Thirsty art lovers who recently stopped by ShanghART Supermarket in the Gillman Barracks art enclave, lusting after a can of cold beer, were left high and dry.
The minimart, which occupies the ShanghART Singapore gallery space, is well-stocked with convenience store items including soft drinks, ice cream and instant noodles. But the sealed packages on the neatly packed shelves, priced for sale and available for purchase, do not contain anything.
Reach for the beer in the non- functioning chiller and you will find it as light as an aluminium can emptied of its fizzy brew, although the tab is intact.
The store, a full-scale replica of a typical convenience store in a Chinese city, is a tongue-in-cheek interactive art installation. Its creator is listed as Xu Zhen - Produced by MadeIn Company. The mouthful of a name refers playfully to the prominent Chinese conceptual artist Xu Zhen as a brand produced by the art company he founded in 2009. The sign-off is a wry response to criticism levelled at major Chinese artists who rely on studio assistants to make their works instead of doing so themselves.
When the installation premiered at the art fair Art Basel Miami in 2007, it sent fairgoers into a buying frenzy, never mind that the packages were empty; they were the cheapest items on sale by an artist at the fair. The retail price for the products, listed in Chinese yuan, is comparable to that in a regular Chinese convenience store.
The installation at Gillman Barracks is a similar version to the one that showed in Miami, with international and Chinese brands jostling for space on the shelves. Items range from a can of Coke ($3) to a bottle of Kweichow Moutai liquor ($1,399). As with a regular convenience store, visitors pick out what they want, pay for them at the cash register and cart the items home.
On the first day of its opening here last month, the store sold $200 worth of groceries. A gallery spokesman says: "We had visitors who came back with friends to make small purchases, usually a few dollars each time. For many of them, it is the first piece of contemporary artwork they own."
The chance for the masses to own a piece of an art installation may spark public interest but the potency of Xu's interactive work rests in its sharp wit, subtle parody and alternative interpretation of the enduring marriage between art and commerce.
On the surface, the work raises familiar concepts in contemporary art from the commodification of art and modern- day consumption habits, to the power of images and packaging and the homogenisation of consumer goods the world over.
At the heart of it, however, is a sly social critique, bearing Xu's brand of serious humour, on the food safety scandals that have plagued China in recent years.
Xu, 37, in an e-mail interview from Shanghai where he is based, says in Mandarin: "A supermarket with no real substance and function is one that is safe for the public. One no longer needs to fret over expiration dates because the products emptied of their contents can no longer be consumed."
He adds of his work: "There is nothing new under the sun. What an artist needs to do is bring fresh understanding to existing issues."