By Hareen Johl
Coca Cola is the world’s most popular beverage and has phenomenal global branding power. However, of all the artists who have used Coca Cola as a subject in their work, He Xiangyu is the first to bypass the red and white branding and focus purely on the product itself. With the help of ten factory workers in his home town of Kuandian, China, over a period of one year the 26 year old contemporary artist boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola until it morphed into a toxic tar-like sludge and, eventually, a resin resembling coal or gravel. Although the exhibition was unable to be called ‘The Coca Cola Project’, due to trademark laws, no other brand of cola was used.
The manipulation of the cola has changed the way in which the viewer, who is also the consumer, views Coca Cola as a product. The mask of branding has been stripped away, revealing the elemental physical properties of the product, which have previously been hidden from us. The mind turns to what else we consume that, if transformed by this process, would be equally as shocking.
The exhibition is not aggressive. Aspects of the exhibition are unsettling, but not in an overtly emotional way. He Xiangyu does not display any animosity towards Coca Cola. He is perfectly accepting of it in his life and drinks it regularly. He is personally removed from the project; the destruction Coca Cola causes is portrayed in an objective way, without unnecessary theatrics. The standout works of the exhibition are the jade skeleton and the paintings, although the huge pile of cola resin is the first impression of the exhibition on the ground floor of the 4A Gallery. It is confronting to experience Coca Cola in this form, as the result of the boiling process.
The elegant traditional brush paintings are akin to those of the Song Dynasty, although they are not direct reproductions. The largest of these paintings is made up of a combination of ten of the artist’s favourite Song Dynasty paintings. In this way, what appears to be the most conventional piece in the exhibition may in fact be the most personally revealing for the artist. These paintings are, on the surface, beautiful traditional paintings, but they have in fact been infiltrated with ink derived from the resin of this iconic consumer product. The cola resin is combined with glue to create a brown ink, which is used to depict blooming plants in the paintings. This flora stands out against the black ink landscape, suggesting they are not native but an introduced species. This draws parallels to the prevalence of Coca Cola in the lives of so many cultures from both the East and West. To many, this synthesised beverage is preferable to water. It has a permanent place in the hearts and palates of people around the world.
The foreign, cola-coloured plants in these paintings could also be seen as representing the industrialisation of China. The growth of factory production in China has had an enormous impact on its economy and culture. The shift from socialist to more capitalist economic policies opened the Chinese economy to increased foreign trade and investment and, in doing so, changed the social climate by fostering a labour intensive manufacturing industry. The inclusion of factory workers in this project also alludes to China’s role in the modern global economy, whereas the use of jade represents ancient Chinese culture.
The painstakingly made and beautifully crafted skeleton made entirely out of jade is chilling. Parts of it have been submerged in Coca Cola over a period of hours. In these areas, the jade takes on a brown hue due to corrosion from the cola. The skeleton’s surface is the silent battleground between the old and the new. It has been modelled on the artist’s own skeleton, and he used x-rays of his own body as a reference. Jade is an ancient precious stone that is highly revered, particularly in the East. It is known for its absorption properties; after time a jade bangle, for example, will change colour as it absorbs the oils from the body. It is believed that jade will take in any poison, rather than the wearer, thereby purifying and protecting the body. In this way, the use of jade is deeply metaphorical; the area damaged by Coca Cola relates to concepts of external influences of consumerism affecting both the culture and the body.
A more capitalist economy that responds to the market will necessarily be far more affected by outside influences. It will follow what the market dictates. If the rest of the world follows a consumerist culture, in one way or another it will influence Chinese contemporary culture. The area of the skeleton that had been subjected to Coca Cola was primarily around the pelvis, and reproductive area, suggesting that the effects of a consumerist culture are systemic and will be passed onto the next generation. Whether these effects are perceived as benefits or costs, aspects of Chinese culture have been altered and are continuing to change gradually, just as Coca Cola continues to corrode the jade. Widespread industrialisation has also significantly opened China up to the effects of pollution while the land and natural resources suffer the consequences. The cola could be seen as polluting the previously pristine jade skeleton.
The 4A exhibition includes glass cases that contain pots, shovels and even the gloves used by the factory workers for the boiling process. These items are extremely damaged, covered in a thick, viscous substance, resembling tar. The shovels especially have been eaten away purely from the contact they have had with the toxic substance. By including these items in the exhibition, He Xiangyu emphasises the process of boiling, particularly when juxtaposed with the graceful ink paintings. The final products need to be seen in the context of their production. Similarly, eight photographs in the exhibition provide an insight into this curious process. These compelling images show an underrepresented side of the factory environment, drawing attention to the conditions under which the factory employees in China work to produce goods that are exported worldwide. These goods are manufactured at an extremely low price. The consumer only the sees the refined finished product, whether it is a t-shirt or kitchen appliance, not considering the means by which it was produced.
The process itself has none of the glamour or positive associations of the brand. By boiling the product down into an unrecognisable form, He Xiangyu cleverly alludes to how meaningless and arbitrary a brand can be. Having such a familiar product reduced to a form so unexpected, the viewer begins to realise how little they know of the product. It cannot be replicated exactly and the notoriously secret recipe, rather than being unsettling or suspicious, has been shrouded in a sense of mystery largely created by marketing campaigns. With the removal of the trusted brand, the product once so familiar, quickly becomes foreign. This demonstrates the power of Coca Cola from an entirely different perspective.
He Xiangyu is able to pull his own perception of Coca Cola out of the work and merely accepts that of all the food and beverage products to be deconstructed in this way, this one is the most appropriate, because it is widely used, well established, manmade and, most importantly, malleable in a different state. It has been manipulated, to highlight its interaction with other materials and separated from its brand to be considered in a new and more basic context. Coca Cola is quite destructive, yet it is commonly enjoyed and its consumption is encouraged via continual marketing. Ultimately, this poignant exhibition explores the interrelationship between tradition and modernity. Traditional aspects of Chinese culture are combined with this very contemporary material to explore the effects of the industrialisation of China and the conflict between socialism and capitalism.