‘Living sculptures’ puzzle visitors at a museum in Los Angeles

A work by artist Xu Zhen has performers hold poses for hours to appear frozen in time

Visitors at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles observe the performers of Xu Zhen's piece In Just a Blink of an Eye, on view until September 1. Myles Pettengill
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There exists a moment after something has happened and something is about to happen – that’s where the work of Xu Zhen resides.

Inside the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, four performers appear frozen in time as part of Xu's performance piece In Just a Blink of an Eye.

Dressed in baggy clothes, these ‘living sculptures’ bend as though they are about to fall over. Only they don’t. They hold these poses for hours, with visitors able to walk around them, photograph them, and replicate their poses (if they can).

Visitors at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles watch the performance In Just a Blink of an Eye by Xu Zhen. Myles Pettengill

MOCA has announced that it has recently acquired Xu’s work, making it the second performance piece in the institution’s permanent collection.

It is not a new creation, however. The Shanghai-based artist developed the work in 2005, and it has been presented at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Performa in New York and Long March Space in Beijing, to name a few.

With works in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris, Xu has established his name employing various mediums such as performance, installation and video, often with an undercurrent of humour and irony.

In the case of In Just a Blink of an Eye, the performers create an illusion of suspending time, space and body – with a bewildering effect on visitors. When asked about how he developed the work, the artist offers enigmatic responses that are just mysterious as these poses seem to be.

"Blankness is the nature of time," he said in an email interview with The National.

It’s true that nothing really happens in this freeze-frame moment of bodily suspension – though it may help to know that the performers are actually supported by steel structures. Rather, the stillness produces an expectation in those who witness it. We await a tremble or a collapse. It is an embodiment of a held breath. In this, we become part of the piece.

“The impressions left by the performance are also frozen in the viewers’ heads,” he adds.

Seemingly gravity-defying art in Xu Zhen's In Just a Blink of an Eye, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Myles Pettengill

Yet underneath these intriguing poses are also questions about the nature of constructed realities. We know what we can observe, but we are disconnected from the experience of the performers, for whom time is stretched as their bodies become material. In as much as they are static, their poses present an unstable state. How does it feel to be in this limbo?

It is worth taking a look at Xu's previous works, which have often contained a quiet critique of labour, commercialism and consumerism in the global market and the art world. In Hong Kong in 2016, for example, he constructed the Xuzhen Supermarket, a physical space stocked exactly like a convenience store. As participants tried to 'shop', they discovered that the products were merely empty packaging.

This divide between real and fake is also seen in the project he presented at this year's Sharjah Biennial 14 in March. The Starving of Sudan video and photo installation was a documentation of a 2008 performance that took place in Beijing. The artist staged a recreation of the infamous image of a starving African child by South African photographer Kevin Carter, with the child played by the son of a Guinean immigrant living in Guangzhou and a prop vulture hovering over him. Viewers looked on, and despite their horror, still took pictures.

As with In Just a Blink of an Eye, Xu places audiences in a position to consider their role in this constructed reality. Will we recreate the photograph and spread it? What does it say about the way we generate and consume images?

One of the performers involved in Xu Zhen's In Just a Blink of an Eye, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. Myles Pettengill​​​​​​​

“The images we see convey too much information, and each image is both the end and the beginning of the information,” says Xu. To venture a guess, he might be referring to the ways in which we negotiate our realities – what is constructed, what is seen and what is experienced.

The performance In Just a Blink of an Eye takes place every Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, running until September 1. moca.org