An Interview with MadeIn Company founder, Xu Zhen
“Action of Consciousness,” group exhibition by Madeln Company.
ShanghART Gallery & H-Space (Bldg.16 & 18, 50 Moganshan Road, Shanghai). November 13 to December 12, 2011. Opening: Saturday, November 12, 5 – 7：30 pm.
Chris Moore: Who is MadeIn, how does the company work, how are creative decisions made?
Xu Zhen: MadeIn Company is a method, an administrative structure, a way of playing; each employee of the company composes this system and the art director makes the decisions.
CM: But why specifically a company instead of, for instance, a “collective,” a “government,” a “school”? Unlike other artists, you could choose anything and it would work.
XZ: The model of the company is a certain “limited democracy.” The model of the company isn’t perfect.
CM: That sounds like democracy itself but in what ways would you say it is not “perfect”?
XZ: “Perfection” is this piece of meat hanging in front of us that we are never able to eat.
CM: MadeIn, what is good criticism?
XZ: Good criticism is like a good creation; it emanates inner flame.
CM: That sounds like magic — are you avoiding the question?
XZ: When criticizing you have to take yourself seriously.
CM: That may not help the critic. In fact, looking at MadeIn’s work, a critic who takes himself seriously might just as well be blind. Isn’t the critic allowed at least a wry smile?
XZ: It is hard to find a critic who has humor.
CM: True. Do I?
XZ: You are really humorous!
CM: Which if I were a very naive critic I might almost think was flattery! But let’s move on. You are often criticized for being very cynical or sarcastic. Do you consider yourself cynical or is this supposed “cynicism” just a type of sincerity, another way of speaking?
XZ: Cynicism can force oneself to present quickly a clear attitude and expectancy, because we are often very passive.
CM: So it’s simply a tool, a method to engage the audience to interact, to bring them out of their torpor? How would you say your first show, “Seeing One’s Own Eyes”, fits into this gambit?
XZ: As one of the methods to begin. “One of the methods” is very important, because you have to combine different methods, otherwise it would become very unitary. Even a good single method can be very dull. “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” was a series of works that combined cynicism, ego, exploration, digging, exploited differences and various other aspects. Viewers would unconsciously step into different ways or angles of observation to judge the artworks. It is an attitude that jumps across different cultures without staying in any one of them. We hope that viewers feel that they weren’t prepared for it because what they get is an experience that they probably don’t know how to use. This way, this artwork can be boring enough.
CM: Great answer! You speak of “cynicism, ego, exploration, digging” and so on, as if they were types of media in themselves, not mere provocations—a common accusation of MadeIn—but non-unitary machines for thinking, that is, for provoking thought.
XZ: When provoking thoughts, one still needs to think—perhaps this is [the nature of] Sisyphus’s myth? Therefore, we also hope that this kind of behavior adds elements from comedy or farce as much as possible. On top of that, as a result of creativity, artworks indeed become media and multi-functional. And one must excavate their functions. Therefore, our company emphasizes its aim, which is “to produce creativity”, and not creating great works. This is probably the first step.
CM: Doesn’t it help to produce great “creativity” by producing great art? And what does “creativity” mean anyway? Are you society’s anthropologist or psychoanalyst?
XZ: The concept of “great art” today is very doubtful, because we deeply feel that the situation we are facing now is something like “no matter how much we do, it is never enough.” New desires, requests and fields of action are unceasingly produced and are always harsh, unsatisfied.
Creativity refers to the production of new thought, and the ability to discover and create.
CM: This brings us back to “creating creativity” and would appear to reference Marshall McLuhan’s oft misunderstood quote “The medium is the message,” whereby the message is structurally and materially affected by the form it takes. In the MadeIn cosmos, though, there is no final outcome or message, just unceasing mediation – a “stream of form.”
XZ: Like a war, the more you fight, the messier it gets. There are more and more commitments, more and more leads, but at a certain point, you can randomly take something in this “war” that would explain some questions.
CM: Could you put this in the context of your often-controversial wall-works? How have they developed their “media” since 2009’s “Seeing One’s Own Eyes” exhibition to their most recent iterations?
XZ: From the misunderstanding in the “Middle Eastern Contemporary Art” show to the exploration in the “Spread” series, then to the “beliefs-collage” in “Physique of Consciousness”, and this time’s “Action of Consciousness” emphasizing the idea of being “in action,” all these works stimulate, complete each other, and are continuously being developed.
CM: What do you mean by the “misunderstanding” in the MECA show?
XZ: The misunderstanding in observation is a certain supply-demand relation caused by curiosity.
CM: What do you mean by “curiosity”? After all, what happens when, for instance, such “misunderstanding” threatens the process itself?
XZ: Observing curiosity is one of the materials for creating this work. (1) Our work is to adjust this kind of misunderstanding.
CM: Then is this “observation misunderstanding” a deliberate effect of the scenarios constructed by MadeIn? For instance, how would MadeIn position this in comparison with, for instance, the strategies of Xu Zhen’s now infamous “The Starving of Sudan”?
XZ: “Observation misunderstanding” is only a working starting point and a reason, though it was undoubtedly developed from Xu Zhen’s working methods. After all, Xu Zhen is the director of the company.
CM: Various Western observers misinterpreted “The Starving of Sudan,” failing to see its installation as a whole and over-identifying with their own historical context. (2) MadeIn’s new series, “Play,” involves sculptural montages of people of various ethnicities engaged in traditional Japanese forms of bondage. This looks likely to provoke a similar reaction to the “Sudan” work. One could say that people are most blind when they are looking but doesn’t provocation have to be responsible for its own moral ambiguity, the very thing that makes it both interesting and dangerous?
XZ: Well said.
CM: Is “observation misunderstanding” then an inevitable side effect of MadeIn’s strategies? If so, it begs the question of what is the objective of MadeIn’s strategies? After all, if there is simply endless mediation of media, a cycle of provocation and reaction, what’s the point?
XZ: What is a “side effect”? The “mediation of media” is only one issue that we are focusing on, or rather it is a certain characteristic that our company created recently. We have been continuously developing new approaches and methods on this basis. Besides, we are more willing to see and believe in “practice.” We have to practice unceasingly to encounter certain issues.
CM: How do you practice and how does that differ from other art producers?
XZ: By creating through managing. The difference lies in who is producing.
CM: Could you describe the process of managing? For instance, how is it similar or different to, say, Zhou Tiehai’s selection of images to be produced by members of his atelier?
XZ: The difference is whether you are at the service of someone, or at the service of a brand. For example, during a discussion, there can be some new thoughts and directions, and then the art director will take the decisions.
CM: Is this the current point in the evolution of “artists” – radical management consultants and idea scientists?
XZ: At the same time, the fact of avoiding turns the question in an artistic way.
CM: If in fact it has been avoided. Is MadeIn moral or relativist?
XZ: The value of MadeIn Company is closer to a certain shifting, a continuous changing knowledge.
CM: That sounds like an elision — is that the answer?
XZ: As long as “morality” doesn’t become an obstacle to creation, then it’s fine.
CM: And that sounds similar to Nabokov’s critique of the lazy reader — someone who wants to be spoon-fed instead of asking what the “author” is trying to do. What is your ideal “viewer” – how will she approach MadeIn’s production?
XZ: The ideal viewer never appears when you need them. So don’t worry about them.
CM: Are people sometimes too grown-up when they try to understand MadeIn’s production? Does it help to be child-like?
XZ: It doesn’t matter; there aren’t seamless eggs.
CM: Would you say that “Observation Misunderstanding” is one of the principle mediums with which MadeIn plays and experiments?
XZ: Maybe it could be described as the main content that was created since the establishment of the company.
CM: How would you describe the other or supporting content?
XZ: For example, “examining,” “looking for enemies,” and “recurrent dissatisfaction” are topics that are being created.
CM: Are some or all of these topics are particularly relevant to society in China now or are these topics “world” topics?
XZ: There aren’t differences; it just has to be important.
CM: Important – how?
XZ: As long as you think it is important, then it’s fine.
CM: Is your recent “Physique of Consciousness” project at the Bern Kunsthalle and at Long March Space in Beijing — which conflates sacred gestures from many religious practices — an example of how people’s “observation misunderstanding” operates? Or is it an example of how we are caught within media, that is, how life itself becomes an (endless) effect of media and mediation?
XZ: The main aspect of “Physique of Consciousness” is “combination.” Can such a way of composing avoid civilizational conflict? Or must civilizations be in conflict to have a sense of existence? Can it influence our bodies? (Looking at it now, there certainly is an influence). Is time another main element of this work as time for yoga is?
CM: In your “Spread” series, the wave, for instance, is both an endless Hokusai tsunami and a Californian “Endless Summer” (3). But then it deconstructs itself, with references to Pop art and cheap artifice — the fake sun lit up like a Las Vegas motel-vacancy sign. In some sense, is MadeIn, as parodist, seeking to confront us with a comic reality in our own (comic) reality?
XZ: Well said, comic is also another parallel reality.
CM: Besides “Play,” MadeIn’s new work includes “Prey,” realistic paintings of poor homes (emphasized in the catalogue by being “displayed” in wealthy homes) and also “Action of Consciousness,” which involves items being thrown up into the air from a secretive booth. All of these works will be shown in the same exhibition. So what connects them?
XZ: Providing a relationship that changes the world. To become a beginning or an end again, to liberate those things called “artworks” from the contemporary art system (from consciousness).
CM: What does “consciousness” mean for MadeIn?
XZ: “To think” is “consciousness.”
CM: How do you feel that “Prey” develops the status value of art explored in your Beijing show last year, whereby value was ascribed to a photograph according to the value of its subject?
XZ: From a general point of view, this artwork is a “process of prey capturing.” At the same time, it is meant to satisfy people’s feelings for classicism, and people’s aesthetic need for “poverty.”
CM: Scale was an important aspect of work by “Xu Zhen.” What sort of role does it play for MadeIn?
XZ: Scale was generated by needs.
CM: To each according to his needs from each according to their ability?
XZ: Needs, supplies, creation, admission, all became today’s new art pattern — it isn’t simply an artwork (close to the concept of “multiple authorship”).
CM: Does or will MadeIn have an oeuvre or is it working hard to avoid one?
XZ: In a competitive mechanism, we use competition to compete.
CM: Compete against what? Many strong competitors use branding, their identifiable “style,” to promote themselves. But MadeIn eschews this – for MadeIn, everything is just, though not purely, media. It subverts this fundamental principle of the art (market) system.
XZ: We want to be the one who hangs the meat.
CM: Is MadeIn manufacturing a type of freedom?
XZ: There is no freedom.
CM: Doesn’t MadeIn enjoy types of freedoms, for instance to produce what it produces?
CM: Was this interview free?
XZ: This interview was deep and unforgettable.
CM: That bad, huh? Well, for the sake of cliché, how would you wish to change the world for the better?
XZ: Make it chaotic.
CM: Does art as a thing really exist (any more)?
XZ: Art wouldn’t exist independently.
CM: True but is the term “art” almost irrelevant to what you do? It seems so old fashioned. Your production could be just as successfully shown in a supermarket, on the street, in a factory, as in an art gallery, if not more so.
CM: The Russian filmmaker Andrej Tarkovsky wrote, “Never try to convey your idea to the audience — it is a thankless and senseless task. Show them life, and they’ll find within themselves the means to assess and appreciate it.” Are MadeIn’s ideas successfully communicated?
XZ: As long as it is communicated, then it’s fine.
CM: What questions should I have asked you? (And which ones would you not have answered?)
XZ: At the moment there aren’t any questions.
(Interview conducted over email from September to October 2011.)