In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde wrote: “The more mechanical people, to whom life is a shrewd speculation dependent on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there… A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself… invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be”. The USA just had a huge scandal in which wealthy folks were bribing college officials to get their children into elite universities. Did some movie star try to get her kid into the Ivy League so that the child could develop an amazing insight, integrity and capacity to transform and elevate others? No. The goal was power and money – purely mechanical. The mechanics of everyday life among the affluent white-collar class is very much the theme of Xia Yu at the Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Shenzhen.
The most eye-catching piece, and perhaps the key to interpreting the show, is with the guy wearing virtual-reality goggles, dressed-for-success, holding his laptop with the caption “Fire me!” in front of him. Gallery assistant Li Wenjing explained to me that the artist is portraying our work lives as if they were virtual reality or video games. In such a game, the goal is to keep accumulating points and keep rising to a higher level, and that seems to be what the folks in this show have been doing – accumulating more points, getting more things, facing more challenges, accumulating more points. This gentleman may be the hero of the show because he wants out (God bless him). And do not many of us know how it feels to walk into a situation you hope to be meaningful and where your talent can be utilized to have a beneficial impact, only to find you are expected to follow an empty routine while being surrounded by lazy, boring, self-satisfied people? If you complain, they often say: “Take the money and enjoy your life!” They are so dead inside, they have no idea there are people who really expect to engage in meaningful things and who will suffer if they do not.
Then there is the mid-career exec working out, in a cruciform position. He killed the Christ in himself long ago and is merely going through the motions he needs to perform to maintain his status and body. Indeed, Xia Yu presents a number of white-collar folks as they go through their exercise routines on a regular basis. They know the motions they have to go through and pursue them with quiet desperation, both at work and at the gym. We also see a young couple staring blankly at each other like placid robots. There is no sense of love or desire, just a smug look of being beyond reproach due to their ability to strive for prestige. They are both winners at the virtual reality game. They may have chosen each other as partners, but we can imagine the parental, social and economic pressures behind the choice. Then there are the bungling workers who have dropped papers and scramble to retrieve what their lives depend on, things separate from themselves. All the paintings are done in a somewhat pixelated manner to bring home the VR theme.
Finally, a striking figure is the boss, lying on the floor as if he has suffered a stroke, his secretary looking on placidly, the caption reading “Even the boss has a bad day!” Li Wenjing explained the boss is in a traditional Narcissus pose. Has he realized what he has been living for? Or is he just a disgruntled exec who realizes he is missing something but will never probe deeply to find what he has lost? It is certainly not his youthful beauty that he stares at in the reflection from the floor.
Thank you to Hive for coming to Shenzhen. Young people in Shenzhen are hungry for meaningful art and can only find it in a few sparse locations. And thank you to Li Wenjing and Liu Yi for reaching out and helping me better grasp what Xia Yu is doing. He captures the lives of those forced to embrace useless tasks and those who rush to accept them better than any contemporary artist. He shows us the dehumanizing trap that prestige can be and invites us to take off our goggles and engage a world of beauty and adversity. In my estimation he is one of the most significant artists currently creating. This is a show that will hit everyone who sees it in the gut.