PRINT March 2009


CHU YUN’S “SOAP PIECE” became something of an improbable legend in the Chinese art world in 2008. This sculpture, actually titled Who Has Stolen Our Bodies?, consists of used bars of soap, collected from friends and acquaintances, arrayed atop a white plinth. Featured prominently in a number of recent exhibitions, the piece was in fact created in 2002 for an audience of a dozen at a private exhibition in a commercial photo studio in the southern city of Shenzhen, which then lacked the trappings of a contemporary art scene. When making the original piece, Chu saw his soap bars as “anti-monuments,” nonobjects that existed only because someone decided to stop using them. Conceived as a pointed rejoinder to the vogue among better-known artists in Beijing and Shanghai for more symbolic or substantive work, this modest assemblage suddenly gained new and unlikely traction six years later in a capital engulfed by the bombast of the Olympics.

Invitations to major international exhibitions poured in last year for Chu, but for some reason he could not bring himself to work. Having relocated to Beijing during the summer of 2007, he had a studio, a social network, the attention of critics and curators—all the things he had lacked a few years earlier—yet he found himself in a state of chronic unproductiveness. If Chu did not go as far as Gu Dexin, who openly declared that he would not show in Beijing in 2008, his implicit vow of silence could not but be vested with an air of resistance—to the “One World One Dream” of China’s Olympic organizers and to the art scene unfolding down the street from the games in the 798 gallery district or finding its fulfillment in the Hong Kong auction houses. With every new rising building and pop propaganda song of that fateful year, underproduction came to seem like a conscious stance against the now and the fast. Like Ai Weiwei’s carefully calculated oppositionalism, Chu’s resolute refusal seemed as much a mask as a brand; it is also, of course, a strategy.

That strategy might be called elusion, and Chu certainly performs it well—whether eluding environments, categorizations, or expectations. Already as a student, he disappeared from his class in the Chinese painting department at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1997 after a disagreement with a teacher, and ended up two years later in Beijing, where the seminal exhibition “Post-Sense Sensibility” was being organized. Instead of sticking around to participate in that basement show–cum–body-art manifesto, he silently slipped away to Guangzhou and then to Shenzhen. A Beijing rumor had it that he was dead, but actually he had thrown himself into the current of mobile labor and outsourced production that defined the Pearl River Delta at that time. Living in a series of dormitories and working for a string of low-end graphic-design and Internet companies, he “abandoned idealism,” as he put it, “and came to understand the most basic realities: a job, a place to live, a few friends.” Only after this two-year plunge into the numbingly ordinary life of countless migrants from the interior would he reemerge, having forged the basic tenets of a practice that has since been characterized by slightness, immateriality, and, perhaps most important, a sense of playful curiosity toward his physical and social surroundings.

This attitude is readily apparent in Light of a Rented Room, 2002, in which Chu pasted teardrops of colorful construction paper throughout a friend’s tiny Guangzhou apartment. Similar forms had already appeared in Unspeakable Happiness, 2001, a group of scrappy collages featuring images of generic household products culled from a catalogue given to the artist by a buddy in the import-export business (and sometimes paired with snapshots the friend had taken, often of his girlfriend). In Ads on TV, 2002, Chu pasted logos clipped from magazines onto an old television, later sold to a junk man for fifty yuan. Not long after, he collected the soap. There was something subversive—in Shenzhen, in the early part of this decade—about making works that were barely works. And there was something in the logic of his appropriations, his borrowing of objects and images from the space just within his social and economic horizon (a space he seemed to intuit and nonchalantly inhabit rather than to postulate or explicitly document), that made these ethereal interventions deeply poignant. They seemed to offer a vaguely illicit glimpse into not just Chu’s own quotidian reality, but also that of millions and millions of workers and peasants and soldiers who might live behind doors identical to the one onto which the artist taped a paper teardrop.

Over the following two years, as infrastructure for art began to develop in the Pearl River Delta, Chu’s productivity increased with it. Vitamin Creative Space opened in Guangzhou in late 2002, and Chu found himself immediately in dialogue with its cofounder the writer Hu Fang. For an exhibition Hu curated the following summer at a new luxury apartment complex on the outskirts of Shenzhen, the artist presented 1607, eight thousand snapshots of his own tiny apartment, glued together into thick stacks so that only the top image was visible. Titled after his apartment number, this extreme sublimation of today’s point-and-shoot mania transforms photography into unmonumental sculpture. The following autumn, Chu was commissioned to present a work for Hou Hanru and Pi Li’s exhibition “The Fifth System: Public Art in the Age of Post-Planning,” a kind of Skulptur Projekte Münster for Shenzhen. For his contribution, Unspeakable Happiness II, 2003, Chu hung strings of brightly colored flags of the sort generally used to mark the opening of a new supermarket or car dealership in different locations around the city, including the museum’s facade. As the work’s title suggests, he was playing on the uncanny power of the blank flags to elicit an affective response from viewers, whether through their banal beauty or through the feigned promise of new avenues of consumption. Empty signifiers, they announce without announcing anything in particular. And then he stopped making work for a year or so.

Chu is best known for his condensed period of output during 2005 and 2006, his last productive phase to date. Love, 2005, perhaps his most ambitious piece yet (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much), responded to the same Siemens Arts Program commission that would bring us Cao Fei’s video Whose Utopia, 2006–2007 (seen in the last Carnegie International). For his turn, Chu simply cloned the landscape architecture of one of Siemens’s factories in Huizhou, insisting that the management plant two trees in each location that originally called for one. The trees are ringed by concrete planters and seem to crawl across all areas of the factory complex, from the hangarlike structures housing assembly lines and storage depots to the executive offices and worker dormitories. The piece was intended more as a subversion of corporate notions of efficiency than as an ode to romance, but the absurdity of all these anthropomorphic “couples” apparently taking over the industrial campus is funny and a bit jarring. Plus, framing the trees as happy lovers was the only way to get the project past factory management. For a frenzied Frieze Art Fair in 2006, Chu found a local model to sleep in the Vitamin gallery booth; every morning she took a sleeping pill and remained “on view” until she woke up. And in Constellation, 2006, he loosely arranged an assortment of used electronics (a watercooler, a printer, a television, among others) in a darkened room, so that their colored indicator lights formed a flashing cityscape or starry sky. The installation effectively restages the experience of Chu’s former cramped apartment in Shenzhen and alludes to many of our own lives, cluttered as they are with every conceivable gadget. Despite its offhand beauty, Constellation is vaguely dystopian. There is something eerie, even menacing, about the sheer number of these glowing, strangely animate devices; many of the flashing lights are the result of some error, some task undone—a paperless printer, an unread SMS.

In this latest spurt of activity, Chu also created several works that engage more directly, albeit still subtly, with larger political and social dynamics that happen to be Chinese. His Tape-recording 1984, 2006, is a recording of a school report he penned at age seven, a high-pitched paean to a hero of China’s invasion of Vietnam, written with orthodox Young Pioneer rhetorical flair. This document interests Chu not as farce, parody, or ironic Orwellian reference, but rather as a reminder of an era, an ideology, even a physiological state (that prepubescent voice) that are all now irrevocably gone. Career I, 2004–2006, comprises twenty-seven images culled from the collection of a low-ranking government official who hailed from Chu’s hometown in Jiangxi Province and was a friend of the artist’s father. The official, later stationed in Shenzhen, wished to hire Chu, whom he knew to be a graphic designer, to produce an album of his professional highlights. Chu instead had the images rephotographed exactly. To an outsider, these photographs—of opening ceremonies, tracts of land ready for redevelopment, endless banquets, and shopping trips for local delicacies—convey a lot of culturally specific information. Often taken at face value, they are misread as the artist’s own pictures and thus slip into the vast stream of “Chinese contemporary art” that explores explicitly local subject matter. But here the “subject matter” is not so much the information within the images as the generic aesthetic sensibility of the functionary who made them. By turning responsibility for content entirely over to a petty bureaucrat (while clinging to authorship only in the nominal sense of calling the work a work), Chu makes a self-deprecating admission of his own marginal position in a society governed by men like the one whose pictures these are.

Born in 1977, Chu belongs to a generation of Chinese artists significantly more conversant with Western art history and theory than their predecessors who came of age in the 1980s or ’90s. Sometimes this makes for awkward convergences—the uncanny resemblance borne by Strike!, 2006, to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Death by Gun), 1990, for example. Both works appropriate mug shots, Chu’s of wanted criminals from a local newspaper, Gonzalez-Torres’s of murder victims from Time. Both employ inexpensive photolithography and a “giveaway” format, encouraging viewers to take the work home. Chu explains his piece with recourse to Foucauldian ideas about political agency (who gets to decide who is good and who is bad? The party, of course) and to the same sort of “relational” strategies that the Western generation just after Gonzalez-Torres would popularize. To call this or any of Chu’s sometimes-familiar formats derivative would be to miss the point, since the slippages into and out of common modes, the fleeting moments of both clarity and doubt, are precisely what make his art so persistently intriguing. Chu’s work signals a new moment in the ongoing translation game between Chinese artists and Western traditions: subtler, of course, than the “big-face paintings” of the cloying Gerhard Richter clones of the ’90s, but also savvier than the experiments of the now-lionized Dadaists and Beuysians of the ’80s. If Chu’s detached amusement toward both Chinese nationalism and Western Conceptualism found itself frustrated at a time of grandiosity, perhaps it will flourish in a Beijing newly chastened, like so much of the world, in these uncertain times.

Philip Tinari is a contributing editor of Artforum.