artist-image-1 artist-image-2 artist-image-3 madein company2 Sun Yuan & Peng Yu new artist-image-4 Xu-Zhen artist-image-5

Chen Zhen

b. 1955, Shanghai, China; d. 2000, Paris


In 1980, at the age of 25, Chen Zhen was diagnosed with a blood disease and was told he had only five years to live. Six years later, after spending some months with Buddhist monks in Tibet, he decided to emigrate to France. In China, Chen lived through the Cultural Revolution and then, in his twenties, experienced the country’s period of ‘reform and opening up’. He studied ivory engraving at the Shanghai Fine Arts and Crafts School before specialising in set design and painting. Chen continued his studies in France, where he began to create mixed media installations and, at a time before multiculturalism and globalisation were topical, became interested in exploring cross-cultural social dynamics. Acknowledging that he belonged neither to China nor the West but ‘somewhere in between’, Chen said: ‘I left China to embrace the entire world.’

Chen exhibited his first installations in 1990, ten years before he died. In his work, Chen explored the dualities and contradictions of life as a means of creating harmony through difference. He used his personal experience of illness to reflect on the human condition, and viewed the natural materials that he used, such as water, earth and ash, as ‘images of the essence, of birth, of the source from which objects come, but also the place they return to after having circulated in society.’ In works such as Purification Room (2000/2012), ‘the natural materials are there to purify the objects after their use; for sublimating a latent spirit; and for provoking a new destiny at the fatal end of these objects.’

Gu Dexin

b. 1962, Beijing, China


Although Gu Dexin had no formal education in art, he managed to stage a solo exhibition of his paintings in Beijing in 1986. Three years later, he was one of a handful of Chinese artists selected for the ground-breaking Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. By then he had begun making room-sized installations using waste plastic, which he melted, twisted, stretched and fused into organic structures. Some of these were shown in the landmark exhibition China /Avant-Garde in Beijing. At the same time, he began creating miniature figures – weird extraterrestrials endowed with multiple breasts, organs and orifices – who fought and copulated and gave birth to polyp-like beings. He then became more radical and visceral in his choice of materials, making installations using vast quantities of fruit which were left to decay, and working with pigs’ brains and raw meat, some of which he squeezed between finger and thumb until every drop of moisture was expelled, leaving the remains entirely desiccated.

Gu is extremely reticent about his art. Believing that the audience should bring their own meaning to the works, he prefers them to speak for themselves. Most are titled only with a numerical date indicating when the work was completed. Remarking that for him ‘this date is a closing, but for others it is a beginning,’ Gu goes on to say: ‘making art is what I like to do, but the audience is free to think what it will, about me as much as about my work ...’ In 2009, Gu decided to retire from art. His installations are now presented as documentation.

Liang Shaoji

b. 1945, Shanghai, China


As a result of political and social upheavals in China during the Maoist period, Liang Shaoji’s career as an artist did not begin until after he was 40. During the Great Leap Forward, Liang was sent to work in the countryside and so missed out on a university education. Though he attended Middle School at the China Academy of Art, when the Cultural Revolution began he had to start work as a designer at a linen factory. It was not until 1986, when he enrolled at the Varbanov Institute of Tapestry, that he was able to pursue his interest in experimental art. Since the late 1980s Liang has concentrated on his Nature Series works, which directly involve silkworms through all stages of their life cycle. As Liang comments, the entire series is ‘a sculpture of time, life and nature; a recording of the fourth dimension.’

In Liang’s work, the silkworm symbolises generosity and its silken thread is emblematic of human life and history. Many of his sculptures consist of objects – small constructions such as the wire cots in Bed/Nature Series No. 10 (1993–99), or found items like the lattice casements in Windows (2012) – around which silkworms have spun their cocoons. With the large installation Listening to the Silkworm/Nature Series No. 98 (2006/2012), where visitors can hear silkworms eating, spinning and metamorphosing, Liang suggests that, due to the way the title is pronounced in Chinese, the act of ‘listening to the silkworms’ implies ‘listening to Zen’: ‘to search for self-improvement and inner peace in a tranquil and natural environment.’

MadeIn Company

est. 2009, Shanghai


MadeIn Company is a creative corporation established by Xu Zhen, who stopped practicing as a solo artist in order to become its CEO. A decade earlier, Xu had co-founded Shanghai’s artist-run space, BizArt, one of the very few not-for-profit art centres in China (its name was meant ironically, since it was not intended as a business but as a support for young artists and designers and an opportunity for cultural exchange). With MadeIn Company, which Xu describes as ‘a method, an administrative structure, a way of playing,’ he ‘produces creativity’ in collaboration with a team of other artists, technicians and co-ordinators: ‘MadeIn is very similar to an advertising agency ... I give my staff an assignment, they come up with proposals and then I review them, decide what works, play around with them, and come up with a finished product.’ The name MadeIn is both a play on the phrase 'made in China' and a phonetic translation of the Chinese character meaning ‘without a roof’.

MadeIn’s works often involve performance or participation of some sort. In Revolution Castings (2012), impressions of stones thrown during political demonstrations – including those contributed by exhibition visitors – are combined to create gravestones, some of which are cast in situ during the exhibition. With works such as Action of Consciousness (2011), where sculptures are tossed in quick succession above the walls of a white cube – symbolic of a contemporary art gallery – but cannot ever be properly seen, MadeIn mocks the art market and speed with which works circulate within it.

MadeIn Company team: Xu Zhen / Vigy Jin / Alexia Dehaene / Yu Wei / Zhang Yinan / Lu Pingyuan / Yu Tianzhu / Shen Weiwei / Xue Shu / She Wenwen / Shen Qing / Jiang Guoxiong / Chou Yinmei / Li Qiang.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

b. 1972, Beijing, China; b. 1974, Heilongjiang, China


Like Xu Zhen, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu grew up during the period when China’s Open Door Policy propelled the country into becoming a major world economy. The two artists, who have worked collaboratively since 2000, have responded in extreme ways to excessive commercialism and the dehumanising effects of globalisation. Believing that the world has become frighteningly oblivious to violence, they feel that people have to be confronted with brutality in order to exorcise it. Their early performances and videos – some of which are among the most shocking artworks produced in China – incorporated human body parts and corpses ‘borrowed’ from mortuaries, live animals and animal carcases. Their provocative interventions, which often involve relatively simple transformations of material or shifts in context, force us to think about the unthinkable. The four-metre tall Civilisation Pillar (2001), constructed from human fat siphoned off during cosmetic liposuction, is a meditation on human decadence, society and history, and a monument that symbolises our own times.

Recent works, such as I Didn’t Notice What I am Doing (2012), are less confrontational, but still raise questions about how we think and behave. In I Didn’t Notice What I am Doing, the artists address ‘fake Darwinism’ and the ways in which we intuit knowledge through perception. They explain that, though the triceratops conjures similarities with the modern rhinoceros, the two creatures belong to completely different species and there is no evolutionary link between them. Sometimes, as the title of the work implies, such connections are made purely intuitively and have no basis in scientific fact.

Wang Jianwei

b. 1958, Sichuan Province, China


In 1975, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Jianwei was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’. In the absence of any culture or entertainment – there was no TV, no films, no books – the eighteen-year-old discovered that ‘art was like a drug, a resistance to that boredom’. Following this experience, Wang was drafted into the army. He was thirty when he left: ‘I felt my life was broken off. My whole experience had to be discarded. I had to learn everything anew.’ Returning to his home province, he worked in a factory and as a storekeeper at the local art school. Eventually he was able to enrol at the prestigious China Art Academy in Hangzhou, and graduated in 1987.

Wang began his career as a highly-acclaimed painter, but new media, which was introduced in China in the early 1990s, offered him a new visual language and gave him access to what he calls the ‘grey zone’, or ‘in-between space’; an ambiguous arena in which narratives can be neither linear nor finite. This new approach was explored in projects such as Circulation–Sowing and Harvesting (1993–94) and Production (1996) which he sees as ‘a combined lab for biological study, social activity and artists’ behaviour.’ In 2002, Wang created China’s first work of multimedia theatre, and followed this up by staging further experimental works for theatre. Speaking about complex multimedia installations – for instance Making do with Fakes (2011) with its accompanying sculptural elements, he describes himself as a collector of images and says: ‘what I’m doing is presenting the world as I see it, as a place where many different things – opposite things – are juxtaposed.’

Xu Zhen

b. 1977, Shanghai


The youngest of the artists in this exhibition, Xu Zhen grew up under the impact of China’s booming economy and rapid commercial development. During this time, political and ideological pressures partially gave way to the effects of a new consumer society and globalisation. When Xu made his first videos in the late 1990s, a number of Chinese artists were becoming notorious for works involving nudity, violence, cruelty and the use of live animals, human body parts and corpses. Xu’s early works were ironic variations on these themes. But within a few years he had moved on to create conceptually witty and provocative installations. One of these featured what purported to be the peak of Mount Everest, together with material documenting the alleged expedition to the Himalayas to abduct the summit.

Many of Xu's works probe human ambition and challenge socio-political taboos, and are characterised by theatricality, humour and irony. Interactive installations such as Untitled (2007), which consists of fitness machines that the user operates simply by flicking a switch (no physical exertion is involved) and the performance work In Just a Blink of an Eye (2005/2012), an illusion in which a person is suspended in mid-fall, suggest everyday vanities and failings. In sharp contrast, The Starving of Sudan (2008), which places the viewer in the position of a photojournalist, poses serious questions about the limits of voyeurism, about political and human exploitation and moral anxiety. As Xu points out, the viewer is forced to arrive at their own judgement about this work: 'it's about questioning the nature of ethics; people have to decide where they stand.'

Yingmei Duan

b. 1969, Daqing, China


Yingmei Duan began her career as a painter in China but, having experienced the avant-garde activities that took place in Beijing’s East Village art community in the early 1990s, she moved to Germany to study performance art with Marina Abramović and filmmaker and action artist Christoph Schlingensief. Duan continues to be based in Germany, and performance remains her main form of artistic expression. Explaining that her concepts explore the fleeting hypnagogic visions experienced between wakefulness and sleep, she says: ‘sleep brings me many of my creative ideas. Dreaming is also a very important topic in my performance art works.’ Her projects, which often include installations that evolve and change over time, also focus on other in-between states, such as cultural displacement and social marginalisation.

Mentioning that she chose to become an artist because it did not require her to speak, Duan prefers to communicate through her work. Happy Yingmei (2011/12), a performance and sound installation, was originally inspired by Oscar Wilde’s story The Happy Prince. In a dreamscape, an atmospheric forest glade full of noises, the artist hands out wishes for exhibition visitors to enact or accomplish. The performance works Sleeping, In Between and Patience (all 2004/2012), which all involve interactions between bodies and shelves fixed to the walls, were created with images by the Viennese Expressionist painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) in mind. Duan felt that she recognised herself in many of Schiele’s paintings, and in these works experimented with different ways in which the body becomes entrapped while the mind floats free.

Southbank Centre, Hayward Gallery