There are numerous contemporary works in which the artists’ choice of physical ‘matter’ contains within it their intended meaning. Xu Bing’s poignant ‘Where the Dust Itself Collects’ made from dust collected in the streets of Manhattan after the destruction of the twin towers falls into this category, as does Marc Quinn’s self-portrait made of 9 pints of the artist’s own frozen blood. Sydney artist Shoufay Derz used silkworms and indigo in her elegiac work ‘Depart Without Return’. And from Warhol and Wang Guangyi to the urns inscribed with the Coca Cola logo by Ai Weiwei, artists have used iconic commercial ‘brands’ as signifiers, making works intended as a critique or sometimes a celebration of western popular culture.
He Xiangyu’s ‘Cola Project’, showing at Gallery 4A in Sydney’s Chinatown, takes these elements of contemporary practice into new territory. His project does not use the iconic imagery of the brand, so representative of America in all its 20th century wealth and power, but rather takes the product itself, its physical matter. He ‘cooks’ the cola in an industrial process, boiling enormous quantities of Coca Cola down into a black crystalline solid. This coal-like substance is piled in a heap on the floor of the gallery, smelling faintly toxic and looking dangerous. Gao Minglu, in his catalogue essay, ‘Cola Project as Anthropology’, comments on the paradox of this transformation of a product of consumer desire into something disgusting and disturbing: a reminder that the fast pace of urbanisation and technological change may come at the cost of our consumption and destruction of nature. The artist admits that he himself drinks cola every day, and has grown up knowing nothing other than the globalised, materialist, fast paced ‘new China’. He represents the ‘consumption culture’ which now pervades almost every corner of the globe in both a physical and a metaphysical manner.
Other elements of the installation support this interpretation. Lying in a museum style vitrine, faintly glowing in the darkened space, is a jade skeleton. This very beautiful object has been partially corroded and destroyed by being boiled in Coca Cola. What at first appear to be traditional ink paintings of misty mountainous landscapes on the walls of the gallery have actually been painted with ink made with Coca Cola: representations of China’s ancient culture literally painted with the global brand. In another glass case lie the tools, discarded gloves and protective clothing used by the artist and his assistants in the process, all covered with a viscous tar-like coating. Photographs of the industrial ‘cooking down’ process are reminiscent of Cultural Revolution images of heroic workers engaged in steel production – but they are actually engaged in this somewhat pointless act.
The documentation of the artist’s physical actions recalls Joseph Beuys, whose influence on contemporary art in China is enormously significant. It is also very deliberately a pastiche of science and industry, suggesting the museological display of the remnant artefacts of an ancient culture. While Ai Weiwei’s ‘Coca Cola Urn’ works of the 90s inscribed the iconic logo of western capitalism onto ancient urns representing the destruction of Chinese history and culture, He Xiangyu’s work suggests a more complex 21st century reading of consumerist desire. No longer signifying the forbidden ‘other’, global brands take on new meanings in a world struggling to come to terms with the destruction wrought by modernity: a kind of reverse alchemy, turning commercial ‘gold’ back into its base constituent element.