was self-denial, a self-revival, and in that process, came the formation and climax of the experimental atmosphere in the contemporary art scene in Shanghai. These exhibitions also made Xu Zhen better realize the important links between exhibitions and the audience.

It was an exhibition titled "Developing Time" (2001) that made him start to experiment on the interactivity between works and the audience. That was a live performance show held in Bizart Center. At audience's entrance, the hands hung on the wall would suddenly stretch out and kept pointing towards them till their departure. That was really provocative. Later, the similar mode was used in the live performance titled "March 6th" (2002) in the exhibition of Fanminzhen & Fangminzhu-Twins(2002.9). In that performance, every audience would be followed till his departure by a "lunatic" performer wearing hospital uniforms for sick people. Here, a role inversion was successfully realized, the former watcher now the object of watch, the former being-watched performer becoming a watcher, which was a subtle mischief again.

The anti-traditional way of exhibition aroused new interest in Xu Zhen. Since he had already had too much trouble with his anti-moral works, which were banned from exhibitions or turned down by exhibition organizers, it seemed then a good opportunity for him to start his new art experiments on the tension between exhibitions and audience--the watched and the watchers. Thereafter, he created a range of works testing different effects of exhibitions on the audience. For instance, he put at the entrance a huge industry-use fan which produced the equivalent 9-10 degrees typhoon to prevent the audience (Untitled, installation, 2002); he had made a small model sprinkler scattering not water but smelly slaver (Be Careful, don't get dirty, installation, 2002); he let two "savages" call everyone Papa or Mama in the opening ceremony (BABAMAMA, performance, 2003); And he asked two youngsters wearing hats with siren to run around the exhibition hall, disturbing the show with violent sounds (We are Coming, performance, 2003 ). Such an exhibition seemed opposed to art, but it explored a new sphere and gave a brand-new experience to the audience. And it was a way more liberate and spontaneous to experiment on all possibilities of art. That was really a wild gamble and it was wonderful.

After that, he turned his eye to the art organizations. They were his new objects of challenge. The installation "Earthquake" (installation, 2003) shocked the floors of Shanghai Duolun Contemporary Art Museum, shocked the relaxed audience at the exhibition, and also shocked to core all the guardians of old and conventional art systems. The similarly sharp and naughty installation "Several Last Mosquitoes" (installation, 2005) was displayed on the anniversary exhibition of Shanghai HuShen Gallery. Mosquitoes which shouldn't have appeared in frozen winter were out there on the clean white wall in the hall, sucking the "blood" of the gallery which they thought to be a "rich and nice" place.

Since 2000, Xu Zhen has established his fame in the art scene. His works were exhibited on the 49th Venice Biennale, the 51st Venice Biennale Chinese Pavilion, and he was awarded the highest prize of Chinese Contemporary Art Award. The recognition from home and abroad also indicates the loss of his assumed enemies-conservative art system. Since 2004, he has turned his attention from the art scene to the broader real life. He wants to challenge the world we live in. The above-mentioned "8848-1.86" and "In Just a Blink of an Eye" are works with such an aim. Before these two, he created a work "Dang Dang Dang Dang" for 2004 Shanghai Biennale in which he reconstructed one of the four clocks in the bell tower of Shanghai Art Museum. The clock ran 60 times faster, which symbolized the rapid growth of the city and also let us beware of the wild pace—maybe we should slow down. His latest work was named "My Club" (installation, 2005), whose main activities were beating world celebrities. The work included photos of celebrities being beaten such as Koyizumi, Kofi Annan and Bill Gates, a donation box to collect money from the audience to pay for the travel fees to beat celebrities, and a computer on which you could see the latest news of the club. Such a club reminded people of what the film director Wu Yusen, the Father of "violence aesthetics", once said, "People are giving vent to their emotions when seeing others beaten."

Such works are not new to us. The Atlas Group from Lebanon is the master in this kind of confusing and disguising games. Since 1999 the Group has made up events based on the historical and political background of Lebanon and delivered speeches on tour, claiming themselves to be historians. The fundamental difference between Xu Zhen and the group is: The fake events made up by the Atlas Group allude to the complex political environment in Lebanon and the complicated historical background of the Arabian world; however, what Xu Zhen does is to make up a totally non-existent event or phenomenon by quoting such real elements as Mt. Everest and gravity. The prerequisites of working out such works are the defiance of all existing relations among things and people's belief in illusion and miracle.

In retrospect, such a fact is plain, that is, Xu Zhen is a very bold young guy with that pawky smile on his face. He loves challenging limits, enjoying the feeling of overcoming summits. He provokes and fights against the audience, the curator, the art organizations, the real world and even he himself. Behind that satirizing mask, though, is in fact a mature, sensible, wise fighter who is bold enough to topple the conventions and the authorities, to reestablish a new open platform. From his challenge towards body instincts, the very essence of art, to the challenge towards real world, we find his potent questioning towards those widely received common knowledge in terms of space, roles, genders, borders...

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