Monday, December 01, 2008

Sad But True

Xu Zhen, the conceptual darling of the Shanghai art scene, has made a strong reputation for himself with his consist attempts to push artistic and socially acceptable boundaries. Now merely in his early thirties, Xu Zhen has had a full career of aggressive, ironic, and politically charged projects since he began a decade ago. Zhen is known for utilizing performance, photography, video, and installation to boldly confront issues. His intense social critique is often severely ironic to the point of disturbing. His new solo exhibition, Impossible Is Nothing, on display at the Long March space in Beijing begs the question to whether has he finally gone too far.

The show consists of two large installations. The first, titled Decoration presents a model of a space station, the length of the room, suspended from the ceiling in almost complete darkness. The only available light eminates from an opening at the front of the structure illuminating a small painted globe. Both this installation and his previous piece titled Just Did It, employ similar themes of contemporary space travel to analyze notions of lived versus perceived human history and the influence of media in our culture. The second installation, The Starving Of Sudan, further expands on this struggle between historical fact and mediated fiction, an idea which seems to dominate much of Zhen's work recent work. The room is an emmersive environment based on the famous and shocking image of a Sudanese toddler being prayed on by a vulture. The floor is covered with piles of straw baking under heating lamps, while a stuffed vulture perches in the center and a young (live) African boy in a diaper roams around the space. The central questions framing this piece are: how long can an individual live in observed isolation? And what is the difference between observed and lived reality? No doubt gripping themes, they are carelessly explored.

Being confrontational has long been a popular artistic device, Xu Zhen a prime example, but with broader success and popularity artists should maintain a certain amount of responsibility. The child was substantially rewarded for his involvement and one could consider it simply an acting job (this is the opinion of the boy's mother), but just because this has never been done before, does not mean it should. At this point in Zhen's career he has the ability to do almost anything he desires and acquire almost any resource he needs to accomplish it. What makes The Starving Of Sudan particularly curious is China's political involvement with the country of Sudan itself. In this light the piece seems under developed and its message unclear. Whether this dimension of the artwork was overlooked by the artist or he tried to take on too many issues simultaneously it comes off as hasty and tasteless. Xu Zhen is undoubtably one of the most interesting figures in the Chinese contemporary art world, but his artistic proliferation is going to damage his reputation if he does not stop to think and exercise some restraint before acting.

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