FOR many art lovers, the name Hu Xiangcheng doesn’t ring a bell but is a highly regarded figure within the art community.
Hu’s preference to remain out of the spotlight contrasts with his ability to ask probing questions through his art.
Several of his installations now stand outside Pudong’s Himalaya Center, attracting the attention of passers-by. They include a 10-square-meter labyrinth that is made from windows and doors of dismantled old houses.
The shape of the labyrinth, if viewed from a scaffold made from waste wood and hundreds of old clothes, looks like the Chinese character chai (拆), or dismantle.
The installation is part of Hu’s ongoing exhibition, “This Is Not Zero.”
With urbanization taking place at a furious pace across many areas of China, many old houses and buildings have been demolished. Hu says this is “a huge loss to Chinese culture.”
“All these abandoned things are from my own collection,” says Hu, now in his 60s. “I want people to ponder whether we go too far in tearing things down. Here, zero stands for the transitional period between dismantling and reconstruction.”
Within the art community, Hu is widely respected even though he seeks no fame for himself.
Sometimes he works to protect old buildings. Sometimes he is busy managing his two organic farms in Zhejiang Province. Sometimes he appears at academic meetings during the ongoing Shanghai Biennale. Sometimes he curates the Shanghai Design Art Exhibition.
Hu, a teacher of Cai Guoqiang and Chen Zhen, who are big names internationally, is also among the first Chinese contemporary artists and helped establish the Shanghai Biennale.
“My friends and students have said that I ought to get more recognition on the contemporary art stage,” Hu says with a smile. “But for me, an artist has his own social responsibilities. This might sound a bit silly in this profit-driven society, but that is who I am.
“Contemporary art is not just about asking questions, but about practice and change. This is the real value of a contemporary artist.”
A graduate from Shanghai Theater Academy in 1976, he taught Western modern art for 10 years. In 1986, he furthered his studies in Japan and later lived in Africa for several years.
“The overseas experience really broadened my vision,” he says. “It was during my stay in Japan that I was invited by Fang Zengxian (director of Shanghai Art Museum) to help establish Shanghai Biennale.”
But Hu quickly downplays his contribution to Shanghai Biennale, saying “that has all passed.”
In 2000, Hu changed his focus from overseas back to China. He proposed the “Reconstruct the Villages” project, covering Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province as well as Jinze and Zhujiaojiao in Shanghai’s suburban Qingpu District.
“Have you ever been to Jinze?” he asks. “We restored the bridge and road that were built in the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. This is history. History is not only about something in books, but something you can see and touch.”
During World Expo 2010 Shanghai, Hu was art director of the African Joint Pavilion and thought highly of art from the continent.
“African art has greatly influenced modern art in the West, but art exchanges between China and Africa are almost non-existent. I want to do something involving African art in the future,” he says.
Hu has an ability to switch between projects effortlessly.
Several years ago when food safety scandals had many Chinese worried about what they were eating, Hu began to operate two organic farms in Zhejiang.
“Although I know the farms won’t solve the food safety problems here, at least I am spreading the healthy concept to local farmers and my friends.”
As for his renewed interest in art, Hu says he has many things to do and “art is still a powerful medium to send a message.”
At the end of the solo exhibition in Shanghai on January 8, Hu will invite locals to dismantle his labyrinth and re-shape the old doors and windows into the Chinese character for blossom.
“Some of my friends say I am indifferent toward money and fame,” he says. “Maybe they are right because I rose to early fame in Japan and my paintings sold well at that time.
“I don’t have a strong desire for material things. Life is balanced. I am satisfied with what life endows me. I have a son who now lives in London and works for the Prince Charles Foundation. I just want to do something concrete and meaningful. For me, an artist who tries to solve social problems is more valuable than an artist who shows off at exhibitions and parties,” he concludes.
“This Is Not Zero”
Date: Through January 8 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm