Frozen in time: live sculptures by Chinese artist Xu Zhen
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Frozen in time: live sculptures by Chinese artist Xu Zhen

Xu Zhen’s performance piece In Just a Blink of an Eye showed human beings as sculptures, frozen mid-action, and restricted from any movement other than blinking.

by Georgina Maddox Sep 24, 2019

A person floats mysteriously in mid-air, frozen in time and space, as if defying the constraints of physics and gravity. The work In Just a Blink of an Eye, engages with the notions of the body as material and the materiality of the body, testing the limits of physical and cognitive possibilities as we try to comprehend what we see. It has been created by 42-year-old Chinese artist Xu Zhen, one of the young contemporary artists from Shanghai who is pushing the envelope for Chinese art in the realms of performance, new media and immersive art.

Currently, he is in the eye of a controversy for his performative piece at Art Basel 2019, titled Nirvana, that employs the Tibetan mandala tradition to create gambling tables. The work mirrors post-Mao China’s journey into consumerism. With clashing cultural symbols, he has touched upon the various power struggles of human history.

Performers suspended mid-air for Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye | In Just Blink of an Eye | Xu Zhen | STIRworld
Performers suspended mid-air for Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye Image Credit: Myles Pettengill

Known for his ‘living sculptures’, Zhen is sailing high on his wave of notoriety, as the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has acquired the performance piece In Just a Blink of an Eye as part of their permanent collection. The work was on view at MOCA’s Grand Avenue location till September 1, 2019. The exhibition was organised by Amanda Hunt, Director of Education and Senior Curator of Programs, with the assistance of Alice Teng. Prior to this acquisition, MOCA had only one performance piece in its collection by Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (Allora & Calzadilla), titled Temperament and the Wolf (2014/19).

Performers frozen like sculptures as part of Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye | In Just Blink of an Eye | Xu Zhen | STIRworld
Performers frozen like sculptures as part of Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye Image Credit: Myles Pettengill

A prolific and experimental artist, Zhen’s conceptually-driven practice encompasses a vast range of media and often employs, “humour, irony, and sophisticated trickery.” As the audience waits for movement, for the performer to stand up, or for them to continue to follow the rules of gravity, they instead experience time and stillness as moments extend and are stretched out on through these living sculptures. Zhen explores fragility and balance, literally and metaphorically, spatially and temporally. 

In previous iterations of the work, Zhen employed members of marginalised communities, such as migrant workers, to undertake the performance. In these instances, the literal suspension became a metaphor for liminal civil status.

Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye, a performance art piece | In Just Blink of an Eye | Xu Zhen | STIRworld
Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye, a performance art piece Image Credit: Myles Pettengill

Zhen’s other work encompasses a variety of sculptural works and performance pieces that meditate and pun upon the great works of art. His Eternity (2014) is a facsimile of the Greek sculpture Poseidon (230 x 220 x 70 cm, bronze) but with the addition of bronze pigeons on each arm of the great warrior, adding a tragic-comic feel to the work. It was on view at the Beaufort Triennial De Haan, in 2018. His sculpture Eternity-Buddha in Nirvana (2016-017) is another take on the juxtaposition of the Orient and the Occident, where he places facsimile of iconic Greco-Roman sculptures like the Dying Gaul, Farnese Hercules, the Satyr, Crouching Aphrodite, Lying Narcissus, and the Bacchante, among others. The works are created from mineral-based composite material, mineral pigments and metal. It is a whopping 550 x 1800 x 360 cm in size and was specially commissioned for the NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

We cannot wait to see what the artist comes up with next!

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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