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The Shanghai-based artist Xu Zhen is a rising star of the new Chinese art. At age twenty-seven he is part of a young generation whose members have achieved attention on an international stage. Official recognition of contemporary art is a recent development in China, where censorship of exhibitions was only relaxed in the 1990s. The rapid development of the Chinese economy has involved an opening up to global capital, and perhaps this has led to an acceptance of the powerful form of cultural capital embodied in the international art market. In 2001 Xu Zhen represented China at the Venice Biennale, and in 2005 was part of the first official pavilion sponsored by the Chinese government.
As part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Spacement showed Xu Zhen’s video ‘From Inside the Body’. It was originally part of the group exhibition ‘Art For Sale’, a mock supermarket staged in a Shanghai mall in 1999 that was soon closed down by government officials. It included such unusual items as jars of pureed human brains by artist Zhu Yu, and a video by Hu Jieming showing the artist masturbating. Xu Zheng’s contribution was relatively mild in comparison. ‘From Inside the Body’ shows three screens depicting the same room with an ordinary brown vinyl couch. As described by Xu, ‘the left one recorded the actions of a man, the right recorded a woman, and the middle, both. The man came in first and became aware of an indefinable smell. To find out where the smell was coming from, he took off his clothes and started smelling himself. Then a woman entered and did the same. Finally, they began sniffing each other’s naked bodies’ (Shanghart gallery website).
The original video installation included the actual lounge itself as viewer seating, an evocative element absent from its incarnation at Spacement. This was unfortunate, since it may have induced a greater degree of involvement in the audience. As it stands, ‘From Inside the Body’ is both intriguing for the frank intimacy it displays, and also disturbing for the voyeurism it forces upon the viewer. This sense of voyeurism is increased if one is aware that the young man and woman engaged in semi-naked sniffing are actually Xu Zhen and his girlfriend. The couple’s self-obsessed activity creates a closed and claustrophobic atmosphere, which makes some sense of the work’s misleading title.
There is a six year gap between the video and the other component of this exhibition, a 2005 installation titled The Last Few Mosquitoes. In a darkened section of the gallery a number of predatory-looking mosquitoes were perched on the walls, sparsely illuminated by spotlights. Ominously larger than life, their transparent abdomens rhythmically swelled with blood-like fluid as they sucked away at the sterile white skin of the gallery walls. Like the video this was a disturbing yet strangely fascinating spectacle. The mosquitoes managed to look fake and real at the same time, convincing hairy parts matched with metallic legs and plastic abdomens. Their naked instinctual behaviour was repellant, yet the title of the work promoted a feeling that these cultured insects are an endangered species deserving of respect, if not admiration. Parallels with the art world inevitably spring to mind.
On a thematic level both pieces in this exhibition convey a fascination with skin as a seductive yet vulnerable surface. This is a theme Xu Zhen successfully mined at the beginning of his career, presenting aspects of the body as a sculpturally minimal form, often acted upon by external forces. His early work includes a video showing a man’s back slapped repeatedly so that it slowly turns red, female pubic areas displayed as triangular flags, photographs of a male nude with a trickle of menstrual blood running down his leg, and a notorious video in which the artist beats a dead cat against a concrete floor.
Xu Zhen’s more recent work, such as The Last Few Mosquitoes, has been less concerned with overt sexuality and violence, yet continues to explore unsettling physical relationships and states of being. Since 1998 he has used a range of approaches to making art, a creative eclecticism that is interesting if somewhat inconsistent on a formal level. In the current exhibition the two pieces look like the work of different artists, despite the minimal aesthetic and absurdist humour they share. Whether this is a drawback is for the viewer to decide. It is still a mesmerizing introduction to an artist playing dangerously with the codes of visual culture.