Xu Zhen’s recent solo show raised issues of human exploitation that have surfaced occasionally in the contemporary art world since at least 1972, when Gino De Dominicis included a young man with Down Syndrome in his installation at the Venice Biennale. Xu’s The Starving of Sudan (2008), featuring a live African toddler menacingly eyed by a mechanical vulture in the middle of a brightly lit, hot desert scene, was one of just two large-scale installations that made up the exhibition titled “Impossible Is Nothing.” The glib Adidas tagline seemed apropos for one work, cruelly ironic for the other.

Visitors first encountered Decoration (2000), a full-size model of a spaceship suspended in the gallery’s front room, which was deliberately left unheated in the middle of winter. Playing with the notion of challenges triumphantly overcome in the deep cold of interplanetary space, the piece—with its accompanying spotlit globe and fake “cosmonaut” video—recalled other media-and-history-mocking Xu pranks, such as his alleged 2005 expedition to remove and transport to China the top 6 feet of Mount Everest.

In the second gallery, Xu’s re-creation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning image taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter in 1993 was repeatedly met with gasps and hands raised to cover mouths. The horrific shot of a vulture leering at a lone child huddled in starvation in the middle of the Sudanese desert once rocked the international media with a debate about the ethical standards of photojournalism. Widely condemned for leaving the child unaided, Carter committed suicide in 1994, a few months after receiving his award. [Also see Alfredo Jaar review this issue.]

Xu’s setup recalled Santiago Sierra’s manipulation of Iraqi immigrants (slathered with hardening polyurethane) and Brazilian prostitutes (paid with drugs to submit to tattooing) as well as Maurizio Cattelan’s burying of a fakir at the 1999 Venice Biennale. For 21 days, five hours a day, the three-year-old girl, born in Guangzhou to Guinean immigrants, was kept onstage in the gallery with the consent and oversight of her mother, who was paid by the artist.

The pairing of Xu’s works invited some tough questions. What are the limits of voyeurism? How direct is the link between China’s new global, indeed cosmic, ambitions and its dependence on oil from impoverished, Darfur-suppressing Sudan? Has China made any progress of late against its quiet but long-engrained racism? Where is the boundary between voluntary participation and monetary coercion of poor individuals?

Known to be daring (one of the artist’s earliest video works shows him beating a dead cat against the walls and floor of a room for 45 minutes), Xu emerged in the late 1990s, when a number of Chinese artists were gaining notoriety for physical self-abuse and/or the use of live animals, human body parts and corpses. (Most controversial of the lot, Zhu Yu in 2000 carved up a dead human fetus and purportedly ate it; two years later, he contracted to impregnate a prostitute, abort the fetus and feed it to a dog.)

In the tamer Starving, Xu Zhen coyly shifted moral anxiety onto viewers—or maybe not. At the opening, many visitors, heir like the 31-year-old Xu to the image-consumption mania unleashed by China’s post-Mao opening to the West, unhesitatingly snapped away at the ethically fraught vulture scene. 

Photo above: View of Xu Zhen’s performance/installation The Starving of Sudan, 2008; at the Long March Space.