He Xiangyu's experimental practice can be seen as both a material testing ground and conceptual laboratory that investigates diverse personal, social and political themes. Part of a generation of Chinese artists who grew up during a period of rapid urbanisation he has said that “I'm seeking to adjust and guide people's perception through the material changes within the object”, using a range of media to reflect on philosophical ideas such as the increasing materialism and obsolescence of our society as well as the effects of the institutionalisation and commercialisation of contemporary art.
He's exploration of perception began with his first and perhaps most well-known work titled Cola Project, started in 2009, where he tried to explore the nature of Coca Cola as a mutable liquid, attempting to translate the stimulating signals caused by the drink into solid, visible matter by boiling down 127 tons of it during the course of a year. After making initial sketches and conducting various experiments with the drink in his Beijing studio, he moved the work's production to his home town of Dandong, near the North Korean border. There, he employed 10 workers to fabricate iron vessels in which to boil down the liquid mass, creating a residue that took the form of an earthy, bitumen-like substance which the artist installed in many different configurations. Another by-product of the production process was an inky liquid, which was used to create Song dynasty-style landscape paintings. While visibly focusing on profound material transformation and notions of consumption, Cola Project deals with the inextricable relationship between living and consuming, with culture and waste, but also with notions of art production and consumption. Effectively re-making an industrial product by adopting different, and much slower industrial means, Cola Project reconfigures a key product of Western capitalism and also its accelerated notion of time.
Ideas of consumption through material and temporal manipulation continue in the Tank Project (2011-2013), which also relied on the co-ordination of many hours of human labour. He has said that in his practice he embraces the notion of “human labour as a kind of guidance”, and for this sculpture, a Chinese military tank formed from 400 pieces of fine high grade Italian vegetable tanned leather, he employed an entire factory of female needle workers to hand-stitch the piece which took nearly 2 years to complete. This deflated military symbol, a familiar object from recent episodes in Chinese history, suggests both the power of desire as it is linked with consumerist goods – in particular, the symbol of the expensive leather handbag – as well as the inter-dependency of political and economic power.
In other works, such as the ongoing Palate Project, he addresses more personal subject matter, exploring perception through individual means. Poetic and introspective, He began the series in 2012 during a short residency in America where, after finding an insurmountable language barrier, he began 'translating' the ridges, bumps and grooves of his palate as perceived by his tongue, into various visual forms. Executed over the course of 3 years, one of the works of the series is composed of 20 groups of drawings in watercolour, ink and mixed media on paper that present a dissolve and re-emergence of identifiable anatomical structures, occasionally collapsing into pure fields of colour. Exploring this idea further, in Everything We Create is Not Ourselves (2013) small copper forms, cast from a mould that was created by feeling the inside of his mouth with his tongue, transpose tactile sensation into sculptural form. Like the Cola Project, these works attempt to offer an alternative scheme for understanding perception, highlighting a Cartesian split between mind and body and the prioritisation of the visual within contemporary culture.
He Xiangyu was born in 1986 in Liaoning Province, China and lives and works in Beijing and Berlin. He graduated from Shenyang Normal University in 2008. Recent solo exhibitions include Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester, UK (2019); A4 Art Museum, Chengdu, China (2019); Qiao Space, Shanghai (2017); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2015); A4 Center for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney (2012); Künstlerhaus Schloß Balmoral, Bad Ems, Germany (2011); and Wall Art Museum, Beijing (2010). Group exhibitions include the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy (2020); Chinese National Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2019); Boros Collection, Berlin (2017); Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern (2016); 13th Biennale de Lyon, France (2015); Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2015); 10th Shanghai Biennale (2014); Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev (2014); 7th Busan Biennale, South Korea (2014); 5th Yokohama Triennale, Japan (2014); and The Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2013).