The art historian Thierry de Duve once stated that art was a proper name. The radical thinker Jacques Rancière thinks that history, too, is a proper name. In my view, “Pop” is equally a proper name. The reason is that a proper name can be without an inherent signification; they are permitted to refrain from describing or explicating in detail the qualities of the object in question. It suffices merely to establish a certain logical relationship with the subject’s characteristics in not too rigorous a manner. Hence, “Pop” here does not specifically refer to Pop Art, which arose in the middle of last century in Britain and America with its own distinctive qualities; here it encompasses all related artistic and cultural practices. The later “Post Pop” and “Neo-Pop” still belong to the category of Pop irrespective of the degree of formal differences from 1960s Pop. If Pop within art history is only a certain style of art, then Pop in the sense of a proper name is more akin to a cultural form with a certain degree of popularity.
The already existing concept of Pop can clearly no longer encompass and explain many related artistic practices today. To view it as a proper name, then, reveals that perhaps Pop is not so important today, or else it is merely a title or a descriptive jargon. Nevertheless, I still believe that Pop is an unavoidable angle from which to judge and understand Xu Zhen’s recent works, particularly his “Xu Zhen Solo Exhibition” recently held at the Long Museum in Shanghai.
The emergence of Pop Art in Britain and America was intimately connected to the permeation then of popular culture, such as television, advertising, among others. If from a media perspective photography and cinema had still not shaken off that system of art in formation since the Renaissance, then this was not the case with television. Its images were no longer concretely existing material substances but a transmission of symbols. This does not merely upturn the system of communications but has also transformed the manner of perceiving time and space. [Note 1] Corresponding to this is how money, capital, and consumption have become core elements within this discursive structure. The masses make up the viewers of television. To cater to the masses, the support of capital is first needed. From this, money has barged into [the realm of] images, while images likewise entered the realm of collective suasion, causing the living space of the masses to become incorporated within an economic domain. [note 2]. Just as Tom Wolfe noted, the avant-garde, money, prestige, fashion, and sex heckle and revolve blindly around Pop Art. [note 3]. The brilliant part about Warhol was that he keenly caught on to these fundamental transformations in the transmission of images, the mechanisms of capital, as well as the lifestyle thus brought about, and then transmuted these into a systematic, organized artistic practice.
Yet to speak of such a systemic organization, even before Warhol, Duchamp already possessed an institutional practice. And if seen from the perspective of commerce and capital, as early as the seventeenth century Rembrandt stopped relying on the traditional systems of patronage and thoroughly prodded his own art onto the free market. Just as keenly as Warhol, Rembrandt was perhaps the first artist to have gotten a whiff of free trade and the market economy [note 4]. Today, a systematic engagement of Pop is not mysterious anymore. With the termination of the Cold War and the global invasion by Capitalism, Pop Art as a cultural form has clearly shown its colors and permeated the whole world. Though 1960s suspicions and critiques towards Pop have persisted to this day—and even elevated to “post-colonialism”, “critique of modernity”, “anti-Eurocentrism” as well as geopolitics, occupying the mainstream in the global discourse of contemporary art—still, these cannot buck the tendency for Capitalism to power on with its relentless expansion. This point had already been discovered by the critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh: “all radical gestures within the framework of an institutionalized and industrialized high art production would inevitably and ultimately generate marketable artistic objects” and that “Warhol was so deeply implicated in the pictorial medium, the relative autonomy of aesthetic conventions, and the relative stability of artistic categories inherent in that medium because he gradually had learned to accept the relative conventionality of his audience and of the institutional control and valorization of that medium.” [note 5]. This situation has lasted to the present day.
Without discussing whether Xu Zhen understands this history, he nevertheless does truly know what capital signifies for the system of art today. Though a resistance to capital and to the institutionalization of art still gain a so-called “purely academic” upper hand, what is true is that all “reactions” in the end cannot help but depend on capital and systems of art targeted. For Xu Zhen, such radical stances are nothing but hypocritical pandering and compromises in disguise. Hence, rather than passively becoming the products of consumption within Capitalism, submitting to a pointless resistance and inward loss, it is better to actively accept the legitimacy of the system and from then on becoming the producer of new relations of production and of systems of cultural authority.
As early as the founding of MadeIn Company in 2009, Xu Zhen has already been made into “Pop”. Quite a few observers then thought this was just a commercial ruse; even if Xu Zhen tirelessly explained that this was a method in art, it was still considered a strategy within the operation of capital. Moreover, few had previously connected him with Pop as a certain gap still remained between the forms of most of his works and classic Pop Art. In other words, people’s understanding of Pop generally stayed on the level of the forms of the works, neglecting the systemic and institutional nature of Pop practices as well as the shifts by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. This is also a fundamental difference between Xu Zhen and the “Political Pop” of the 1990s.
Before launching the “Xu Zhen” brand in 2013, MadeIn Company still seemed to lean towards experimentation in the modes or languages of art. The launch of the “brand”, however, reiterated how the works were circulated into the market as undisguised commercial products, reinforcing MadeIn as a commercial artistic organization. You could say here that this is about packaging intellectual content through commercial means, yet in actual fact for Xu Zhen, the commercial and the intellectual are not opposed—what is most commercial is the most intellectual. You could also say that once commercialized, this has become less radical. The question is, when all so-called anti-commercial radical practices have also become marketable objects, what could be more radical than accepting the legitimacy of commerce and commercial activities? Here, not just commerce but also the content of what is intellectual is no longer the same as that defined set of the 60s. To argue that anything against commerce and against the institutionalization of art is intellectual—well, in fact this deeply rooted but outmoded idea had long collapsed—while the standards concerning the orientation of the commercial and the intellectual have long since become more nimble and plural. One must also mention how within our existing understanding, there has never been the idea to repudiate capital; art itself has never been able to jettison the support of capital. Only with Xu Zhen, commerce is not merely an element independent of art; it is the art itself. Herein lies the difference between MadeIn Company and ordinary commercial galleries. Thus, after setting up MadeIn Company, the development of the “Pi Mo” store—including creating the painting series “TWENTY”—resulted not only from simple commerce and from the demands of amplifying social influence; they themselves are attempts in systemic practices.
If the large-scale solo exhibition “Xu Zhen: Produced by MadeIn Company” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in early 2014 was said to have ended up being a cultural stance and manifesto [note 6], then in the recent “Xu Zhen Solo Exhibition” held at the Long Museum, his idea has fully been enacted in concrete action.
From the design of the posters, advertising slogans, and the exhibition title to the discursive strategies in the media, Xu Zhen disregarded all kinds of suspicions and ridicule and utterly forged himself into a “vulgar” image. The poster designed in such a style purposely sought to distance itself away from exhibition posters of contemporary art, while advertising slogans certainly cannot appear within contemporary art exhibitions. Additionally, according to the artist, the exhibition title was about directly employing the most common exhibition titles from the world of calligraphy within the (official) system. Yet the highlights of the exhibition still lie with the works themselves and the manner in which they are presented.
All the works in the exhibition continued with Xu Zhen’s habitual pith, intelligence, and humor. Whether in the Eternity series or with European Thousand-Hand Classical Sculpture, the point of departure or the content conveyed is in fact an unusual product born of the forcible splice of symbols from Chinese and Western cultures. Just think, is such “headless” welding and “inexplicable” copying not the reality of today? Is what we call the globalization of culture not exactly what Isaiah Berlin called the incommensurability between two cultures/systems, glossed over by such a stupendous spectacle? Clearly, up to the present day, China still does not understand the West, nor the West China. There is no deep thought or motive here, just a living reality. The spectacle is capital. The expansion of the spectacle is the truth of capital. We do not need to enquire into the enigmas of capital, only to accept this reality of capital. Aside from works like Eternity, series like Supermarket, Never Falls, and “Arrogance”Artworks Set all nakedly point to this fact. It goes without saying that commerce and capital is a form of contemporary culture today. And the reason these are called “contemporary” is because in the eyes of many, commerce and capital cannot be equal or even lower than so-called culture. Deep inside, the stale idea of “scholars, peasants, artisans, and merchants” (the traditional hierarchy of classes in China) is still revered—or perhaps one should say that we dare not directly face or neglect this cultural reality. Yet Xu Zhen does not accept this reality; by presenting all editions of the works together, he exposes this in front of the world, to the maximal degree. This, too, is the greatest highlight of this exhibition.
Each individual work itself is already spectacular and Pop enough. When all editions of the works are presented side by side in an exhibition, it is undoubtedly a brave application of stupendous spectacularization and utter “Pop-ification”. Here, whether it is commerce or not needs no debate; it is already an absolute reality. As Xu Zhen once said: “What is exhibited are all commercial products; only when they can be sold are they art.” [note 7] We can view the exhibition as a machine for capital; it not only concerns consumption but also deals with production—because the large infusion of capital in creating the works, bringing the production line into play, is itself a restructuring and an upgrade in the relations of production in art. What we cannot circumvent, however, is the excitement, self-confidence, and willpower this super-spectacle and aesthetics imparts upon us. Today, I believe there is nothing more exciting, more contemporary, more detestable, and also more provoking of ambivalence than reality. According to how Leo Steinberg sees things, Pop is about the cultural consumer displaying his guts, his daring, his fighting spirit. After all, nothing demands greater daring and courage than in inviting us “to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish”. Therefore, doubts and criticisms there may be, but Xu Zhen has always firmly believed that the true avant-garde has always occurred “within the zone of ambiguity that still has no fixed values”—or even more radically, a bit like what Clement Greenberg said, that “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” [note 8] Thus Xu Zhen does not mind such doubts; in a certain way, he is challenging the pre-existing set of knowledge and experience which have always dominated us. All criticisms are, on the contrary, just proof of the efficacy of his action. He furthermore does not believe that their practice reflects or manifests anything; art itself is a social reality. So what Xu Zhen wants to do is to hurl himself into this tumultuous reality.
Though implemented in the name of Pop, the cultural environment faced by Xu Zhen is completely different from Warhol’s 1960s. Warhol was limited to America, Europe and the entire Western world; additionally, all the understanding and critiques about Pop were then grounded within the system of art. But with Xu Zhen, not only has globalization and the Internet completely dissolved all possibilities of critiquing the system, he faces an even greater cultural system and challenge, one that concerns a certain struggle over “cultural power”. This is therefore not a narrow struggle between peers but rather a contest between different systems and even between different cultures. What is complicated is that he is doubly besieged: one is a gaudy culture that still inhabits the mainstream within China, represented by the system of calligraphy and traditional painting; the other is the “violent invasion” and capture of resources by the Western art system. This naturally pulls him away from Koons and Hirst. Then, precisely under such an environment, any advocacy against the system of art or against Eurocentrism becomes ineffective; the only way is to buttress oneself by means of capital and commerce. This, too, is why Xu Zhen dares to risk universal condemnation, the reason why he places himself in the eye of the storm without a moment’s hesitation.
Pop is indubitably Xu Zhen’s most fitting choice. He has grasped that reality is the greatest force. This also means that Xu Zhen’s Pop is not merely a cultural form but also a political philosophy. I will here hazard to borrow from the political philosopher Leo Strauss to explain this Pop practice.
Strauss believes that since Plato and Xenophon, classical political philosophers knew of a distinctive method of writing, conveying two different teachings within the same text: one is a “socially useful teaching”, or “exoteric teaching”; the other is a “true teaching” with elements of the politically taboo, unsuited to be uttered directly, or “esoteric teaching”. “Exoteric teachings” can be easily understood by anyone, while “esoteric teachings” can only be understood by the few who are well trained and who take the pains to read and ponder the texts carefully [note 9]. Certainly, Xu Zhen’s Pop is no “teaching”. On the one hand, its surface intent is to manifest an “exoteric” cultural reality, while on the other, it resorts to an “esoteric” contest for “cultural power”. Unlike in Strauss where the two display a tense relationship, here, the two do not constitute a contradiction though they are separate. Hence, Xu Zhen does not count on the masses to acknowledge the contemporary due to its exoteric qualities; the ability to truly understand this cultural theory and “bill” of action in the end still lies with the extreme minority who possesses the necessary training and understands its exoteric meaning—this itself is its esoteric side. And precisely in this sense, the power of Xu Zhen’s Pop and its significance in art history become truly obvious. By this point, you must also have realized that compared to the Pop of Warhol (and Koons and Hirst), this is a fundamentally different Pop Art.
1. Régis Debray, Life and Death of Images. Chinese translation by Huang Xunyu and Huang Jianhua, Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2014, p. 247.
2. Ibid., p. 301.
3. Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word. Chinese translation by Pan Hong, Chongqing: Chongqing University Press, 2014, p. 88.
4. See Svetlana Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market. Chinese translation by Feng Baifan, Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Arts Publishing House, 2014.
5. See Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Chinese translation by He Weihua et al., Nanjing: Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2014.
6. See my article “The Birth of ‘MadeIn Culture’” written for this exhibition, 2013 (unpublished).
7. See my “From Method to Culture: The Systematic Practice of MadeIn”, LEAP, 2014 (Feb).
8. Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word. Op. cit., p. 94.
9. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History. Chinese version translated by Peng Gang, with introduction by Gan Yang, Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2006, p. 62.