Thursday, 27 February 2014


WHITE CUBE, BERMONDSEY, until 15th April 2014
Tank 2011-2013 © He Xiangyu Photo: Ben Westoby
Courtesy White Cube
I am by nurture, if not by nature, a rule-keeper rather than a rule-breaker, so was surprised to hear a voice from behind urging me not to touch the exhibit. It's something I don't do. But I had walked straight into this large gallery and instinctively stretched out my hand because I could not believe my eyes. Here is a life-sized military tank, a crumpled, defeated monster, sucked of air and vigour, its huge, hungry, flaccid proboscis sliding across the floor. What is it made of?

The touch was worth the risks of infringement, for this war-weapon (890x 600x150cm) is made entirely of  soft, luxury Italian leather. You want to stroke it as if it were a pet - or perhaps a wickedly expensive handbag. The work was  hand-sewn by an entire factory of women needle workers, specially trained by the artist, and took two years to create. It is both an explicitly political as well as a deeply introspective and personal work by an artist who currently lives and works in Beijing.

Also on display is He Xaingyu's Coca Cola. For this work the artist boiled down 127 tons of the drink over the course of a year. What looks like geological remains inside 3 display  cases are heaped mounds of the soft drink residue. By subjecting the products of western consumer culture to a profound process of material transformation, the artist comments on the effects of that culture on contemporary China. 
Tank also reminds me of  a work by a Turner Prize nominee which I saw at the Imperial War Museum  in 2010. (See Blog 9). Baghdad, 5 March, 2007 is a work by Jeremy Deller made of a compressed tangle of twisted metal he'd salvaged from a suicide attack on the historic Al-Mutanabbi street book market in Baghdad, which killed 38 people. Al-Mutanabbi, who lived in the 10C, is said by some to be the greatest Arab poet, and the attack was seen as a war on culture as well as a war on human beings. Nearby in the Museum were some of the most deadly weapons of the past 100 years, including a Jagdpanther (Hunting Panther), once the most efficient tank-destroyer in the world. 

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