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In what ways could an art object made in one place resonate in another? Art by Xu Zhen

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Xu Zhen - Entity-JM Art Management
Installation view of Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone at Asia Society Museum, New York, October 27, 2020–June 27, 2021. Xu Zhen®, Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, 2019–20, Courtesy XU ZHEN® and James Cohan, New York. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2020. This work was commissioned by Asia Society Museum, New York, for the inaugural Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone.

In 1989, Chinese officials labeled contemporary art as “harmful for Socialist China and incompatible with established social and aesthetic values.” The ban lasted 14 years until the 2003 Venice Biennale when the People’s Republic of China presented its artistic avant-garde in a dedicated pavilion. Leaving behind the standard representational mediums of painting and sculpture, the Chinese artists and curators promoted modernized artistic methodologies through video and immersive installations. Two years later, Chinese artist, Xu Zhen returned to the Venice Biennale, presenting his art under the same provocative contemporary standards. This presentation would make him, to this day, the youngest Chinese artist to be featured in the historic Biennale.

Xu Zhen’s expansive career stands as a central component of his generation of Chinese contemporary artists. While his diverse oeuvre spans grand-scale installations, video art, and painting, Zhen gained attention with the creation of MadeIn Company, whereby he eliminated his artistic identity and asserted his practice behind the guise of corporate branding. Most of Zhen’s works are laced with violence, politics, and culture, topics that often undergo substantial censorship in China. Similar concerns resurface in the 2013 series Eternity, where Zhen creates an installation based on forcefully combined replicas of Western and Eastern ancient statuary.

Xu Zhen - Entity-JM Art Management
Installation view of Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone at the Park Avenue Malls at East 70th Street, March–June 2021. Xu Zhen®, Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, 2019–20, Courtesy XU ZHEN® and James Cohan, New York. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2021, courtesy of Asia Society. This work was commissioned by Asia Society Museum, New York, for the inaugural Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone.

Xu Zhen’s Eternity series is an evident socio-cultural critique of the overdone polarity commonly established between East and West. Zhen's play with concepts of origin and identity will be addressed through a deconstructive lens, following Jacques Derrida's approach to language in Of Grammatology. Finally, this work will develop the identity of Chinese contemporary art and its understanding by Xu Zhen. As a Chinese contemporary artist, Zhen provides the audience with an opportunity to reflect on how contemporary scholarship has romanticized the distinction between Eastern and Western cultural contexts.

Xu Zhen - Entity-JM Art Management
Xu Zhen, Eternity

I. Xu Zhen, Eternity, 2013

One of Xu Zhen’s few site-specific installations, "Eternity", is currently located in Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The installation is composed of seven sculptures, of which five are crafted in unique combinations of replica Buddhist religious statues overturned atop Hellenistic ones. Forcefully combined, these statues are decapitated and fused at the neck, with the Buddha carefully balanced above a Greek god. While varying in colors and sizes, they are arranged in a straight line. At one end of the installation lies the only full figure, a Hellenistic reclining male nude, his back turned to the combined statues. Facing him is a single-standing stone head of a Gansu Flying Horse. Strikingly visual, the figures in Eternity form part of Zhen’s controversial narrative of culture.

The installation’s humoristic and provocative approach addresses the historic significance of the statues in their respective cultures. The duplicates of the Greek gods symbolize the birth of Western civilization, while the Buddha overturned atop them epitomizes a supreme form of spirituality in oriental culture. All the sculpted figures present in the installation are made out of artificial stone, a material that enhances the forced and forged relationship between the figures. The unnatural contact between the bodies offsets the viewer, and questions the possibility of an established similarity between the two objects. As Zhen states:

"The work entitled Eternity concerned with the “fixed” point of view. Civilization is constantly giving birth and inheriting through the process of creation. Only if you accept your civilization, will you be able to realize that civilization has no boundaries."

Zhen’s reading alludes to civilization with no fixed origin. Through the decapitated statues the origin of each culture—and culture itself—is revoked. Our historic alienation from diverse cultural contexts makes it inevitable that we view artwork from within a personal horizon. In his creative and playful visualization of the binary between West and East, Zhen demonstrates his detachment to a “fixed point of view” and calls for a globalized approach to contemporary art forms of cultural representation.

Xu Zhen - Entity-JM Art Management
Xu Zhen®, Eternity—Male Figure, Statue of Venus Genetrix, 2019–20. Mineral-based composite (jesmonite), internal steel armature, mineral pigment, marble plinth. Two sculptures, each, without plinth: H. 110 1/4 x W. 24 1/2 x D. 23 5/8 in. (280 x 62 x 60 cm); each, with plinth: H. 114 1/4 x W. 35 1/2 x D. 35 1/2 in. (290 x 90 x 90 cm). Courtesy XU ZHEN® and James Cohan, New York. Photograph courtesy of the artist. This work was commissioned by Asia Society Museum, New York, for the inaugural Asia Society Triennial: We Do Not Dream Alone.

II. Derrida: Language and Origin

The deconstruction of linguistic oppositions through fine arts composes a large portion of Zhen’s inspiration behind his Eternity series. Through his selective use of imagery in sculpture, Zhen abolishes a cultural hierarchy by mixing two icons of different geographical areas. His decision to not include their heads speaks to the abolition of their origin. Further, insofar as the icons are merged at their necks, a visual argument is presented for conceptual cultural bonding around no visible origin. More precisely, neither icon preserves its origin, nor can the fusion of the two claims one for itself. Language as cultural meaning thus plays a central role in Zhen’s collapsing of the East-West binary—a role best illuminated by Derrida’s studies on language. Undoubtedly, in Derrida’s work, we find a constant struggle to defeat the hierarchy unquestionably imposed upon language. Language serves as a vital daily tool, with most human needs relying on communication and self-expression. Nonetheless, within the sphere of language, speech and writing surge as ways of communication, with differing values of importance. In Of Grammatology, Derrida exposes our need for an origin in language as a search for identity or recognition. The association of origin with a clear identity provides us with security regarding our entity and language.

Derrida’s argument carefully relies on the examination of the history of writing itself. He postulates how the origin of language has always pertained to a very intimate relationship between face and hand or speech and writing. As he explains “There are things like reflecting pools, and images, an infinite reference from one to the other,” Derrida states, “but no longer a source, a spring. There is no longer a simple origin.” The intertwining relationship between image and thing, graphe and phone, makes the origin of both ambiguous. The concept of representation starts shifting, leaving the boundaries of language behind. The multiple representations and reflections of speech and writing lead to the claim of a non-existing simple origin. It’s through similar regard for representation and identity—one grounded in language and the lack of a single origin— that Xu Zhen’s work can be examined.

Identity, or lack thereof, presents itself in the Eternity series on two different levels. On the one hand, in removing the heads from the sculptures, Zhen removes their identity. We negated the common recollection of a visage in determining an entity, there being no other way of identifying the figures besides their distinct bodies. On the other hand, identity is examined on a macroscopic level: in Eternity a question is raised regarding how to understand one’s own identity within a culture. The viewer must assess her cultural heritage, and realize if it’s removed, engaged, or in dialogue with the cultures of others. In demonstrating a play of representation—showing several replicas with similar structures, without a clear origin—the installation deconstructs the figure or subject matter and hides its source. The binary is rhythmically repeated in the installation, constantly reiterating a careful balance between East and West. Yet, in this balance, notions of East and West themselves disappear; the binary collapses against the interaction of the sculptural objects themselves. Each statue is reflected in its counterpart and assumes its identity only to it. The possibility of a single, unitary origin to each object’s meaning is revoked.

Derrida grounds his argument in the questioning of center or institutional authority, decentering us from imposed principles. The consequences of such repositioning convert into a disturbing understanding of traditional relationships and further a dismantlement of basic oppositions. Derrida’s linguistic abstraction and deconstruction of hierarchical relationships between words—such as inside and outside, full or empty—is thus visually translated in Zhen’s work and the artist’s overcoming of cultural dualisms. In Eternity, our reliance on a fixed point of view through which to view artistic forms of cultural representation is questioned insofar as it is inherently built upon implicit hierarchies. East and West are thus no longer opposed since their very opposition relies upon our ability to call forth a simple origin.

Xu Zhen - Entity-JM Art Management
Xu Zhen®, Eternity - Painted Terracotta Statue of Heavenly Guardian, Sleeping Muse, 2016. Bronze, mineral composites, mineral pigments, steel. H. 79 1/8 x W. 33 5/8 x D. 14 5/3 in. (201 x 85.5 x 45 cm). H. 82 5/8 x W. 37 3/8 x D. 17 5/8 in. (210 x 95 x 45 cm). H. 86 1/2 x W. 38 1/8 x D. 19 5/8 in. (220 x 97 x 50 cm. H. 92 7/8 x W. 40 1/8 x D. 23 1/2 in. (236 x 102 x 60 cm). H. 99 1/8 x W. 49 1/8 x D. 30 1/4 in. (252 x 125 x 77 cm). Edition of 3. © XU ZHEN®. Courtesy XU ZHEN®. Photograph courtesy of XU ZHEN®

III. Identity

The importance of physical identity in these sculptures reiterates Zhen’s argument regarding current intercultural artistic dialogue. The gendered bodies in Eternity illustrate idealized concepts of representation in each culture. Zhen decides to include statues of Hellenistic figures, their bodies accentuated and defined by their drapery or lack thereof. However, the Buddhist figures lack shape and gender, their bodies concealed behind the garments of the casts. Elaborating on the idea of a gendered body in Contemporary Chinese art, Wiseman states:

The nude is not a genre in either traditional or contemporary Chinese art, however, and although there has been nakedness in the representations of the body in contemporary art of China... gender boundaries are not drawn in the same way in China as they are in the West. In China they are not based on oppositions: to be a woman is not, for example, simply to lack the traits that make someone a man. Gender difference does not, therefore, make so deep a cut in the conceptual schemes in Chinese thought as it does in those in the West.”

On the one hand, the visual opposition between the Eastern and Western figures in Eternity preys on the outdated perspective of the gendered body in a contemporary context; on the other, it emphasizes the basic differences in the conception of art in each culture. These two levels reinforce Zhen’s examination of cultural exchange, showing the audience the obvious and prompting them to move forward with new understandings of cultural forms. Zhen compels the viewer to challenge the premise of the established view of Eastern cultures meeting the West and vice-versa.

Xu Zhen - JM Art Management
Installation view of Xu Zhen®️: Movement Field at James Cohan, New York, 2018. © XU ZHEN®. Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York. Photographer: Phoebe d'Huerle

IV. Identity of Chinese Contemporary Art

The contextual void in which critics have placed Chinese Contemporary art lends a space for a dialogue regarding different considerations Eastern and Western viewers have appointed to the newly formed genre. Zhen’s Eternity piece is a product of these exhausting conversations about cultural understanding. While being an active participant in the Chinese contemporary art scene, Zhen has described both his experience as an artist and the general perception of Chinese art in the world. For Zhen, the West cannot understand contemporary Chinese art insofar as it has experienced it only during the past thirty years.6 Further, due to its novelty, contemporary art in China is in a state of flux that aggravates the West’s ability to comprehend it. Zhen’s contemporary colleague, Ai Weiwei, has also developed the requiring misconception of their art:

Constant misinterpretation, infatuation with misinterpretation, and an infatuation with this “infatuation with misinterpretation” leave the interpretation of contemporary art from China caught up in a farce as each generation proves lesser and weaker, a perfect reflection of the many dilemmas that beset contemporary art throughout the process of cultural exchange.

Immature cultural exchange, according to Ai Weiwei, becomes an obstacle in the analysis of contemporary art. A lack of understanding regarding both Chinese cultural values and Chinese history fills the viewer with shallow intrigue and assumptions. The novelty of contemporary art in China should rather posit questions regarding its motivation and initial conception. Ai Weiwei continues:

The contemporary art system in the West, from galleries to museums, art critics, collectors, and cultural activities, view[s] art from a distant and mysterious Eastern country such as China with curiosity and bewilderment. [Yet], due to the long-term isolation and peculiar nature of this feudal empire, it remains difficult for Westerners to gain a true understanding of contemporary Chinese art—even at the most basic level of understanding “where,” or “what happened.”

Central to Ai Weiwei’s statement is his recognition of the history that has formed his craft, and the rapid changes this craft has undergone. Zhen himself has expressed how his artistic generation “had a new thirst for self-definition” on a global level.9 Even while contemporaries like Jennifer Wen Ma or Lui Wei admire Western artists ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Beuys, Chinese artists of the 2000s hold a desire to speak out and leave behind the concerns regarding forced cultural exchanges. Their interests lay in their artistic establishment and what they want to say. Zhen’s irreverence and will to overcome stereotypes of the East and West dominates the conceptual framework of his oeuvre.

The Eternity series embodies impertinence and the defiant nature of Chinese contemporary artists towards banal cultural exchange. The series draws attention to the problematic politics of culture and its challenge towards conceptual globalization. Given the constancy of global socio-political changes, contemporary art must reciprocate. Xu Zhen personifies a generation of Chinese contemporary art where boundaries are inexistent. In Eternity, he shows the contrived relationship and understanding between Eastern and Western cultures, and their artificial interaction. Where we overlook its conceptual composition, Eternity might be reduced to a controversial and callous collage of deistic imagery. Yet, through Derrida’s linguistic model the acute theoretical structure present in Zhen’s work is rectified. Fundamentally, as Xu Zhen continues to appear in both the East and West, we find proof that art does transcend cultural boundaries to become universal.

* All images are courtesy of the Artist

Written by Paz Monge


JM Art Management


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