The project runs in tandem with Zhongguo 2185, an exhibition of ten artists from China.
Xu Zhen (b. 1977) is known for his wry and provocative appropriations of the tropes of advertising, distribution, and consumerism. This project, which has previously been presented in Shanghai, Singapore, New York and Miami, takes the form of a functioning supermarket. Visitors to the store, located in the ground-floor ‘Shop’ space at Sadie Coles HQ, are invited to buy from continually-restocked rows of packaged goods from China – all of them completely authentic, and all completely empty.
Playing out the artist’s interest in capitalist products and processes, XUZHEN Supermarket occupies an unlikely space between installation art and commercial food production. Inviting viewers to invest in empty shells – containers bereft of substance or use value – the venture offers a critique of the often-destructive nature of global capitalism – its relentless cycles of supply and demand, brute logistics and mass consumption, and the aesthetic guises it assumes through branding and packaging. There is also a satirical metaphor, in the hollow vessels, for the international art market and its arbitrary ascriptions of value.
Initiated in 2007, the project embodies many of the characteristics that artist Richard Hamilton identified as defining Pop Art: popular (designed for a mass audience), transient (short-term), expendable (easily forgotten) and low-cost (mass-produced). The stacked, identical commodities of Xu’s supermarket invite numerous parallels with Pop Art’s mergers of art and life, while also implicating viewers as participants – placing them in the role of active consumers.
XU ZHEN Supermarket in this way constructs a space which accelerates and parodies the consumerism prevalent in China – a phenomenon which has frequently eclipsed historical and cultural contexts and traditions. The original food markets of Shanghai, for example, were public spaces for social interaction and entertainment, often visited by families once a day for fresh produce. In recent decades, these traditional markets have been transformed into supermarkets and fast-food dining outlets (first introduced in China in the 1980s to cater for foreigners) – and drained of their historical significance. The customs of community, diet and trade which were ingrained in these social spaces have been exchanged for the mass commoditisation and ‘international aesthetic’ of global chains and franchises. The empty simulacra of Xu Zhen’s store – available for purchase, if not for consumption – express a comic yet mordant critique of this evacuation of history.