Magazine article Artforum International

Chu Yun

Magazine article Artforum International

Chu Yun

Article excerpt

CHU YUN'S "SOAP PIECE" became something of an improbable legend in the Chinese art world in 2008. This sculpture, actually titled Who Has Stolen Our Bodies?, consists of used bars of soap, collected from friends and acquaintances, arrayed atop a white plinth. Featured prominently in a number of recent exhibitions, the piece was in fact created in 2002 for an audience of a dozen at a private exhibition in a commercial photo studio in the southern city of Shenzhen, which then lacked the trappings of a contemporary art scene. When making the original piece, Chu saw his soap bars as "anti-monuments," nonobjects that existed only because someone decided to stop using them. Conceived as a pointed rejoinder to the vogue among better-known artists in Beijing and Shanghai for more symbolic or substantive work, this modest assemblage suddenly gained new and unlikely traction six years later in a capital engulfed by the bombast of the Olympics.

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Invitations to major international exhibitions poured in last year for Chu, but for some reason he could not bring himself to work. Having relocated to Beijing during the summer of 2007, he had a studio, a social network, the attention of critics and curators--all the things he had lacked a few years earlier--yet he found himself in a state of chronic unproductiveness. If Chu did not go as far as Gu Dexin, who openly declared that he would not show in Beijing in 2008, his implicit vow of silence could not but be vested with an air of resistance--to the "One World One Dream" of China's Olympic organizers and to the art scene unfolding down the street from the games in the 798 gallery district or finding its fulfillment in the Hong Kong auction houses. With every new rising building and pop propaganda song of that fateful year, underproduction came to seem like a conscious stance against the now and the fast. Like Ai Weiwei's carefully calculated oppositionalism, Chu's resolute refusal seemed as much a mask as a brand; it is also, of course, a strategy.

That strategy might be called elusion, and Chu certainly performs it well--whether eluding environments, categorizations, or expectations. Already as a student, he disappeared from his class in the Chinese painting department at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1997 after a disagreement with a teacher, and ended up two years later in Beijing, where the seminal exhibition "Post-Sense Sensibility" was being organized. Instead of sticking around to participate in that basement show--cum--body-art manifesto, he silently slipped away to Guangzhou and then to Shenzhen. A Beijing rumor had it that he was dead, but actually he had thrown himself into the current of mobile labor and outsourced production that defined the Pearl River Delta at that time. Living in a series of dormitories and working for a string of low-end graphic-design and Internet companies, he "abandoned idealism," as he put it, "and came to understand the most basic realities: a job, a place to live, a few friends." Only after this two-year plunge into the numbingly ordinary life of countless migrants from the interior would he reemerge, having forged the basic tenets of a practice that has since been characterized by slightness, immateriality, and, perhaps most important, a sense of playful curiosity toward his physical and social surroundings.

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This attitude is readily apparent in Light of a Rented Room, 2002, in which Chu pasted teardrops of colorful construction paper throughout a friend's tiny Guangzhou apartment. Similar forms had already appeared in Unspeakable Happiness, 2001, a group of scrappy collages featuring images of generic household products culled from a catalogue given to the artist by a buddy in the import-export business (and sometimes paired with snapshots the friend had taken, often of his girlfriend). In Ads on TV, 2002, Chu pasted logos clipped from magazines onto an old television, later sold to a junk man for fifty yuan. …

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