plexiglass and fluorescent light tubes
Wu Shanzhuan's International Red Humour was among the most celebrated series of artworks in the "1985 New Wave" movement. And since that time, Wu's various performances, conceptual installations and paintings relating to ideology and economy, cultural identity, the body and politics, have established him as a consistent pioneer of radical new sensibilities. The wide range of Wu's work – by turns impenetrable, hilarious, and epiphanic – revolves around several key concepts in relation to which the artist generates successive thematic iterations. As such, and in a manner reminiscent of Duchamp, individual works of art operate within a field of references and relationships, which complicates the apparently straightforward and confounds the quick-take view.
It seems simple enough: a billboard-sized signed reads in Chinese "To Buy is to Create" when illuminated by its backlit fluorescent lights (Lot 172). The abstract image of a barcode covers the sign's five Plexiglas panels. And emblazoned at the bottom of the work, the numbers of the barcode are those of Wu Shanzhuan's mobile telephone. A painting of the same design (Lot 173) is Technicolor makes the same straightforward proclamation. What is the meaning of this slick piece of artist's advertising? Is it really an invitation? Or is it an admonition? Or perhaps a philosophical position, one that radically re-envisions our relationship to the world of goods?
The peculiar, ambiguous position of both viewer and artist in To Buy is to Create derives from Wu's drive to short-circuit and expose for critical reflection the standard, 'natural' flow of the political economy of objects, that is, their status as commodities. But these most recent manifestations of his influential practice have a conceptual genealogy extending back more than a decade, when Wu conducted his performances Big Business (Selling Shrimps) in the infamous China/Avant-Garde exhibition at Beijing's National Gallery in 1989. Thirty kilograms of shrimp from the artist's hometown of Zhoushan was sold in the museum's galleries is sly protest of the institutional system that adjudicates the value of works of art. Subsequent performances and installations would see the artist selling a variety of 'products': himself as an artist-product (Selling Oneself at Large, 1990), the right to exhibit a Wu work of art (A Labourer of Rotterdam, 1992), toy pandas (Missing Bamboo, 1993), and Chinese real estate (Showing China from its Best Sides '95 - The Real Estate, 1995) in collaboration with the artist's partner, Inga Svala Thórsdóttir).
Just as the concept of the artist as buyer/seller is an early theme is Wu's work, so the ubiquitous barcode makes an early entry as conceptual variable. Making a verb of 'supermarket' the artist creates Supermarked Money in 1992, which features a green and white product barcode collaged upon the face of a US $10 bill, as though the product is identical with its own 'marked' exchange value. The supermarket itself soon becomes an all-too-real fantasy land for the circulation of the artist's imagination amidst the plentitude of commodities on offer. From April 16 to 20 of 1992, Wu executed A Shopping is a Creation with Thórsdóttir, a performance consisting of retrieving money from the bank, shopping at the supermarket, queuing in line and paying the cashier, cooking dinner at home, and throwing away the rubbish. A related conceptual drawing reflects upon this performance, questioning the nature of artistic practice and the role of the artist and acknowledging in its title Inga and Wu did not create the things they bought.
The photograph Paradises of 1993 seems to crystallize this phase of Wu and Thórsdóttir’s investigations. In this work they assume the position of Adam and Eve in a famous 1504 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Nude (or, rather, naked), without fig leafs, in the vegetables and fruits section of a "German super-market," Wu's left hand rests upon a shopping cart as Inga, playing Eve, extends the bitten apple towards him. If there is a character playing the snake in this symbolic image, Wu's erect penis is a less likely candidate than the prominently positioned shopping cart itself. The fruit of knowledge in this "supermarked" Paradise is allegorically reconfigured as the fruit of consumption, insatiable desire.
The aforementioned works are of particular significance for To Buy is to Create. Indeed, in an unpublished letter titled "About To Buy is to Create," Wu Shanzhuan catalogs this very genealogy chronologically, concluding with the following entries: "2005, in Hangzhou I made the lightbox To buy it To Create. Light enters, to buy is to create. 2006, I made an acrylic painting called To Buy is to Create. Color enters, to buy is to create. Wu Shanzhuan, International Red Humor, July 23, 2006."i One surmises from the purposefully ambiguous grammar that, in the artist's conception, the light and colors activate the respective works, mesmerizing the consumer with their billboard aesthetics and setting their conceptual charge in motion like the revolution of a Duchamp Roto-relief.
But in the logic of each work, the viewer/consumer is also the creator/buyer, the collector/buyer is the artist/maker, with Wu positioning himself as middleman (or mirror) in the exchange. The artwork does not so much equivocate in its meaning as rapidly oscillate between apparently opposite poles. And it is this oscillation that acts as a sort of illuminating generator; the brilliance of To Buy is to Create is that it is simultaneously a critique and an embrace of its own commodity status.
Wu's recent letter does not draw our attention to a two-sided A4 sketch from 1991 entitled On Supermarket. "I Love supermarket," the drawing's header reads, "No place for ART but Supermarket." Reiterated on both sides of the sketch is the concept of the supermarket as gallery and a drawing for what Wu designates as "famous painting." The 'famous painting' with a 'great number' that Wu sketches is a painting of a barcode that closely resembles the present works. Wu had already visualized the basic concept of To Buy is to Create fifteen years ago. That he only now puts the developed works into circulation suggests a well-calculated site- and time-specificity that is not without its performative dimension. Wu Shanzhuan's red humor continues.
i Personal communication with the author.
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