MadeIn Company talks to Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

MadeIn Company is a collective founded by conceptual artist Xu Zhen in 2009. Named after the phrase “made in China” and based in Shanghai, it has exhibited globally; including the recent “Art of Change” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London. Currently it is developing a long-term research project, “Movementism”, which focuses on cultural movements and trends (including protest and demonstration) and will premiere in Beijing in spring. MadeIn talks to Tank about this new work and its global expansion plans.

Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie How did MadeIn Company start?
MadeIn Company Before MadeIn Company was established, Xu Zhen was an independent artist; he also used to be the art director of an arts centre and regularly co-curated exhibitions with other artists. He decided to create MadeIn to gather all these roles into one entity, to have more people involved working together with him. The notion of a company was also meant to challenge standards in the contemporary art-creating model, the relationship between collectors, curators and galleries, as well as questions concerning authorship-related issues.

SG-A Have the same group of people been involved since the beginning?
MIC There is a main core of people working for MadeIn that remains the same, while other employees change. Some of them are students, interns or part-time workers. 

SG-A What about the fact that I am addressing the company MadeIn for this interview rather than any individual artist. How does this inform the way you practice?
MIC We always insist on the fact that we are a company. Created works, activities, are all signed under the name of MadeIn. However, some of the artists working with us have their own careers outside of the company too.

SG-A So does the company also employ people who aren’t artists?
MIC Yes. Many of the employees aren’t artists. There is a person in charge of administration, project managers, researchers, technicians, and so on. Aside from creating works, the company also curates exhibitions and supports projects which require a lot of coordination.

SG-A How clearly defined are your roles within the company and how do you approach each new project? Is it always self-initiated or do you ever accept a brief from galleries or institutions in the same way a creative agency working in advertising might?
MIC Each employee has a defined role, but most of us are versatile. Most of our projects are self initiated. Institutions, galleries, invite us to participate or do a project, then we provide them with a proposal. We don’t really provide services in the way an advertising company would.

SG-A I don’t mean to imply that you might do the work of an ad agency. I’m interested in your methodology. Does the responsibility still ultimately lie with Xu Zhen? 
MICXu Zhen will give a general direction and young artists who are hired by the company as salaried employees will propose ideas for the brief. They are also free to submit their own ideas. Xu Zhen will take the last decision. But before that, there a lot of meetings and discussions within the company in which most people participate.

SG-A Where did the idea for “Movementism” come from?
MIC The idea came at first in response to a series of works we have been working on. One is True Image, which consists of photographs of sculptures, installations or performances. All the works have actually been created and realised but they are destroyed after being photographed. Only their “image”, or “representation” remains. The topics of these works are inspired by quotes from politicians and philosophers. The first time we presented this series of works it was in an exhibition Don’t Hang Your Faith on the Wall at Long March Space in Beijing. Last year, we participated in a billboard exhibition in Birmingham (EC Arts 48 Sheet), where these photographs were presented together with their titles, like a slogan. We also started on a series of works called “Revolution Castings” last year which was presented in the Art of Change show at the Hayward. They consisted of concrete castings of stones that have been thrown in demonstrations. At the Hayward, people were invited to bring their own stones so that they could be cast on site. Then we started another work called Movement which is a series of stencil-like canvas. These are used to spray lines in public spaces. The lines come from the itineraries of riots and demonstrations found online. All of these series led to “Movementism” and most of the works mentioned will be included within it. The exhibition at Long March is the first stage leading to a larger scale artwork, but it will also constitute a new turn in the general direction of the company. We cannot tell you too much now.

SG-A Would it be correct to characterise “Movementism” as a kind of curatorial concept? A way to pull together different strands of work that you have been developing over a period of time?
MIC “Movementism” is indeed more a work itself. It is a whole concept. It was in MadeIn artists’ mind for a while already. Works are presented within this self-reflective line that brings a new perspective or language to their understanding. It indeed questions notions of representation, observation and exhibition.

SG-A National identity, specifically within the art world, plays a prominent role in MadeIn Company’s work. I’m thinking of some of the sculptural pieces in the style of African aboriginal art and even the fact that defining yourself as a company suggests a form of transnationalism. Is this a reaction to being defined as “Chinese artists”?
MIC Cultural identity plays an important role in our works, which often questions exoticism and addresses issues of cultural misunderstandings. Our very first exhibitions, Seeing One’s Own Eyes (ShanghArt gallery, Shanghai; SMAK, Gent; Ikon gallery, Birmingham) and Lonely Miracle (James Cohan Gallery, New York) were both centred around Middle East contemporary art but made in China. To sum up, as a lot of people can have clichés about Chinese contemporary art – reducing it to some pop Mao Zedong portraits or pandas – the idea was to try to understand this way of thinking and make an exhibition based on stereotypes about another culture. Viewers were confused and couldn’t tell whether it was a group or solo show, they didn’t know whether to “classify” it as Chinese or Middle Eastern. The black figures from the “Play” series are also about how our mind can be formatted. They might at first remind you of colonial history, and other sensitive topics, but they are actually hung using kinbaku techniques, which is a Japanese erotic bondage game. The work presents various African and Asian characteristics, as these correspond to archetypes of exoticism, but their specific identity or origins remain ambiguous and are not actually the central point of the work.

SG-A I had similar feelings that you described when I first saw one of your exhibitions. I remember having the sense that it felt like a group show even though I knew it was all work by a single entity called MadeIn. Some of the visual puns meant it felt like a joke at my own expense, or at the expense of the viewer in general and the art scene more broadly. It annoyed me to be honest. But then as I read some of the accompanying text, I understood there to be a greater seriousness than I first perceived in the hands of the makers. Do you deliberately set out to annoy the viewer? If so, why?
MIC The works are often ironic and meant to create a reaction. However, more than actually manipulating the viewer, it points out how our mind is usually manipulated or, as mentioned earlier, “formatted”. There are no tricks, it is only about how and what we want to see.

SG-A Returning to national identity, is location important to you? Why are you based in Shanghai, and not Beijing, or even London, New York or Berlin?
MIC Xu Zhen is from Shanghai and has contributed strongly to the art scene here for a long time so it was natural to open MadeIn here. But we are about to expand and open a branch in Beijing and in the future we plan to open a branch somewhere else in the West.

SG-A Do you have a plan for how the different branches of MadeIn will operate? Will they work collaboratively or on separate projects?
MIC All of these are questions that we are working on at the moment. Branches should definitely collaborate and not be isolated. However, it is still too early to have a definite answer.

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  • Madein Company Talks to Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie