Contemporary Art

An Open Letter to Xu Zhen (MadeIn Company): 2014 Armory Show Commissioned Artist

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Dear Xu Zhen and MadeIn Company:

Ever since the Armory Show introduced an annual regional focus beginning in 2010, I have eagerly anticipated a China-centered show. Now I have my wish, but I take no credit for this great occurrence, nor am I responsible for your selection as the 2014 “commissioned artist.” Surely it had nothing to do with my selection of MadeIn Company’s Play 201301 (2013) as my favorite piece from the 2013 Art Basel Hong Kong. 

As a keen observer of China’s various representations on the international stage, I am eager to share with you my thoughts on the numerous thematic considerations pertaining to your markings on the 2014 Armory Show.

Xu Zhen’s ShanghArt SUPERMARKET, installation project (2007). Photo courtesy of ShanghArt Gallery.

1. Individual “Artist” or “Commercial “Business”? Are you Xu Zhen or MadeIn Company? In 2009, you founded a contemporary art creation company with a doctrinal purpose to focus on the production of creativity. In my mind, MadeIn takes Andy Warhol’s The Factory a step further, engaging in an ongoing investigation into the “system of art.” Since its debut, MadeIn Company has produced many headline-grabbing projects, including the temporary relocation of its corporate headquarters to the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai in late 2012.

What is the distinction between an artist and a commercial enterprise, as well as between an individual and a collective? The Armory Show’s official announcement identifies you as “XU ZHEN (MADEIN)” in the headline, but throughout the press release you are simply referred to as “Xu Zhen.” So who, then, is the commissioned artist—Xu Zhen or MadeIn Company?

MadeIn Company, Play-2, sculpture/free-standing sculpture/silicon, iron, cotton filling, hemp cordage, fur, feathers, shells (2011). Photo courtesy of ShanghArt Gallery.

The Chinese rendition of MadeIn Company – meiding gongsi, bearing transliterate resemblance to the English name, is a double entendre of “a company without a head” and “a company drowned by head.” Some critics have bemoaned the end of an artist and the birth of a CEO. In 2013, the Company launched a brand named “Xu Zhen.” If Xu Zhen and MadeIn have effectively become synonymous, does it matter which name you choose to adopt? You once said, “Identity is only a tool.” How is your shifting identity different from when Karl Lagerfeld designs for Chanel as opposed to for his own namesake label?

MadeIn Company, Seeing One’s Own Eyes, installation/boat, pool and glue (2009). Photo courtesy of ShanghArt Gallery.

2. Art and Patronage. Whether it’s Xu Zhen producing art under the corporate alias of “MadeIn,” or MadeIn creating art under its marketing marque Xu Zhen, we are compelled to ponder the inter-connections between patronage, commerce and cultural production. How does a contemporary creative collective differ from an old master’s workshop? How is an art fair’s commission of Xu Zhen different from, say, the Medici’s patronage of Michelangelo?

A portrait of Xu Zhen. Photo courtesy of the Armory Show.

3. Art Fair as an Art Community. In the contemporary art world, we are jaded by too many provocations. Conceptual artists must deal with the reality that an electric shock cannot excite us every other day. And art fairs have become a sort of disguised form of cultural tourism for party revelers who seem to be indifferent to art except for during cocktail hours. At the 2007 Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, you created an installation of a Shanghai convenience store stocked with merchandise of real packages depleted of their contents and attended to by uniformed salespersons ringing a cash register.

Your Art-Ba-Ba Contemporary Art Forum, an online exchange of ideas patterned after the marketplace of Alibaba, has built a community around the exchange of ideas. In the high gloss of the commercial context, can an art fair be a place to trade not only commodities but also ideas?

Myself with Philip Tinari, curator of Armory Focus: China, at a China Focus cocktail reception at the top of the Standard on October 2.

4. Chinese Element?  Born in the year following the end of the Cultural Revolution, you, Xu Zhen, represent for China Focus’ curator Philip Tinari a generation of artists who can express their Chinese experience without resorting to traditional Chinese identifiers. But let’s face it: China Focus will inevitably beg the question of your true cultural identity. In the exhibition Seeing One’s Own Eyes: Middle East Contemporary Art (2009), MadeIn (which, we should remember, is a manufacturing enterprise with no specified country of origin) impersonated a fictional group of Middle Eastern artists who mounted an “exhibition of an exhibition” with objects made in China.

Sotheby’s will offer a collage on canvas by MadeIn, entitled Night Walk Palace (2013), at its Contemporary Art sale in London on October 18. MadeIn’s piece draws on Jacob de Gheyn II’s 1599 drawing Mors Sceptra Legonibus Aequat (“death makes the scepter and the spade equal”), but Night Walk Palace possesses cultural elements of clashing ideologies that challenge our understanding of cultural signs and symbols.

MadeIn Company (Xu Zhen), Night Walk Palace (2013), collage on canvas, Lot 328, Contemporary Art Day Auction, Sotheby’s London, October 18, 2013.

In closing, will you overcome your fear of flying and come to New York? Maybe in one of the world’s strongest capitalist marketplaces you may dare to contemplate taking MadeIn public. Or, perhaps you can at least ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

I remember you once said, “not changing the world would be boring.” We, New Yorkers, are ready for you to “liberate so-called ‘artworks’ from the system of contemporary art.”


Yours truly,

Chiu-Ti Jansen

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