Interview: Xu Zhen

MadeIn on his challenging deity-shaped sculptures

Xu Zhen, AKA MadeIn

MadeIn's new exhibition at ShanghART throws up not only questions but also the artworks themselves. Time Out spoke to the art creation company's CEO, Xu Zhen, during installation.

Xu Zhen peels back the plastic wrapped around a body-bag-shaped package hanging from the ceiling. Inside is a silicon sculpture of a naked, dark-skinned woman tied up with ropes, which he says suggests the Japanese bondage tradition. Other parts of the sculpture don’t seem Japanese at all, including its dozens of bead necklaces and a fur head dress, elements that Xu says were inspired by pre-historic humans. A second rope-tied sculpture wears a large African lip plate.

The pieces are part of MadeIn Company’s Action of Consciousness exhibition. Most of the works have already been installed when we meet Xu at ShanghART a few days before the opening, and he introduces them to us one by one. The work he describes as ‘the main piece of the show’, makes MadeIn’s process of cultural commingling especially explicit. Inside a large white box, too tall to see in, sculptures, photos and other artworks are thrown into the air, glimpsed, and fall back out of sight, as if the lid has been lifted on a blender full of art.

'We don’t want anything to fall outside the box, but it happened a lot during rehearsal,’ Xu says. It certainly seems possible that people might get hit, but Xu says, ‘they shouldn’t. The space that we practiced in previously was a lot smaller.’ Indeed, MadeIn don’t need errant missiles in order to attack audiences. They’ve laid subtler traps.

In ShanghART’s H-space warehouse, Xu introduces ‘a bunch of sculptures to do with gods and totems.’ A 4.5 metre tall Easter Island-esque figure called Marx has a leather jacket sleeve over his exaggerated member, which, like the breasts and buttocks of surrounding sculptures, seems inspired by fertility statues. Another work, the 2.85 metre tall Divinity-Spouse, shows a Janus-faced skull atop the bodies of two crudely carved figures. Pink with a coating of melted candle wax, the skull looks as if it’s been freshly separated from its raw flesh.

The skull, along with the gold leaf face and crown of another sculpture, might indicate Mesoamerican influences, but Xu is careful not to say that the works are representations of the artifacts they hint at, or are even inspired by them. Pointing to a huge, leather, Jabba the Hutt piece, he says, ‘that sculpture is a worm. It’s a pregnant Sphinx... or rather looks like it.’
Another work only ‘brings to mind’ a Thai elephant god.

Even during installation, the works pose more semantic problems than they do practical ones. ‘Installation’s going pretty smoothly,’ Xu says. ‘We made the sculptures at our studio in Taopu. Because they’re so big, we had to take down the H-space’s doors, but they’re light so they were easy to move.’ Painted black, the larger works look solid, but most are made out of polyurethane foam.

When our photographer asks Xu to rest a hand on one of his works, he initially refuses because, he says, the piece could fall over. The sculptures don’t have the weight of historical artifacts; they’re cursory combinations of things, as insubstantial as preconceptions or hazily recalled Wikipedia pages.

To us, pluralism forms a rather fake kind of culture because it permits everything even when some things shouldn’t be permitted,’ Xu says. ‘It’s incapable of generating new or valuable cultural content. Many of these works confront this problem. For instance, people might say some of these works look like African sculptures. That’s because what comes to mind for them are African sculptures because that’s all they know. If I make something Malaysian or something else, the characteristics are not as obvious.’

Because most of us have little knowledge of tribal sculpture, we can’t see these works any better than the ones glimpsed for a fraction of a second above the white box.

If you see such a white box in a museum, you won’t be able to make sense of it,’ Xu says. ‘You’ll use everything you know – your location in an art gallery, etc – to establish that this is a piece of art. The meaning of it, like why it’s white and so on, you might not find out. Bias helps you perceive things but it also distorts your perception of them.’

The polyurethane foam sculptures also prompt false understandings. They’re rhetorical traps. It’s the sort of trickery that has earned MadeIn a reputation as pranksters or comedians. (Even MadeIn itself has been taken as a joke, with many seeing the ‘creativity creation’ company as just more smoke and mirrors, although Xu assures us ‘the concepts come from everyone’ in his team of 15-25 people.) Yet Xu doesn’t see such descriptions as compliments. ‘Some people hate me,’ he says. ‘The art circle is not important. I don’t mind that description. It’s fine.’

Nevertheless, there is at least one similarity between conceptual art and jokes: the audience’s desire to ‘get it’, something Xu says he does find important. ‘In the past I didn’t care so much but now I want to know if people get it. It’s stupid if people don’t understand. I feel a need to have some sort of relationship with the audience, even if they hate me. There should be something, so every response isn’t just “oh anything”, or “that’s nice, that’s good”.’

And if MadeIn can provoke offence with a work like Divinity-Sauna, an idol wearing a gold g-string, they seem to be challenging us to state on just whose behalf we’re offended. Yes, in the post-colonial parlance, these works may be appropriating and exoticising cultural traditions, but unless we’re clear about which tribes and traditions are being referenced, maybe we’re complicit in pumping out the smog of pluralism.

Of course, some viewers will probably just see sexy statues. ‘We’ve spent ten years to get to this point, so a viewer can’t possibly understand everything we do,’ Xu says. ‘But I hope our works will create an increase in awareness.’

Sam Gaskin