If you knew nothing of Chinese artist He Xiangyu before seeing his work, now showing at the White Cube in Bermondsey, I think it unlikely you would guess that he is just 28. Many artists of that age or indeed younger, have big ideas, but very few manage to realise them on the scale that Xiangyu has achieved. His rise in the contemporary art world has been meteoric; this is his first exhibition in Britain but already he has had solo exhibitions in Beijing, Tokyo, Paris and Bad Ems in Germany and been part of group shows in a host of other countries. The ambition and confidence of his work is stunning; it reminds me of the young Damien Hirst, not so much in what he does, but in the showmanship with which he does it.
Dominating the exhibition in the North Galleries is an enormous leather tank, which gives the impression of having collapsed under its own weight, like a half deflated airbed. It is an extraordinary piece of work; the leather is clearly high quality, luxury Italian, according to the press release, and the stitching and detailing is exquisite. What you cannot appreciate from photographs is the smell; it has that wonderful scent of a top class luggage shop. I wanted a bit of it, the end of the main gun perhaps, as a handbag.
The amount of sheer graft that has gone into the tank is staggering. But Xiangyu did not spend hard days in his studio with an industrial sewing machine; instead, he managed to organise a factory of female workers whom he trained and who took two years from 2011 to 2013 to make the work. So he was just 25 when the project started. Hirst incidentally was 26 when he produced the Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
I had though initially that the tank might be something to do with the pointlessness of war, possibly a contemporary take on turning swords into ploughshares – turning tanks into luxury leather items. But is seems that the advancement of Western capitalism is an issue which has resonance for He Xiangyu, so here is an element of regret that Western values are being adopted. Those living in Western economies, and luggage manufacturers in particular, might themselves take the view that while trade wars are preferable to real wars, China has no need to bother with real tanks if it can win economic supremacy with delectable hand baggage.
A further commentary on the effects of Western consumer culture is on show in the Coca Cola Project, though the offering at White Cube can only be described as a taste of the real thing. Xiangyu started the project in 2008. Over the course of a year, he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola. That’s a lot of Coke and he was then just 22. He used the resultant black residue in a variety of ways; some he used to make black ink drawings in Song Dynasty style but more dramatically he created huge heaps of the stuff and filled a whole room with it at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. At White Cube the black shiny crystalline coal-like substance is set out in three museum display cases, which give the impression they contain something rare and precious. The residue is presumably at least 90% sugar but it has a very different form; it doesn’t look like the remains of a manufactured item but something far more primitive. It is interesting even in such a small containers but I would have loved to have seen the Sydney display.
The work I found the most intriguing was the more intimate and personal Everything We Create is Not Ourselves. In a pink room on a pink carpet are a number of small sculptures. Surprisingly it seems, you can enter the room, for it feels like forbidden territory. It turns out that the small objects lying on the floor are copper casts of sculptures the artist made by trying to replicate the form of his teeth as experienced by his probing tongue. It was made just last year when Xiangyu was in New York and apparently feeling alienated and lonely.
I thought these sculptures worked wonderfully well. It felt very personal; there was almost a sense of trespassing going into the room. Unusually visitors were allowed to touch the teeth, and running your fingers over their surface gave a real sense of connection with the artist.
In the adjoining room there was another small sculpture with a dental theme. This time displayed by itself in a niche in the wall was a small Chinese pagoda. It could have only been about three or four inches high and had a gold top and base. In the middle, were four molars; according to the press release they were wisdom teeth belonging to the artist. Now I don’t know why he had them extracted, one hopes for medical rather than artistic reasons, but I can attest it was not because they were decayed; they appeared a very fine set of wisdom teeth. They deserved their gold setting. The moral of this, children, is that it is better to boil down 127 tons of Coca Cola than to drink the same amount.
He Xiangyu is showing at the White Cube Bermondsey until 13 April