The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, April 22, 2012

He Xiangyu and the Cola Project: desire, consumption and the 'real thing'

He Xiangyu beside his work Skeleton (2010) Courtesy of Gallery 4A, Pearl Lam Gallery, Shanghai Photography: Garry Trinh
What artwork took 60,000 bottles of coca cola (approximately 135,000 litres) to produce?
He Xiangyu's 'Cola Project' is currently showing at Gallery 4A in Sydney and it reveals a young (25 years old) Chinese artist who has developed an intriguing and somewhat controversial practice. He Xiangyu employed factory workers to boil up all this cola to become a sludgy mass which then crystallises into a coal-like substance which is piled on the floor of the gallery. (Coal/Cola - the basis of life in modern times?) There are almost 2 tonnes of this material in existence, although not all of it is here in the tiny space of the Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Chinatown. Upstairs in the gallery are the other parts of this ambitious installation - a jade skeleton based on X-rays of the artist's own, with its pelvis and femur boiled in cola; photographic documentation of the workers involved in the production of the material; and museum vitrines containing the workers' uniforms, goggles and gloves, covered in a black viscous tar-like substance. There are also paintings based on Song Dynasty masterworks, created with ink mixed with coca cola - literally embedding the product of global capitalism and marketing into the traditions of imperial China.

The artist, who also made a scarily life like sculpture of Ai Weiwei lying apparently dead face down on the floor for a show early last year (which prompted many calls to police from bystanders who thought there was a dead body lying in the gallery in Bad Ems, Germany) says somewhat disingenuously that he just likes to drink cola. Connections with Wang Guangyi's political pop paintings, or Ai Weiwei and his coca cola logo painted over ancient Chinese urns of the 1990s are inevitable, however the meanings of the works are very different. He Xiangyu's work is less about a clash of cultures and more about the integration of Chinese tradition and culture (the jade, the ink paintings) with the products of western consumerist desire in this new China. An intersection of discourses, and a body of work which reflects on the global experience of consumption and asks us to think about its implications.

I have written about this work for the online journal daily as a form of reverse alchemy. It becomes more intriguing and thought provoking the more one thinks about its many possible interpretations and layers of meaning. I'm not sure I want to be drinking cola anytime soon, however.

He Xiangyu, Cola Project Installation View in Gallery 4A Sydney, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and White Space Beijing