Magazine article The New Yorker

Bright and Shiny

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bright and Shiny

Article excerpt

Bright and Shiny

The Chinese artist Xu Tan inspected the freshly unpacked pieces of his art work--scrupulously labelled and cordoned off with yellow barrier tape--and, hands on hips, exclaimed, "Well, this sort of looks like a crime scene, doesn't it?" Xu, who is sixty, wore a "Palm Springs Bridge Winner of the Year" T-shirt (the real winner was his brother-in-law, who lives in Orange County) and clunky brown shoes. He'd arrived in New York two days earlier, from Shenzhen, to take part in the exhibition "Art and China After 1989: Theatre of the World," on view at the Guggenheim until January.

Nearly a hundred and fifty works were being set up throughout the museum. Xu was contributing an installation called "Made in China," which he'd first shown two decades earlier: a recreation of an apartment belonging to upwardly striving, middle-class city dwellers during the boom years of the late nineties. "I lived in Guangzhou then," Xu said. "The Pearl River Delta was really starting to make a name for itself as the world's low-tech factory."

"Made in China" is Xu's attempt to document how China's budding consumerist revolution transformed the country's domestic sphere. The apartment's furniture--sofa, bathtub, chairs, desk, bed--had been purchased locally and delivered the day before from a New York warehouse. "I still remember when sofas"--the Chinese word, sha-fa, derives from the English--"entered China, and what a luxury commodity it was." He pointed to the sofa and chuckled. "Anyone who could afford one put it front and center in their living room, just to show that they had one."

On the floor lay an array of plastic dollar-store knick-knacks, symbolizing the manufactured goods fuelling China's newfound wealth. There was a Batman figurine, a Rubik's Cube, slippers, a pink hairbrush, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, a plastic rhinoceros, a toy ambulance, and a Japanese manga-themed water gun. A five-hundred-piece "Mona Lisa" jigsaw puzzle would be left out for visitors to play with. "Can you guess why I named the piece 'Made in China'?" Xu said.

The knickknacks dated to the installation's inaugural showing, in 1998, but Xu had stopped by a Chinatown grocery that morning to pick up bottled condiments (soy sauce, oyster sauce), which he added to the mix. "A dash of local flavor," he said. "It's a weird thing that China started mass-producing cheap frivolities for the world--clothes, toys--when so recently we were too poor to even adequately care for our bodies. …

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