Exclusive Interview: ‘Many People Don’t Believe In Anything,’ Artist Xu Zhen Talks To Rain

March 11, 2021

Epic would be a good word to describe the art of Xu Zhen. Not only in the sense of the physical scale of his works but also in the tensions that his work brings into question. Xu Zhen looks to the larger aspects of society and where these values, whether historical or contemporary, often clash. "Contradictions may be more important to me. A work must have some contradictions in it for it to have tension or conflict," as he explains in the following exclusive interview he gave to RAIN magazine.

This overarching idea has led his creative practice from its early beginnings with films like "Shouting" (1998), where Xu, off camera, yells into a crowd and records their reactions on video, to the present day with his ten-year historical project, "Eternity." Based in Shanghai, China, Xu Zhen has seen not only a bourgeoning and flourishing development in art over the past thirty years but also China's rapid accent, economically and culturally. In fact, Xu contributed to this in the early 2000s by developing a forum on the nascent internet, Art-Ba-Ba, where art outside of China could be discovered and discussed anonymously.

He has since set up his practice in a Warholian style by incorporating it as the MadeIn Company (a play on Made in China), trademarking his name, and appointing himself as CEO of his global enterprise. You may have already even interacted with his art. His installation piece, "In Just the Blink of an Eye," appears in in Vogue and starring Billie Eilish in a gravity defying photo. We spoke to Xu Zhen from his studio in Shanghai over Zoom about his practice and how he sees art and culture changing in the future.

Early career

Mark Benjamin: Tell me about your first interest in art and how you became exposed to contemporary art?

Xu Zhen: I started to get in touch with contemporary art around 1994-1995. At that time, we did not have the internet. For all of China, art was still in an underground state. Therefore, as a young man at the time, I felt that underground art was actually very exciting. There were a lot of criticisms and confrontations with social values, including the impact on mainstream values from rock and roll music. All of these confrontations were coming in through contemporary art. 

MB: With a movement like that it's not just art, it’s a change that impacts culture and many other things, right?

XZ: At the end of the 1990s, the types of Chinese culture were still very uniform. That goes for literature, music, poetry, and contemporary art, which were all in their infancy. Of course, in a very short period of time, probably from the 1980s to around 2000, Chinese contemporary art went through a 100 year progression, whether it learned from the West or took its own course.

"Eternity (Buddah in Nirvana)," XU ZHEN® 2016. Photo by John Gollings
"Eternity (Buddah in Nirvana)," XU ZHEN® 2016. Photo by John Gollings

MB: So, these ideas that were coming into China, were they from the West? Or were they bubbling from within Chinese contemporary culture?

XZ: In fact, it was mixed, because there were not too many art media at that time, so a lot of Western art in China was one-sided, fragmented, and probably came from some small black and white pictures. For example, a philosophical concept that entered China in the 1980s is existentialism, Sartre. Later on this type of literature began to come in. Then everyone started to pay attention to this kind of art. On the one hand, this kind of thing depends on media communication, and on the other hand, it depends on artists’ own imaginations.

MB: This is how Art-Ba-Ba was created right? Kind of documenting this.

XZ: Art-Ba-Ba is much later, around 2006. Art-Ba-Ba had several goals at the time. The first one was, because there was already internet at the time, that it could carry a lot of knowledge and content from abroad, and share it. The second one was mostly for discussion. Because Art-Ba-Ba had an anonymous discussion system, people could criticize, talk and discuss on it freely.

"We live in a drastically changing environment. Such an environment makes you believe in very little. If there are few things you believe in, then you may always be changing and always looking for new experiences and new perspectives."

Xu Zhen

MB: It was like Reddit before Reddit. I used to be on some forums in the early days of the internet. It’s funny because all the social issues such as bullying, hate speech, and moral hazard that happens on the internet today was also happening in the original forum structure.

XZ: But China is different now, that is to say, Art-Ba-Ba is probably the last generation of forum-style art websites in China. Then WeChat came out and then the traffic was diverted. And we do not have this kind of anonymous discussion anymore. 

"Shouting," Xu Zhen 1998
"Shouting," Xu Zhen 1998

MB: The work you did in 1998, "Shouting;" there is a lot of humor in that work. It’s also experimental and leads to the next question about the lineage of your work. I find it ultimately has a lot of humor and sarcasm, much like Maurizio Cattelan, Rene Magritte, and other humorists. Do you see your work of having an overarching theme from its beginnings and into the present?

XZ: I think that when an artist grows up, he or she is constantly absorbing and digesting. But perhaps a very important thread for me is the relationship between people and their environment. Of course, what kind of relationship is this? It may be different at each stage.

MB: A sort of juxtaposition of ideas, maybe not the word conflict, but sort of seemingly opposing ideas, coming together or wrestling together, whether in sculpture or film or as an idea itself.

XZ: Contradictions may be more important to me. A work must have some contradictions in it for it to have tension or conflict. Then, it creates an attitude.

"The original discourse or narrative way of discussing art seems to be too slow in today’s era of rapid consumption. No one seems to care."

Xu Zhen

Taking artistic risks

MB: In Western contemporary art, many artist don't like to take risks. They find their own codes or DNA, whether the medium is painting or sculpture or light or performance. They often stick to this body of work, sort of permutating, evolving a little bit, but more or less staying the same.

However, in your work you don't seem to withhold anything. You're willing to explore different mediums and ideas, whether it’s installation or video or painting or even animatronics. I can’t think of an artist that varies so much in that way. 

XZ: As a young artist, you may not think this is a big problem, but after working for 20 years you will ponder why you have always been curious and why you always have had new ideas. Later, of course, we also analyze it ourselves. It is actually very simple. We live in a drastically changing environment. Such an environment makes you believe in very little. If there are few things you believe in, then you may always be changing and always looking for new experiences and new perspectives.

So, I feel that this may have something to do with the angle of our creative practice. In fact, we have always been looking for a relationship. There are definitely several aspects to this relationship. And when most of these relationships are changing, you are also changing all the time.

"I think that many people actually don’t believe in anything."

Xu Zhen

MB: One of the things I noticed researching for this interview is that every article draws parallels between Warhol's Factory and your MadeIn Company. Why is it important for you to use art as a way to mimic how global capitalism works today?

XZ: China is a particularly capitalistic country. At present, as a brand and a company, this kind of organization and presentation is actually a very efficient way of creating art to some extent. For example, MadeIn Company or XU ZHEN® is like a social trend which has developed in China in recent years. Everyone is starting their own business and everyone is starting companies and becoming bosses. I think this happened in various industries in China. 

Art and commmerce

MB: Something you said in another interview caught my attention: “The way we believe in something is by going out and buying it. So, we hoped to make people more interested in art by buying it." Where does art criticism come in? How might one receive critical praise for an artwork that may not have the dollar sign or market value behind it?

XZ: This question actually involves how do we think art will look in the future. What is the meaning of artists and art? For example, on the issue of art criticism, we have been discussing with various critics in China in the past year, and everyone is very confused. Because the original discourse or narrative way of discussing art seems to be too slow in today’s era of rapid consumption. No one seems to care.

Then there is the atmosphere of elite culture. It seems to be slowly squeezed by the internet traffic culture today. The issue of “the audience of art” that we used to talk about...Who is the audience of art today? Where are they? What are they like? In the end, we found that art is also facing a power shift; the power structure is changing. Maybe art will gradually be impacted by internet traffic. So, all of these questions are very interesting, almost all of them are new questions. If you are engaged in a relatively serious art practice, these are all very direct questions. 

We have also been discussing how to write today’s art history. This is the work for critics. Some critics have pointed out that today’s art history is a history of questions. From this perspective, the work for a critic is to be more in contact with society, to get to know the environment and changes, instead of staying out of it in an elite culture, as before. The critic should learn, understand thoroughly, and learn to embrace new things.

The internet

MB: It reminds me of Jerry Saltz. He became so internet and Instagram obsessed early on. 

XZ: There is no certain method to be exactly correct, nor a certain method to be completely wrong. In fact, it is very chaotic at the moment. Everyone is trying their own method. I think that many people actually don’t believe in anything. 

"Eternity (Parthenon)," XU ZHEN® 2013
"Eternity (Parthenon)," XU ZHEN® 2013

Speech and censorship

MB: I don't want to ask about censorship, but it looks like I just did.

XZ: The current censorship of speech is different now. What the West thought of censorship in China in the past is actually the government’s censorship of art. In fact, in our work, more people feel that today’s speech censorship is more from the public and the social environment, rather than coming from legal provisions. Everyone has slowly entered an era of extreme pursuit of political correctness. Under these circumstances, we feel that the previous government’s speech censorship can actually be avoided and you can play tricks on it. You can have various methods. But the current ideological pursuit of the entire society, the pursuit of correct speech, and the requirements for speech are very troublesome.  

MB: It’s like in America, we are censoring ourselves. Everyone was afraid of big brother and CCTV cameras. But look, everyone has installed cameras in their doorbells, allowed speech recognition devices into their homes, and we now walk around with powerful recording devices that are used quite vigilantly, for better or worse. So, in the end we have ended up censoring ourselves in many ways.

XZ: China is in the same situation. It is interesting, but many interesting things actually have impacts. But once there is an impact, it is bound to incite or stimulate certain values. Now through self-censorship people don't want to be stimulated, so everyone will become more and more dull. 

MB: We even have a new word for it here called “doxxing” taken from cancel culture.

XZ: Same in China.

"In Just the Blink of an Eye," Xu Zhen 2005/2019
"In Just the Blink of an Eye," Xu Zhen 2005/2019

In just the blink of an eye

MB: Your work, "In Just the Blink of an Eye," is interesting, because it seems to change every time it is installed.

XZ: It's installed according to the local clothing. It may be the popular local clothing. For many exhibitions in different places some audiences react differently. This work was created relatively early in 2005. I think there was no youth culture in China at the time, and it was before the outbreak of youth culture. So, what we chose at the time was the image of an ordinary passerby and from there we developed different tendencies in different countries. 

MB: And later when it was installed in MOCA?

XZ: I feel that, especially in an environment like the United States, the implication of different races is more obvious. Because there is only one race in China, so in China it was not so obvious. Works like this are very different in different contexts.

MB: Are there any other projects/art works that you want to create at the moment? Maybe there are projects that have come close but couldn't be executed for some reason? 

XZ: There are a lot. We have some big plans, such as "Eternity," a series we’ve been creating for the past ten years. It is about this theme of ancient human civilizations. After ten years of accumulation and creative practice, we found that there are many things to dig into. It will evolve into a larger volume, and it may even leave the realm of the monotonous contemporary art system. It may become a social landscape. These things, including land art, need time to accumulate and require different contexts. So, there are quite a lot of such works.

Museum collections

MB: Lastly, I want to ask you about a work that is now iconic to your practice, “Hello.” Museums are shifting to more interactive art like this work. The mass audience has a need for entertainment; they need to be engaged. I wonder if museums take works like this more seriously because interaction is what they desperately need, instead of looking at the next impressionist artist, for example.

XZ: In the past, art museums used to say: “what we exhibit, you see,” but now art museums are slowly moving towards, “what you want to see, we exhibit.” But in fact, I think this is a pseudo-question. I think the form of art museums will change in the future. It may not necessarily stay the current structure.

Artists are also facing this question. Artists also face the question of how to provoke the audience and arouse the audience’s reaction. Just like the question we talked about earlier, today’s audience has become a kind of traffic. It is slowly redefining what mass culture is and what elite culture is. It is very important for artists to shape this definition by themselves, and to shape this definition through artworks and creative practice. Whether the audience likes it or not, how many people will see it, or how many will accept it – these are not very important questions. You can consider these questions as the content of your creation.