executed in 2005-2006
neon tubes, printed acrylic
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Private Collection, Asia
Sotheby's, New York, 20 September, 2006, lot 172
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
This work is unique.
Wu Shanzhuan is considered to be among the most significant
Chinese conceptual artists to emerge from the seminal avant-garde
movements of the 1980's. Certainly one of the most intriguing and
intellectually complex artists of his time, in his practice Wu has drawn
inspiration from sources as varied as the critical rationalism of British
philosopher Karl Popper and the Pop aesthetics of American artist
Robert Rauschenberg (whose works Wu first encountered at Rauschenberg's Beijing exhibition in 1985). Under his "brand name" of
"Red Humour International", Wu has for more than two decades undertaken the creation of what he calls "Wu's things"—paintings,
drawings, installations, actions, interventions, and theoretical writings
(and sometimes a combination of all of the above)—characterized by a
unusual fusion of humorous absurdity and keen theoretical analysis.
Wu offers an ambiguous definition of his identity, naming himself
variously as "criminal, intermediary, tourist and laborer." From his deceptively absurdist art actions such as Big Business (Selling Shrimps) illegally enacted at the "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition in Beijing's National Gallery (1989) to his book-length text Today No Water, to his photographic documentation of decomposing vegetables, Wu's process has been no less than to deconstruct, dissect, and expostulate the "useless truths" embedded in the economic and political structures of daily life in contemporary society, both East and West.
Born in 1960 in the provincial town of Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, Wu Shanzhuan graduated in 1986 from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, one of the most radically politicized institutions of the Cultural Revolution period. The sea of red, white and black propaganda posters, banners and billboards emblazoned with "political truths" and directives, which were part of China's everyday visual landscape at the time became a source of ironic inspiration for the artist, and the primary material for his visual and semantic deconstructions. Wu watched with a sharply observant and sardonic eye as the open-door market reforms of the early '80s blithely introduced a new and contradictory rhetoric into political sloganeering, and he began to engage in a conceptual vivisection of what he identified as the "marketing strategies" of ideology and the "deficited" value of the words used to promote them. In his breakthrough 1986 installation Red Humour Series: The Big Characters, Wu papered an entire room with a chaotic assemblage of fragments of political propaganda posters mixed with random everyday commercial signs, the whole awash in a background of red. In other works, Wu replaced the constructed dictums of propaganda marketing by "picking up" random announcements from street-side posters, such as "Today No Water", and creating visual and theoretical strategies for revealing the political, social and economic realities hidden within the semantic structure of the words. (His series of intricate, high-energy drawings based on this theme have been compared to a graphic novel.)
In 1990, Wu left China and settled briefly in Iceland, where he met the
young conceptual artist Inga Svala Thórsdóttir, who became Wu's
partner and frequent collaborator. Moving to Hamburg, Germany, Wu
and Thórsdóttir further developed the conceptual framework of "Red
Humour International", extending it to an engagement with the
consumer economy of the West. Wu began to create a new lexicon of
slogans, aphorisms and declarations, such as "second hand water,"
"bird before peace" and "to buy is to create," which became the
conceptual formulas upon which the creation of "Wu's things" —from
installations to paintings to reality-based performance art (such as
Wu's stint in 1992 as a kitchen worker in Kassel, Germany, which
lasted the duration of the Documenta exhibition)—was structured, as
well as code-words for his personal philosophy.
To Buy is to Create (Lot 138) is an imposing and eloquent example of "Wu's things," encapsulating an important aspect of his politicoeconomic critique while at the same time demonstrating an aesthetic sophistication which Wu chooses to express very selectively. The work takes the form of a monumental, streamlined lightbox formed of five Plexiglas panels emblazoned with three lines of bold black graphics against a stark white ground. The first line comprises five Chinese simplified characters in bold-face type reading "to buy is to create" (Mai jiu shi chuangzao).The second line is a supermarket barcode, while the third line—ostensibly part of the barcode—is in fact the telephone number of the artist, Wu Shanzhuan. While each of these three lines is written in a separate "language" and carries different information, collectively they form a single, encoded message which, like Einstein's E=mc2, contains within it an entire chain of causal and relational effects. The presence of the barcode indicates that the supermarket has now become the locus where political and economic ideologies are bought and sold, along with the "things" that are the ostensible objects of consumption. The "things" themselves have become disembodied, recorded in the symbology of the barcode. The statement "to buy is to create" is in effect a mirror image of the capitalist maxim that consumer desire is created through the availability and promotion of "things."Wu's point is to the contrary, that the action/desire of "buying" (whether of a lemon or a political line) is the prerequisite to (as well as the justification for) further creation. The inclusion of Wu's telephone number below the barcode establishes the connective line to the artist as the reciprocal presence in this creative trans-action. Who is buying what, and who is selling, now becomes the tantalizing question.
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