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filthy & exquisite, base & refined

christen cornell: he xiangyu, cola project


He Xiangyu alongside his work, Skeleton at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art He Xiangyu alongside his work, Skeleton at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
photo Zan Wimberley
AN EXHIBITION CALLED COLA PROJECT DOESN’T AT FIRST SOUND ENTIRELY NEW: COCA COLA, CONSUMER CULTURE, THE POWER OF ADVERTISING—THESE HAVE ALL BEEN CONSIDERED BEFORE, NOT LEAST OF ALL BY CHINESE ARTISTS ASSESSING THE IMPACT OF GLOBAL CAPITALISM ON TRADITIONAL AESTHETICS AND VALUES.

This recent show at Gallery 4A in Sydney’s Chinatown, however, takes a different perspective, and considers cola the sticky liquid rather than the clout of its global logo. After analysing the effects of consumerism on images, it appears that what you are left with is the object, and the ‘stuff’ of material culture.

Cola Project is currently the signature work of young, Beijing-based artist, He Xiangyu, and one that has been doing the international rounds since first showing in Beijing in 2010. 4A brought it to Sydney as part of their ongoing program to situate Australian art within the context of the Asia Pacific, bringing Asian exhibitions to Australia and recognising the Asian in Australian work. This, He Xiangyu’s third major art project, helps underscore this geographical and cultural proximity, if only for its acknowledgement of the finite—and increasingly crowded—nature of our physical world.

He Xiangyu, Cola Project Resin (2009-2010), installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, courtesy of the artist and White Space, Beijing He Xiangyu, Cola Project Resin (2009-2010), installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, courtesy of the artist and White Space, Beijing
photo Zan Wimberley
In 2008, He Xiangyu worked with factory workers to boil up thousands of litres of Coca Cola, tracing its transformation into syrup, then sludge and eventually into coal-like crystals. These were then ground down to produce a black ink, with which the artist painted a series of Song Dynasty-style landscapes. Meanwhile, some of the goo was put aside for experiments on skeletons made by the artist from jade. The works on display at 4A represent about one third of the original show, and include a miscellany of products and documentation resulting from the large-scale work. The artist was also in town to assist with the installation, and I had the chance to speak with him then.

“I’m interested in the relationship between objects and people,” he told me. “In Beijing now, there are so many buildings in the centre of the city, so they build the rubbish tips further out. But then the city grows, until it and the rubbish are all on top of one another. Then the groundwater becomes polluted by the run-off and, bit by bit, this rubbish starts to permeate you.” He Xiangyu speaks with an awareness of his physical surroundings, but more with a tone of curiosity than indignation. The cycles of transformation seem to interest him rather than any narrative of environmental decay. As we sat in the downstairs gallery space, our conversation was itself infused with the smell of the exhibition—the tang of cola residue sits in your nostrils.

Entering the gallery at street level, visitors are confronted with a large pile of the black molasses-like substance produced by the refinement process. At turns both filthy and magical, it suggests a heap of coal one moment and an ink-washed Chinese landscape the next.

Upstairs hang the paintings rendered in this sticky material, the waste product of an industrial experiment put to the production of new cultural forms. Familiar limestone mountains disappear into clouds, river systems wend around their bases. There are boats and little bridges (arched like eyebrows) and the odd lonely pavilion tucked high into the crux of a mountain top. Distinctly ‘works of art,’ these paintings are as exquisite as the idea of the Coke sludge is coarse.

He Xiangyu, Skeleton (2010), jade, installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, courtesy of Pearl Lam Gallery, Shanghai He Xiangyu, Skeleton (2010), jade, installation view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, courtesy of Pearl Lam Gallery, Shanghai
photo Zan Wimberley
On a podium, laid out as if for medical inspection, is one of the original exhibition’s three skeletons made of jade. Cola scum, applied to selected bones, has discoloured and worn holes into this highly prized, ancient material. In a nearby cabinet, bone specimens and a beaker of leftover black liquid are arranged as if they’ve come straight from the laboratory. If there is a traditional Chinese aesthetic to the show, it also has a creepy Victorian feel—a Jekyll and Hyde sense of experimentation with the materials that shape body and society.

Around the gallery lie further traces of the distillation process: artefacts covered in gloop; a pile of buckets stacked messily on top of one another; a detritus of spades, gloves and goggles. Finally, a wall of photographs records the smelting process: men in protective clothing pushing poles into ponds of blackness, lost behind clouds of steam. A pile of empty Coca Cola bottles is, intriguingly, the only image here printed in black and white, the choice of monochrome print disavowing the power of the red and white labels. This show is about cola the substance—a material that moves through and is processed by our bodies—not a brand with its lofty mythologies.

Ultimately the exhibition has a kind of circular logic, with each work stitched invisibly to the next. The filthy is within the exquisite, the base within the refined. There is a constant reminder of the ongoing cycle of refuse and sophistication. In this sense the exhibition is about the inextricability of humans and what they create: culture and waste. However, it also highlights the question of art itself as a process or, more specifically, art as a physical production. If the world is now engaged in a trashing and rehashing of resources, what role does art production—and art consumption—play within that?

At one point my conversation with He Xiangyu turned to Wim Delvoye’s infamous artwork, Cloaca Professional, which mimics the human digestive system. Currently on display in Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the machine is fed by curators and produces excrement on the hour. I suggested that the work was quite a confronting piece for a gallery environment. “Really?” said He Xiangyu with a smile. He was well aware of the piece. “I think [Cloaca Professional] is cool. It’s very symbolic of our times.”


He Xiangyu, Cola Project, Gallery 4A, Sydney, March 15–May 5

This article originally appeared in RealTime's online e-dition May 22

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 40

© Christen Cornell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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