Xu Zhen questions the commercialization of curiosity in ancient cultures in new Paris exhibition “Civilization Iteration”.
Xu Zhen’s solo exhibition “Civilization Iteration” is on display at Galerie Perrotin Paris until 29 July 2017. Art Radar takes a look at the artist’s practice and the exhibition.
“Civilization Iteration” is one in a number of exhibitions to review Chinese artist Xu Zhen‘s controversial long-term project of exploring the contemporary art world’s relationship with commercialisation and corporatism. Over the last decade, this “project” has often taken the form of provocative sculptures, installations and interventions that intend to both probe taboos in Chinese society as well as point out (and manipulate) orientalist western expectations of Chinese art and commerce.
The project began in 2009 when Xu Zhen founded MadeIn Company – an “art creation company”. Four years later the artist subsumed his own artistic identity as a consumable product under the company’s direction, effectively branding his own name and making himself a commodity of his own corporation.
MadeIn have been “playing tricks” on art publics since their founding. The year of the company’s inauguration (2009) MadeIn curated an exhibition of paintings, sculptures and installations supposedly made by “a new generation of Middle Eastern artists”. The exhibition, entitled “Xu Zhen: Lonely Miracle: Middle East Contemporary Art” at New York’s James Cohan Gallery, departed from what was actually a fictional curatorial project including the exhibition of a selection of fictional “Middle Eastern” contemporary artists.
The dark humoured project parodied the trend of exhibition making that focused intently on the global visibilisation of art practices in the Arab world, a very real phenomenon often explained by critics and market analysts with reference to the ultra-mediatised revolutions occurring across the Arab world, which they argue spurred growing global interest (and investment) in the region’s contemporary art. Xu Zhen’s toungue in cheek project intended to create critical distance with respect to the contemporary art market’s sudden “curiosity” in artists working in the region.
By presenting works filled with clichéd symbols (such as Arabic calligraphy, fragments of ceramic artefacts, images of camels and political cartoons) Xu Zhen critiqued the orientalism of Western expectations and questioned national or regional “branding” that occurs across the contemporary art market, much in the same way that smiling Mao and Panda paintings became the brand for post-Cultural Revolutionary art in China in the 1980s. By creating alternative realities that appropriate from and mimic current trends, Xu Zhen encourages the viewer to doubt the validity and modes of legitimisation of certain art trends of locations of art production over others.
The current exhibition at Perrotin Paris includes the “Metal Language” series, which approaches a “pop art” aesthetic for the animated and cartoon-like graphics employed in the work. Other works, such as the series Eternity and Evolution, question the material, visual and symbolic tropes through which human cultural origin stories are constructed and repeated in the present. The series makes use of what looks like ancient art pieces, from Dunhuang frescoes from the Silk Road’s heyday to Western modernist sculpture or Greek and Roman architectural fragments.
Through appropriation and senseless repetition, the work seeks to question the way in which ancient cultures are invented and constructed from the present, in order to legitimise colonialism, imperialism and dogmatism in the public sphere. The mix-matching of elements derived from multiple and diverse geopolitical sites and cultural heritages rehearses the shared experience of searching for data or images online, where a number of decontextualised visual and cultural codes are available at the touch of a button.
In “Civilization Iteration” Xu Zhen furthers his characteristic critique of both the lack of context and depth to our current “image searches” (from contemporary artworks in the Middle East to ancient cultures) as well as the commercialisation of existential or spiritual searching for the origin of things.
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