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Quick-thinking and with endless ideas, Xu Zhen is an artist, curator and the CEO of MadeIn Company, a contemporary art production enterprise with a staff of over fifty. The overlay of business and art is his method of practice—conducted with confidence, suspicion of idealism, and a fascination with taboo.
Let’s begin by discussing MadeIn, the “contemporary art creation company” you founded in 2009. How is it structured? What makes the company different from a production workshop like Murakami’s Hiropon Factory?
The company consists of MadeIn Gallery and the brand XuZhen; we also run supporting media, such as the Artbaba Internet forum. It’s a very comprehensive operation, by no means limited to artistic projects: we have people who focus on project management, creative, administration, etc. As of now, we have around fifty on staff, with an office space in Songjiang, Shanghai.
I believe that the difference between MadeIn and other art companies/enterprises will become more obvious in the future. Some claim that we work similarly to Jeff Koons, in that we are both a studio and a company. For me, the question depends more on the scale to which we expand ourselves in the future. As of now, our current mode as a company is a kind of art in itself, almost as if the company is an artist. In this age, whether you’re practicing art or venturing in business, you are nonetheless in a creative process. The spirit of the time provides art with an abundance of space and possibilities.
Still, this question remains: How do the company’s various outlets relate to each other? For instance, MadeIn launched XuZhen in 2013, producing significant new pieces under that label. But after a few years, the brand reappeared under MadeIn’s name. How does this shifting identity influence the actual creation, production and marketing processes?
From our perspective, there aren’t many restrictions. It’s like venturing into business: as you start, you realize that the market is actually different from what you had envisioned; to survive, you must adapt and alter many of your original intentions. But none of this changes your end goal, which is to enhance one’s sense of existence. For me, what matters is that everything is progressing towards a better state. It’s unnecessary to declare to what end we should be changing, because it’s all viable. As long as it is healthy and positive, evolution is a strong gene—and as for the market, the academic world or historical positioning, none of these are of great concern to us.
That’s a fairly provocative idea: that one might change intentions but retain his objectives. Others might insist that they hadn’t deviated from their initial aims.
It’s interesting: the idea of an “original intention” can easily bewilder people. You may come to this aim within a certain context, but as you grow more mature, doesn’t your “original intention” change? It’s like how every boy fancied his English teacher when little, though it is unlikely that he will end up marrying one. Isn’t that a change of original intention?
That’s true. We may often think of “original intention” as something analogous to a goal, but it might simply be what you’ve called a “sense of existence.”
Exactly. These things are confusing, and people tend to mix them up. In the case of the “sense of existence,” I believe that if you’ve found it, you must be accomplished in many respects. But that doesn’t make it a matter of intention. This is why I say that I am not “conceptual” in my work. I haven’t much concept of things.
But you seem quite adept at playing with concepts.
Not really. Much of my work belongs to the category of conceptual art, but I generally do not understand things in a conceptual way. For instance, people often ask me why I have any sense of morality. My initial reaction is, what is this so-called “moral sense?” You may say that what is intrinsic to humans rarely changes, but the signified changes drastically over time—which means that if you abide solely by concepts, it will be difficult for you to understand the world. You must let go confidently. Perhaps I am just confident.
Have you always been?
I’m just never afraid. There isn’t much to be afraid of. This is the art world, after all—it won’t kill you.
Last year, you and David Chau established a brand called PIMO, which produces various limited editions and products based on artists’ works. What’s the connection and difference between the PIMO and the gallery?
PIMO is a brand for art derivatives, still in its early stages. David and I share the belief that contemporary art operates within a very small circle; we need to expand it, yet we can’t simply abandon the ivory tower, or demand that art should descend from its current altitude. Therefore we felt the need to investigate what attracts most people, and our conclusion is: consumption. Consumption is directly related to art derivatives, and we believe that these derivative products will grow into a massive platform. Once we establish this platform, more people will be in touch with art and culture.
The new gallery space presents artists under the name of MadeIn. In this case, is MadeIn an agent for artists or simply a space meant to support them? At the end of the day, is it just another gallery?
I think it is very comprehensive. We don’t really operate in such a static way. For instance, we call it a gallery, yet for those artists whose works obviously won’t sell, should we not offer some support? We should not limit our business to painting, or whether or not an artist’s works sell fast. We should help to generate as many high-quality artistic phenomena as possible, so that the market as a whole is supplied with guidance and atmosphere. We ourselves live and breathe the art world, but we have become numb to it, unaware that society still needs art. It still needs the kind of art that is strange, inexplicable, emotional; works that remain unfathomable even if sold for a million RMB. The organizational structure of society itself demands art as a catalyst.
How does MadeIn divide its resources between presenting and managing other artists and producing items through XuZhen? Are these activities ultimately a form of collaboration?
This may sound pretentious, but I think of MadeIn as producing creativity, not artworks. The artworks are merely the byproducts of creativity. This is why we place heavy emphasis on training, inspiring our colleagues to learn in various ways. We may fail much of the time, but eventually, one or two talents do come along. Although MadeIn is within the realm of contemporary art, no one knows how it will develop in the future. I and we are not willing to be constrained by a single scope.
As for resource distribution, we make decisions based on practical considerations. For instance, Xuzhen is currently doing well and is highly profitable, so that’s been our focus. Then, once you’ve made Xuzhen into a success, it is easier to work on other projects with the brand effect. But we invest more in young artists than other galleries: for instance, we will be so attentive that we look into what a young artist uploads to his WeChat “moments,” how he titles things, how he writes descriptions. We’re interested in digging up the values that others have witnessed but not realized.
In recent years, China has been increasingly driven by commercial enterprises and power-driven structures (Long Museum, Yuz, etc.) that play a vital role in supporting the development of the arts in China, especially in Shanghai. Do you think MadeIn’s success is directly related to this particular situation?
Of course. If China had not reformed and raised the GDP, how would we have the capital to practice art? If I don’t even have enough food to keep me full, I obviously won’t care about art. So the relationship is quite direct.
Being based in China, what sort of challenges has MadeIn faced?
We’re still in the first stage of things—we have not boldly begun with what we set out to do. This age provides you with many opportunities: I don’t have to queue up behind whatever number of Western artists; I don’t have to abide by Western rules. As you said, capital provides many possibilities. But capital itself is a massive trap—and it’s not just capital. Many play the cards of cultural difference, of politics.
I had a chat with an artist a while back, during which I said to him, “Your work criticizes society, and yet you drive a BMW, live in a villa; the object you are criticizing has actually brought you the fortune you enjoy. I believe that is the nature of the movement of capital.” He replied, “I was poor for more than ten years before selling my paintings.” I said, “To borrow some concepts from the investment world, what you have been through is called the success of the first round of financing. You were not worth a penny, and then you achieved some good results, earning an angel investment.”
To put it simply: “No Idealism.” Idealism pervades all kinds of systems. It is the belief that as long one does his work well, with no concern for the system, whether it be capitalism or communism, he will be rewarded. However, I am concerned with the advancement of my sense of existence. That is to say, have I evolved? Who or what is my counterpart? The Renaissance reached a certain height; so did Impressionism and modernism. To what degree should I advance myself?
Of course, this also comes down to specificity. For example, the Internet era has changed almost all forms of understanding of previously existing systems. What, then, should an artist do? You appeal to truth, good, beauty and authenticity, yet your audience is changing, and if you don’t change yourself, what are you to express? Mere nostalgia? The world of ten years ago?
Many professional (technical) issues can be discussed, but unfortunately, the art world in China still examines artworks in a moral sense. Some believe that artists should be critical and reflective of society, while the others believe they should be independent. This is all nonsense. Show me how independent you can be, whether in China or the U.S. We should not focus too much on issues that are personal. It’s this simple: What have you produced? Is it interesting? We should start from there.
This is the art world, after all—it won’t kill you!
In your last solo show at the Long Museum, the entirety of MadeIn’s output was presented at the same time—all existing editions of each work. It looked amazing, and was a very smart way to use the monumental space of the museum. It is also a very evident sign of the fact that all is “objectified” in the art world, and that this trend is more and more prevalent all around, not just in China. As a writer, I’m personally interested in the pioneering field that uses commercial spaces and language in the art world. The question is: is there a possibility of keeping the revolutionary aspect of art while playing with the commercial world?
I don’t occupy myself with such concerns. I simply do whatever I like. I rarely stop to consider what a commercial space needs. At this point, shouldn’t we be taking our own initiative? You can’t say “I’m sorry, this is an academic setting, please be academic.” It would be absurd! This form of academia is a gift of charity. So what use does it have? The academic must be able to survive the challenge of reality. That is the real academia. Otherwise, it is just empty talk.
Here’s a personal question, since we worked together for a decade at BizArt—a not-for-profit art centre, the first organization of its kind in Shanghai, which we co-founded in 1998. What did you take away from that experience?
I was in charge of domestic projects at BizArt, organizing solo and group exhibitions. The communication with the artists, mutual understanding and learning, were the activities I enjoyed the most. I actually learned a great deal from my BizArt experience. It was like growing up. After all, I believe that I developed many of my good habits in elementary school, such as waking up early and going to bed late, treating others sincerely, being unafraid of power, etc.
How do you evaluate your transition from such activities to being the CEO of MadeIn? What kind of skills and responsibilities are entailed?
At present, playing the role of an artist is a very small part of my responsibilities. I am pretty adept at programming something, directing it towards an ambitious goal, upholding my personal values, insisting on my own needs. Apparently, all of these things are related to artistic creation, but they more frequently seem to apply to the other projects I must regularly deal with, particularly tasks involving communication, coordination and management. The important thing is that I don’t feel stagnant. I feel like I’m in a state where I can learn, change and adjust at any time.
You never travel by plane. Do you ever feel that you are geographically constrained?
Not so much, thanks to the Internet. You can think of me as an ascetic monk; after a while, I became used to it. If I can’t go, it doesn’t matter; it saves me some time in any case. Every day, I have plenty of time to work, to do things that I like and that I’m concerned about.
What is the fundamental concern for you?
To keep living feverishly and with keen curiosity. This is actually very challenging, because you no longer consider yourself this or that—you become something like a container, or a cash dispenser; you take in, and you dispense, serving society and benefiting mankind. It is possible that what you take in today is political, and what you take in tomorrow is entertainment. Everything is possible.
What kind of role do aesthetics play in your work? We are all very familiar with your deliciously beautiful cake painting, which was part of your American debut at the Armory Show in New York. But at the same time, not all your work is aesthetically pleasing. How do you reconcile these different approaches?
Everything originates from demand. This age has made us not so simple, or single-minded, because information reconfigures in different ways, one ceaselessly encounters new imperatives. One day you may pursue refined beauty; tomorrow you form judgments based on something else, and you fall for pop art the day after.
What new works have you been working on recently?
Recently I’ve been working on the “Thousand-Hand Classical Sculpture” series that was exhibited at Long Museum. We are preparing for next year’s events; some big, new concepts will be realized. I believe I am in the golden age of my time, and I’m old enough to write my version of War and Peace. I should be able to create something that demands attention, something that puts a capstone on my whole life; it comes down to a matter of luck. Some people keep their mouths shut, and work on things secretively, because they are scared of failure—unlike me, so shameless, saying it out loud first.
That’s because of your confidence.
The truth is, ask any artist what they want from life, and the response will be, “I want my work remembered after I die.”
Xu Zhen (Chinese, b. 1977) is an artist who lives and works in Shanghai. He is represented by Long March Space, Bejing; ShanghArt, Shanghai; and James Cohan, New York/Shanghai. He has had solo shows at institutions such as the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2014); the Minsheng Museum, Shanghai (2012); Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland (2011); and S.M.A.K., Gent, Belgium (2009). Furthermore, he has participated in major international group exhibitions such as “14 Rooms,” co-curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Art Basel (2014); the 12th Biennale de Lyon (2013); “Art of Change,” Hayward Gallery, UK (2012); and “The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China” at Tate Liverpool (2007). He was also included in the 49th Venice Biennale (2001), and represented China at the 51st Venice Biennale, (2005). Upcoming projects include “15 Rooms,” co-curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans-Ulrich Obrist at Long Museum, Shanghai.
Davide Quadrio is a curator and the founder of Arthub Asia, a production and curatorial proxy active in Asia and worldwide. He is Associate Editor of Kaleidoscope Asia.
Photo credit: Ann Woo