Xu Zhen's most recent solo exhibition at Long March Space, Anything is Possible, seemed to be a bizarre and even disturbing experiment for many, and seems to warrant an earnest attempt to think through the whole project. The show consisted of two pieces: in the first, several people (all Chinese) went about their business in a mock space station that had been suspended from the ceiling of the darkened gallery. There was one window in the apparatus, and outside of the window there was suspended a miniature model of the Earth. Around the corner, several video monitors showed live footage from inside the space station. In the other piece, a recreation of a controversial journalistic photograph by Kevin Carter, a taxidermied animatronic buzzard cocks its head towards a half-naked, live child of African descent. The child's mother sits nearby.
According to David Spalding of UCCA, the child and mother are African immigrants to Guangzhou, who were compensated with 1000 RMB per day (the child sat in the exhibition hall 5 hours a day for the duration of the show).
The themes Xu Zhen intends to address here are obvious, and are no new addition to his critical practice. In a previous project at Long March, In the Blink of an Eye, the artist set up volunteers on metal frames, locking them into positions as if they were in the middle of a fall. In perhaps his best known project, 8848 - 1.86, he created evidence, video, and sculpture to convince the viewer that his team had cut off the top of Mt. Everest in an amount equivalent to the height of the artist.
So the notion of situated subjectivity and the interrogation of visual truth are clearly recurring themes here. This newest exhibition seems to approach its topic with such violence that I am tempted to refer to it as "The Gaze," with capital letters and quotation marks and all. Fair enough: these works do throw into question our ways of seeing. The space station does so be engaging with the dynamic scalar shifts of geography in the neoliberal world on such a level that the entire process becomes a joke; the frictions and flows of global captial are thrown into relief and join in the unity of the view of earth through the window. And the African scene does so by arousing an intense awkwardness, almost a sense of shame in the visitor.
My first criticism is that these works operate so simply. Putting the element of violence aside for a moment, there is nothing subtle about the show. Having now seen it multiple times, I am convinced that there is nothing that cannot be picked up by a cursory sweep through the hall. Yes, the space station transfers an optical illusion to the level of a physical illusion. Yes, something about the African scene feels wrong. I could imagine many, many more nuanced ways of devising artistic machinery to create these two sensations. So why go through all the trouble and, undoubtedly, pain of including living people in the work?
This is where Xu Zhen's brilliance shows through–I would venture to guess that he did not, in fact, intend for the work to be read on this level, and I remain deeply critical of his choices in putting together the exhibition. That being said, the work negotiates with contemporary global labor theory in fascinating ways. To draw from Mezzadra and Neilson, we have an instantiation of the theory that transnational labor is multiplied when it crosses the borders that formerly divided it: here, a women and child receive monetary compensation for willingly remaining within a detention cell of sorts, away from true labor markets.
The work personally strikes me, however, largely because of relationships between China and Africa at the moment. Several years ago, an exhibition like this could easily be read as a "postcolonial" critique of Western imperial interests (and the colonizing white male gaze) in Africa and the underdeveloped world. Today, this would sound bizarre coming from Xu Zhen in a city like Beijing. It seems that the project actually slips into a very colonial realm, enforcing the idea that a model other than first/third worlds or cores/peripheries is needed to describe global dynamics of migration and movement today. Clearly, Xu Zhen is the empowered term in this equation. And given China's recent actions in Africa (migration policies, economic colonialism, weapons trading, resource exploitation), the gaze that pervades the gallery space seems a bit ominous.
I would like to suggest that China's place in the international semiotic order (especially when it comes to reading and interpreting pieces of art) has shifted almost seismically since I wrote about the Chinatowns project (also a Long March production) two years ago. There may now still be lacking a sense of responsibility towards the object, but it seems that any artist wishing to attack the gaze must also interpret their own situatedness.