Displaying a long-term commitment to his practice, most visible for the last six years in the ongoing Keywords Project, Guangzhou-based Xu Tan chooses to address both the detail as well as the ‘bigger picture’ of cultural and social change through his works. His current solo show in Guangzhou’s Vitamin Creative Space shifts the subject matter from language – as demonstrated by Keywords – to issues of the conceptual and legal construction of the social landscape.
The earliest work on display is Uniform Velocity, Variant Velocity No. 1 (1992), featuring a room bathed in black light, festooned with hanging fluorescent tubing with bottles attached, like IV drips, or twisted into the shapes of animals. Three large paintings lean against the walls, their imagery in part referencing the city of Sarajevo within a schematic map of the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina (of which it is the capital). When Xu painted this, Sarajevo was at the centre of the Bosnian War, which was violently dividing the country along ethnic grounds, and this subject suggests an origin for Xu’s concerns with the nature of territory as a social construction.
In the adjacent room, the installation Problem-I (1995–6), presents slide projections of images, quotes from historical writers and statements by the artist. With these Xu highlights paradoxes in the way territory is accorded to certain groups. One point he makes is that even if ownership of land is taken by illegal means under international law, this can become legal if the occupier maintains its occupation to the point where it becomes the commonly accepted presence. Xu characterises this paradox as the coexistence of both reason and irrationality in the fabric of the state, a coexistence that he also sees in his art practice.
The original installation of Problem-I was part of the group show Possibility – Big Tailed Elephant held in 1996 in Guangzhou. This saw workers employed by Xu building a recreation of a Mayan pyramid from local soil, which was then progressively dismantled during the exhibition. This pyramid appears again in Questions – Land, Soil (2013), a new work developed after a three-month period of research in the local area. This time it is on a much smaller scale, housed inside a plastic box alongside a set of test tubes holding soil samples. An environment of scientific research is developed in this piece, with a haphazard presentation that suggests the artist/researcher has just stepped away from the table on which he was working.
Next to these tables, 2013–2113 (2013) comprises a makeshift bamboo structure, supporting a digital projector that beams an image of a patch of scrubby grassland onto the floor beneath. The image is taken from a 2 x 2m area that Xu has conceptually and legally designated as his property. In among the legal papers that are displayed nearby, we learn that he has stipulated this piece of land should remain fallow for a period of 100 years. Every five years, Xu (and subsequently his descendants) will inspect the area and conduct experiments to record any changes.
In the Keywords Project, Xu’s use of video interviews and didactic presentations attempted to locate the elements of language that hold significance for contemporary society. In a similar way the current show brings together works from other parts of the artist’s practice that reveal visible and long-term social effects on the social landscape. This exhibition successfully highlights linkages stretching back to the artist’s first productions from the early 1990s, when he was associated with the influential Big Tail Elephant group in Guangdong Province, and reinforces an understanding of his work as rooted in long-durational practices.
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.