In person, Xu Zhen projects an air of authority, confident in his approach to the world as an artist at the height of his career thus far (curious then that he does not travel by air and rarely, if ever, leaves China).
At a dinner with a group of his artist friends, he speaks infrequently, but steers the conversation with well-placed insights or pertinent questions. Even speaking through an interpreter, he is erudite and considered, with a thorough knowledge of Chinese art and recent history.
Where he speaks at length about the social forces that have shaped his practice and that of his peers, he is harder to pin down on the exact meaning of his artworks, instead preferring to leave the possibility for multiple, even conflicting, interpretations.
Using provocation and humour, international contemporary artist Xu Zhen explores uneasy relationships, destabilises preconceptions, and exposes the fault lines between cultures.
One of China's leading visual artists, activists and entrepreneurs, the eclectic work of the Shanghai-based artist examines the role of art and culture in the global distribution of power.
His first major solo Australian exhibition, Eternity vs Evolution, is now showing at the National Gallery of Australia with the support of the White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.
Famous for his monumental sculptures exploring the clash and melding of cultures, his global practice upends traditional perspectives and offers audiences the chance to see the world in a different way.
Xu Zhen first came to international attention when his video work Rainbow (1998) was exhibited at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, one of the oldest and most important art exhibitions in the world. Early works, such as Rainbow, dealt with the artist's role in a society that values conformity over individual expression.
As China opened to the rest of the world, so too did Xu Zhen's artistic practice. He became increasingly interested in the role art plays in globalisation. As economies become more linked, so too do cultures, sometimes leading to clashes and sometimes creating beautiful new forms.
"From 1997 to 2008, the way that I and most artists were working was more centred on ourselves and directed to a smaller audience,"' Xu Zhen said. "As my practice became more entwined with the market, I became aware that the audience for my work was broader."
Interested in how cultural and financial value circulates around the world, he combines elements from many cultures, examining the effects of globalisation with often humorous or unsettling effect. "For my generation, after the reforms of the 1980s, a lot of things from abroad, especially in terms of design and art objects, started coming into China," said Xu Zhen. "Because of China's history, with the May Fourth Movement and the Cultural Revolution, a lot of traditions have been broken many times. As such, people tend not to have a lot of faith or believe in things easily. When I play with cultural elements, they don't carry the same weight as they do for others. It's not a lack of respect but I feel I can be audacious with such forms because I have a greater distance from them."
For Xu Zhen, art and commerce have become inextricably linked. In 2009, he established MadeIn Company, a cultural production company playing on the phrase ''made in China''. This allowed him to create artworks at a much larger scale, as well to as curate exhibitions and produce events. "After 2005, with economic growth and the growth of the art market, we began to realise the importance of the commercial aspect of artmaking and so decided to start MadeIn Company," Xu Zhen said. MadeIn Company now employs more than 30 people and runs a gallery in Shanghai.
In 2013, MadeIn Company established the brand XU ZHEN®. All subsequent works by the artist have been attributed to this brand name. Xu Zhen's company and brand act as a critique of the way in which culture and artists are treated as commodities. However, they also make sense as a business model for a successful international artist. For Xu Zhen, creating a company solved ''the conflict between art and business'' and opened up new creative possibilities. "Usually when people think of artists, they have a romantic notion, but when it's a brand, perhaps it leads to an interesting misunderstanding, as this identity in society is quite different," said Xu Zhen. "The pace of life in China can make people quite anxious, particularly about the relationship between art and business. By combining them, I find new possibilities."
Key to Xu Zhen's practice is the idea of balance and contradiction. Are his fusions of classical sculptures from east and west beautiful or iconoclastic? Can they be both at the same time?
At a time when we are experiencing the impacts of globalisation at both extremes - the alarming spread of COVID-19, but also the coordinated international effort to curb it - the questions that Xu Zhen raises are of immediate importance. His work encourages us to think critically about the impacts, both positive and negative, of an increasingly interconnected world.
Here are some of the highlights of Eternity vs Evolution:
One of the earliest works in the exhibition, this video records the reaction of passing crowds as the artist lets out a shout. Some people are startled or turn in curiosity, while many others continue on their way, disinterested in their fellow citizen. Xu Zhen says that this work ''was made at a time when people were not so individualistic''. He was interested in the relationship between the individual and society. For the artists, the act of shouting in a crowd of strangers was ''a way of showing my own existence''.
Appearing at first like a mass of inert rubble, the viewer slowly becomes aware that the debris seems to be breathing on the gallery floor. This subtle movement suggests the possibility of survivors underneath or, perhaps, that the collapsed building itself is holding onto tenuous life. Its slow, breath-like movement ''could be seen as hope, or as a kind of threat''. For Xu Zhen, the work could refer to destruction caused in many parts of the world through domestic conflict and foreign interference. Perhaps it is the ruins of a blown-out house in the Middle East, or ''one of the many places in China that have been demolished to make way for development''.
Under Heaven 20121018
Seventy kilograms of bright pink and red oil paint has been applied to the canvas using a chef's piping bag. The resulting swirls and parapets suggest a bird's eye view of a city landscape or a microscopic world. The title refers to an ancient Chinese term for the earthly material world-tianxia, meaning ''all under heaven''. The surface is seductive, even delectable, inviting you to imagine taking a taste - a virtuosic achievement in painting. However in having used a cake decorating technique, the artist also pokes fun at the tradition of large-scale oil painting. Xu Zhen notes that the work is ''a sort of ironic take on the thick or decorative oil painting very popular with certain collectors''.
''I'm interested in the misunderstandings that can be created between East and West,'' says Xu Zhen, ''How sometimes, when they confront one another, one cannot convince the other of its position and vice versa.'' In Eternity-Longxing Temple Buddha Statue Part Three, Tang Dynasty Buddha Statue, Longxing Temple Buddha Statue Part Five, Northern Qi Amitabha Statue, Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha, Hebei Northern Qi Dynasty Standing Buddha Torso, Parthenon East Pediment (2013-14), statues of ancient Greek gods have had their heads replaced with inverted headless Buddhas, representing the meeting and mixing of East and West. For Western audiences, the most confronting element of this work is the appropriation of the Parthenon marbles (which themselves are controversially held by the British Museum). For Chinese audiences, the inversion of the Buddha statues is equally confronting. These two great cultural traditions are brought together in a way that is equal parts humorous and disturbing, questioning our preconceptions about other parts of the world and offering a tongue-in-cheek solution to the clash of cultures.
European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture
Nineteen classical European sculptures form a procession, including Greek gods, Jesus Christ and even the Statue of Liberty (a French sculpture originally). They seem to be caught mid-dance party, as though some loosely choreographed conga line has been frozen in time. When viewed from the front, the sculptures coalesce into a vision of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. This work highlights Xu Zhen's trademark humour and iconoclastic approach, bringing together rich cultural traditions in unexpected ways. Only made possible by the ongoing process of globalisation, does the mixing of these cultures cheapen or enrich them? Is the new creation sacrilege or beautiful in its own right?
The Corinthian column first created in ancient Greece has become a symbol of power, prestige and Western civilisation. In China, says Xu Zhen, these columns more often appear on buildings used for karaoke or public baths. In "Hello", a column has come alive, taking the form of a snake that watches and follows visitors as they move through the gallery. Meeting the sculpture's gaze, the visitor is confronted with a dark void. The artist says the work refers to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's observation that ''if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you''.
- National Gallery of Australia Curatorial and Programs Coordinator Peter Johnson is the curator of the exhibition.
- Xu Zhen: Eternity vs Evolution is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until September 13. Entry is free.