From peaks to peaks – the East and the West are testing each otherIs taking the lives of animals or displaying dead animals in art a guaranteed shortcut to media attention, approval or disapproval? In the swing of the Asia boom Damien Hirst (b.1965) and the Finnish artist Teemu Mäki (b.1967) have met with a follower: the Chinese artist Xu Zhen (b.1977).
Hirst, however, has not distinguished himself as a documentarist of killing actions but rather as a displayer of preserved animal bodies. He is almost as good a pickler as my great aunt Aino in the countryside of south-western Finland (I hear that the famous tiger shark has had to fight for its immortality in formaldehyde).
Both Mäki and Xu Zhen have in turn killed a cat and documented the act on video, for which they have received considerable publicity in support or critical of their actions. All three artists share a common commitment to produce works, which continue to challenge the boundaries of art and the media.
In May 2005 Xu Zhen took an expedition to the peak of Mount Everest, located on the border of Tibet and China. The British were the first to reach the peak in 1856 and according to official information the height of the mountain is still 8848 metres.
Xu Zhen teased the former western empire by claiming that the mountain is in fact 186 centimetres lower (this is said to be the same as his own height). The scientists have come to a similar conclusion: according to them the mountain has become lower due to the moving of tectonic plates and global warming.
China’s opening towards the West is today mirrored by the u-turn in their art exhibition policy – shows are no longer closed because of Xu Zhen’s provocative works, for example. The western art world seems to be craving for Asian and especially Chinese art.
Xu Zhen has been coined as the international figurehead of the YCA generation (Young Chinese Artists) in the same way Damien Hirst has been the number one star of the YBA (Young British Artists) since the end of the 1980’s.
The first YBA show in Beijing opened in the early spring of 2007. At the same time The Real Thing, an extensive exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, opened in Tate Liverpool. The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki was simultaneously showing Wind from the East, an exhibition comprising works by eight artists from China, Thailand and Indonesia.
The China boom has also been regarded as containing negative traits. The Beijing-based critic and curator Pi Li identifies the emergence of “kind of official, harmless elements” as Chinese art has turned from underground to mainstream. According to Pi Li the success leaves the artists in danger of losing their identity.
If mountain climbing becomes an institutionalized art form and contemporary art turns into a threat to Chinese cats, one can conclude that the direction is not towards the peak. But contrary to seeking attention through some kind of masculine heroism, examples of subtle rendering of travelling and death can be found in Asian art – just take a look at the work by the Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, who is also one of the participants of the Kiasma exhibition.
The Wind from the East show had many impressive pieces, which dealt with cultural and multicultural identities. The attitude needed for producing this kind of work was laconically and convincingly formulated by the Chinese-born Chen Zhen in the following way: “You have me in you and I have you in me”.