Thursday, December 18, 2008

Suddenly Seeking Xu Zhen

Here is an outline of my process of trying to reach Xu Zhen/find out more about his work entitled "Impossible Is Nothing". In light of the insufficient source material on the piece, I attempted to create some discussion and awareness about the work only to find that it is incredibly difficult to do so.

Correspondence: An Attempt to Reach Xu Zhen by Normal Means (Email)

Below is my correspondence with Xu Zhen's assitant, Xiaomo, who rather unsuccessfully attempted to set up a meeting between Xu Zhen. I originally emailed a woman named Alexia (who we saw briefly during our visit to Bizart), but she referred me to Xiaomo. The beauty of email, super-fast communication!

From: xiaomo
Date: November 28, 2008 11:17:16 AM GMT+08:00
To: alejandra

Thank you for your mail. Alexia forwarded it to me.
This is Xuzhen's assistant Xiaomo.

Xuzhen really appreciates your attention to BizArt and his own work.
He's looking forward to have a talk with you.

Could you please give me several days to arrange the meetting?
Xuzhen may not be in office lately.

Or you could send me the questions you need to know for the research project, if possible.



Over the next two weeks, I basically sent Xiaomo three pretty desperate emails. The downside to email? The uncertainty of it. I kept checking to make sure I had the right email address, my email account was configured correctly, etc. It was all correct, I was just being ignored (in his defense I'm sure Xiaomo had much more important things to do, but still. Frustrating!) He responded only a week ago, almost immediately after I emailed him for the third time, finally asking if I could just have him forward my questions to Xu Zhen, as it didn't seem likely that Xu Zhen was going to be able to pencil me in.

From: xiaomo
Subject: Re:
Date: December 11, 2008 2:42:50 PM GMT+08:00
To: alejandra

XuZhen would not be in ShangHai this weekend and may be back in the end of next week.
He feels very sorry that could not have a face-to-face meet with you.
It would be great if you two could talk by mail.

If you have prepared the questions, please let me know.
I'll forward him ASAP.

For any question, do not hesitate to contact me



I can't help but wonder if this squirly correspondence was the direct result of my inqiury to film my interview with Xu Zhen. Though I emphasized that it wasn't entirely necessary to my project (just desirable), I think that's what might have scared him away. I didn't think Xu Zhen would be camera shy.

Here is the list of questions I subsequently sent to Xiaomo, who hopefully forwarded them to Xu Zhen. Xu Zhen, if you are reading this, I eagerly await your reply.

1. Did you have any ethical concerns in the installation of your latest work, "Impossible is Nothing"?
2. What has been the public's perception and reception of the piece?

3. What was your goal in creating such a work?

4. Do you feel that the work has racial or political implications? If so, please elaborate on them.

5. What is it about Kevin Carter's photograph that inspired to you to recreate it in your
installation (i.e, why was Carter's photograph a good vehicle to express your message)?

6. In your opinion, what would a viewer gain from seeing "Impossible is Nothing" rather than simply seeing Carter's photograph? Why did your intent call for the creation of an installation rather than a mere two dimensional photograph? What does the "performance" aspect of this work add to your message/the implications of the original photograph?

7. Please elaborate on the title of the work.

8. How did the child's mother react to your work? How was she compensated?

9. How does the nature of this piece challenge typical perceptions of the term "artist"? What I mean to say is that, you are not performing, and this is a recreation of another artist's photograph, so what about the piece leads it to be qualified as authored by Xu Zhen? (*here I am trying to considerately ask if he is really the creator of this work, even though he just brought someone else's work to life in an artistic space.)

10. What were your hopes for spectators' interactions with the child and the exhibition space in general?

11. How do you think this work might be differently received in the West as opposed to its reception in China? Do you have any plans to further exhibit it/recreate it?

Survey- An Attempt at Discourse on "Impossible is Nothing"

I wrote my friends/family a short explanation of what to do (read the article, look at the photos, answer some questions), and provided the following links.



Here is the survey. I attempted to get people from various backgrounds to answer, but only my friends with art backgrounds decided to participate. However, this was interesting in and of itself, because many of them have backgrounds in performance, theater, and film. Others were painters, or art history majors, or writers. Ironically, a few of my most outspoken critics of Impossible is Nothing were actually the actors, who were quick to differentiate Xu Zhen's piece from the employment of a child actor, who (they argued) is not being manipulated for the sake of a political or social statement. I don't necessarily agree with this, but I think the difference may be the business side of child acting (SAG requirements and all that) that would theoretically prevent any mistreatment on the part of the child, and ensure proper compensation for the role. I would be interested to know how much (or even how) the child and his mother were compensated. I also wonder how Xu Zhen convinced the mother that it was a good idea for her baby to sit in a barren room full of overzealous Chinese spectators for five hours a day (or was money enough?).

Impossible is Nothing: Art or Exploitation?

*1)Do you have any art background? Interest, training, job experience, etc.
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2)If you answered Yes!, please elaborate:
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3)Are you....
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*4)Do you feel that you got a good understanding of this piece through the article and photos I provided? Please support your answer with a few statements (full sentences not neccessary!)
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*5)If you had been in Beijing at the time of this exhibition, knowing what you know now, would you have gone to see it? Why or why not?
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*6)Based on the photos/review, do you feel that the artist's treatment and use of the child was ethical? Why or why not?
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*7)Do you believe this exhibition is racially exploitative? Why or why not?
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*8)Did the techniques used in this exhibition justify its effect?
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9)Were you offended by this exhibition?
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*10)If you are interested in art, do you often use the internet as a source for information? If you are not interested in art, simply respond with NO.
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*11)If you answered YES to the previous question, do you feel that the internet is a reliable source of information on art? If you answered NO, just respond to this question with NO as well.
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12)Had you heard of Xu Zhen before reading about this exhibition?
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*13)How likely are you to research other works by Xu Zhen after reading about "Impossible is Nothing"?
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14)Is there anything else relevant you think I should know?
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15)If you would like to provide your name for my reference, please do so below.

For the question that asks if the person would go on to further research Xu Zhen's work, about 80% of those who answered said "Probably Not". No one said "Very Likely", a couple said "Possibly", and the second largest group said "Definitely Not". 95% of those who answered said they felt that the internet was a reliable tool for researching art, and almost as many felt that they got as good an understanding of "Impossible is Nothing" through the article (criticism) and photos I provided. Almost no one felt it was necessary to have seen the exhibition in real life, and even fewer would have gone even if they had had the chance.

This leads me to question the necessity of the recreation of Kevin Carter's famous photograph, and the importance of performance art in general. It reminds me of the whole mix up between Zhang Huan and the people who photographed his performances. Who is the actual author, Zhang Huan, or the photographers? This is more a question of message, however, as I am unsure why someone might need to actually go to the space to comprehend Xu Zhen's message. I think a lot of the benefit of having this as an installation was specifically for the Chinese audience, as I am unsure of how exposed they were to the original photograph by Carter. Most of the people I polled had seen the photograph and were aware of the controversy surrounding it. To a Chinese person unfamiliar with the photograph, however, it might not even be clear that this is a reference to another piece of art. If Xu Zhen were to exhibit this work in New York, for example, I am sure there would be issues of ownership immediately raised, as the average New York intellectual gallery-goer is almost certainly familiar with the photograph. However, here in China, Xu Zhen was sort of free from that whole issue of the piece. I'm sure that by the average Chinese person seen in the photographs that have surfaced of the exhibition, Xu Zhen was merely recreating a stereotypical African scene in a Chinese artistic context. I actually like the implications of this reading better than anything that would possibly come of the whole recreation of the photograph, the controversy surrounding Carter and his ethical responsibilities as an artist, etc. I think from the Chinese perspective, Xu Zhen is raising questions of Sino-African relations rather than merely referencing someone else's work. He is suggesting the lack of exposure on the part of the Chinese to African culture and society despite the recent influx of Chinese companies into poor African countries for cheap industrial labor. In this context, by point to an African baby in a simulated African setting in a gallery in Beijing, Xu Zhen also suggests this phenomenon of reverse colonialism as China begins to see Africa in a new light from its newly seized perspective of an up and coming superpower. Hopefully, the Chinese people who went to see the exhibition and sat there taking pictures of the poor child in hindsight realized how screwed up the whole situation was and were able to apply this perspective to larger issues of globalization and colonialism.

Other Sources: A Minimal Response from the Blogging Community

The following quote was blown up to full illegibility in my film:

"If Xu Zhen revels in scenes of self-ridicule and awkward, mixed messages, The Starving of Sudan is a new triumph in absurdity. Not only is the work conceptually undeveloped, Xu's failure to address China's current involvement with Sudan begs the question of whether he is even aware of the discussion surrounding China's role in Africa, especially Sudan. To what degree is this work a cognizant reference to the 'mediated fiction' of reportage on Africa in the heavily biased and censored Chinese news media? Xu Zhen will perhaps prove less able to handle the scrutiny of audiences in Beijing than his hired child actor will deal with this strange tableau that will haunt his childhood memories." -Lee Ambrozy ( the full review can be seen here:

Amusingly, this review by Lee Ambrozy is reproduced by many sources, none of which actually comment on it so much as simply copy and paste it. There was only one response to his review on all the websites I saw it published on (the review with comment was found on You can see the comment if you follow the link.

The reviewer has his own blog, where he wrote his own review of "Impossible is Nothing", which is similar to Ambrozy's and my opinions as well. However, there are no comments on his blog either. These are the only non "official" reviews/criticisms of the work that I was able to find after hours of scouring the internet, and I contacted "Robin Peckham" through his blog to no avail. Thus, I am beginning to understand why there is little discourse on this work. I mean, there seem to be about three English-speaking, internet using, people (including myself) interested in this piece, and two of them didn't seem particularly interested in initiating discussion on it. This seems to suggest that maybe blogging isn't the best way to share opinions/ideas with the general public (as opposed to friends and family), because there is the issue of credibility (i.e I don't know anything about this person, why the heck should I listen to their opinion/even converse with them on any intellectual topic?) Also, I'm sure that if we were in New York and this work had been done by a famous American or European contemporary artist, there would be a lot of online discourse available on it, namely because its exposure to the public would be a lot greater. I couldn't find any "official" material on "Impossible is Nothing" in English or Chinese (for example newspaper or magazine listings). Most sites that even mentioned it only did so as a "save the date" kind of thing, as the City Weekend listing did, only outlining the exhibition's basics as well as time and date information. I guess I am just too used to being able to read an informed article written by an educated person about a gallery exhibition in the Times before actually going to see it. The presence of such a source won't necessarily decide whether or not this is art that I want to see, but it usually at least provides another perspective and some interesting information about the work that I would otherwise be without. It is also nice to be able to consider other such opinions post-viewing, as I am trying to grapple with the meaning or signifigance of the art that I have seen. However, I think this mindset and practice might be a little too Western for the budding Chinese art world and its participants.

Edit: I have just found a useless blog entry on Impossible Is Nothing, which as far as I can tell is simply a copy and pasted excerpt from an official text on the exhibition, not the writer's own opinion.

This doesn't even seem like a legitimate blog (if there is such a thing). However, I'm sure that anyone who googles "xu zhen" and stumbles upon this blog will find my ramblings' value equally questionable and incomprehensible as well....

Now there is nothing left to do but await Xu Zhen's responses, which will be interesting thanks to the (respectful) prodding nature of my inquiries. Until then...


Robin Peckham said...

This looks like an interesting project. I can certainly empathize with your frustration at a lack of public, English-language discourse on Chinese art; in Beijing, at least, most of these discussions happen in offices, bars, restaurants and cars.

You mentioned me above (I'm Robin), and I'm sorry I didn't get your email,I just switched addresses. I'd be happy to discuss the work with you further if you continue your research. ra.peckham (at) gmail (dot) com

Robin Peckham said...

Also I wanted to point out that RedBox Review ran a text by a Long March curator on their blog, and, if I remember correctly, the Beijinger printed a brief review.

Lee Ambrozy said...

Its interesting to me that this review (an insignificant one, in the history of reviews that I've done over the past years in Beijing) has caused such excitement. I can't tell if its Xu Zhen's popularity, or perhaps the fact that English-language criticism on art from China is overwhelmingly lacking in negative reviews.

Anyways, the intentionally provocative nature of Xu Zhen's entire body of work did not make a caustic review of this show very satisfying. I imagine that he revels in the attention.

As you mention, sensitive issues of Sino-African relations are central to the Sudan piece, but I am doubting the success of such high-minded intentions in the execution of this work. I've always been suspicious of overly-political art.