Arrive at Xu Zhen’s installation at the main entrance of Art Basel in Hong Kong and spy a sculpture suspended from the ceiling. It takes the form of a gothic cathedral, but don’t let the trickery of one of China’s leading young conceptual artists lure you into the pretense of a church. The structure, made of leather and latex, metal and chains, is held together via a Japanese bondage technique called Kinbaku—or literally, “'the beauty of tight binding.” We couldn’t help but ask the artist to talk us through his palace of forbidden pleasures.
Artsy: What can you tell us about Play 2013? Why did you choose to depict a Gothic cathedral with references to erotic games?
Xu Zhen: For me, there seem to be many links between the church and human erotic games, and I realized many people think the same way. From a certain angle, the stimulation produced by torture has some common points with the process of religion. In short, as this work appears in front of our eyes, we feel that such a church should exist.
Artsy: We understand you used a wide range of materials—leather, latex, chains—and the piece is held together using a Japanese erotic bondage technique. Can you talk a little bit about how you created the work, and elaborate on the materials you used (and why)?
XZ: Our creative team conducted months of research and collected various materials and data on BDSM culture, after which the project was realized. During this process, the team found an emotional release through the catharsis of art.
Artsy: MadeIn Company poses questions about the current role of the contemporary artist. Can you tell us about your company—which you have called a “cultural production company”—and your decision to work in collaboration as opposed to on solo projects, as before?
XZ: In the language of today’s contemporary art, individuals, companies, and groups are creating methods and reasons, expressions, results, all these issues all face the realities of new solutions. MadeIn Company is one way.
Artsy: You are no stranger to daring, conceptual work, like your 2008 installation The Starving of Sudan. Can you talk a little bit about this work?
Its starting point was photojournalist Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving girl in Sudan, with a vulture lurking in the background waiting for his next meal. I restaged the scene in Long March Space’s gallery almost identically to the photo using earth, brushwood, a lifelike mechanical vulture, and a real African baby. The scene was set so that audiences would approach from exactly the same angle as Kevin Carter when he took his shot. As visitors entered the exhibition hall, they unwittingly took Kevin Carter’s place and re-enacted the event with their digital cameras and mobile phones. As the controversy over the original photo brought out different versions of how and why the photo was taken, The Starving of Sudan effectively forced audiences to expose the mechanics of viewing and the moral politics of reproducing a ‘scene’. For many Western viewers, the use of a live baby in the work amounted to exploitation, but most Chinese viewers didn’t respond in this way. The ‘exploited’ black baby pried open subconscious scars borne by the colonial guilt in those Western viewers, even though the baby’s mother was on hand to take care of him at all times.
Artsy: What are working on now?
We’re working on various long-term projects, such as Movement Field that is [currently] in Long March Space in Beijing and that will be part of the exhibition “China China” at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev. We are also producing a “museum,” Physique of Consciousness Museum, that will be shown at the Biennale of Lyon in September.
Be sure to check out Xu Zhen's other work at the fiar as well, on view at Long March Space, Art Basel Hong Kong - Encounters, Booth E1, May 23rd – 26th.
Explore the fair in its entirety: Art Basel in Hong Kong on Artsy.