Modern Painters, June 2015
On the eve of Chinese New Year, Xu Bing delivered a keynote address as the 2015 deFINE ART honoree at the Savannah College of Art and Design. The lecture was the crowning event of a three-day program of openings, talks, and performances, and the auditorium, a former cinema, was packed with students and faculty—a surprising percentage of whom understood Xu’s jokes before they were translated into English by his studio assistant, Xuan Sheng.
The renowned Chinese Conceptual artist recounted a brief history of his practice, which disrupts smooth readings of his native language, symbols, and art through material transformations. After thanking his 90-year-old “tiger mom” for flying to Georgia to attend the event, Xu launched into a description of a new series entitled “Background Story.” In these installations, the artist re-creates the imagery of traditional Chinese landscape painting with reliefs composed of humble objects—plastic bags, leaves, newspapers—encased in panes of clear and milky glass. When viewed from the front, the darkened forms closely resemble the compositions of traditional landscapes. From the side, the transparent glass affords a view of the cast-off stuff that is taped up against the surface to create the illusion of a painterly image. The high-low effect is Warholian with a twist: Where Warhol used the strategies and language of art to bring everyday content into the museum, Xu deploys traditional aesthetics as a way to bring everyday things into the white cube.
This material masquerade is a running thread throughout Xu’s work, yet he flatly objects to his creations being categorized by any systematic formal terms. “When we consider these works’ forms or even styles, we will find that it is a little bit irrelevant,” he said to me (with Xuan acting as interpreter) when we met the morning before his speech. I proposed that his art’s uniting theme is translation and mistranslation. Even the title of his solo show, on view at the scad Museum of Art through July 3, “Things Are Not What They First Appear,” hints at the operations in his work. Xu agreed. “The effect comes from people’s misjudgment of the materials,” he says, referring to the ordinary things he employs—from paper to plants and language. “People just take them as they are. However, if you make any changes to those materials, it will touch the profound part of your thinking mode,” a result he likened to restarting a computer. “In this way, you can open new ideas and spaces.”
Xu himself is used to challenging his modes of thinking, making, and living. Born in 1955 in Chongqing, in southwest China, he grew up in Beijing, where his father was a professor. From 1974 to 1977, toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Shouliang Gou village in the northern mountains of China. There, he worked on a farm as part of the government’s reeducation program. He enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing in 1977 and earned an MFA in 1987.
While in school, he began creating his breakthrough work with language. Three of his most famous pieces on the topic were included as part of the show “Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth,” on view this spring at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum in Miami. The monumental work Book from the Sky, 1987–91, was presented in its entirety— a rare occurrence, as it requires so much space. The enormous installation, composed of 4,000 illegible Chinese characters carved into wooden blocks and hand-printed onto hanging scrolls and giant posters, questions notions of the written word’s transparency. “These are languages wearing masks, and we think of camouflage,” Xu explained to me. A related work from the 1990s, Square Word Calligraphy, consists of what seems from a distance to be Chinese characters composed of English words. In one example, the words Little Bo Peep appear in a vertical sequence of three characters. Xu returns to language as a site from which to investigate cultural identity and meaning, even as his ideas have assumed new form. Book from the Ground, 2003–12, the most recent piece in “Writing Between Heaven and Earth,” is both a novel and a multimedia project written entirely in pictograms the artist collected over the years. The novel, which chronicles a day in the life of a working man through images akin to the Japanese language of emoji, complete with references to banal inconveniences and the omnipresence of social media, aims to democratize language, transcending class and linguistic barriers.
Xu has become something of an ambassador for cultural exchange, though his work has not always been free from controversy in his native country. He exhibited Book from the Sky in the famous “China Avant-Garde” exhibition at what was then called the China Art Gallery in February 1989, and it elicited harsh criticism from the government. The scrutiny only worsened after the Tiananmen Square protests later that year. In 1990 Xu moved to the United States, where he remained for 18 years, some of which time he spent in New York’s East Village rooming with his fellow countryman Ai Weiwei.
While in the United States, Xu was awarded numerous opportunities and accolades, including a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1999. His practice underwent many transformations and experiments as well. During several years in the ’90s he created work with animals. Starting in 1994, he created several installations with silkworms that laid eggs on open books, gradually rendering the text illegible as the eggs formed black dots covering the letters; for another exhibition, he trained a parrot to recite phrases like “Modern art is crap!” Two pigs with letters printed on their skin in ink—the boar with nonsense sequences of Roman letters, the sow with characters from Xu’s created language in Book from the Sky—copulated in a pen filled with books during his notorious performance A Case Study of Transference, 1994.
As Xu’s work became more recognized, especially his “Book from the Ground” and “Background Story” series, his reputation in China improved. He returned to Beijing in 2008 to assume the post of vice president at CAFA that he holds to this day. That year, he received a commission to design a sculpture for the new World Financial Center in Beijing’s central business district. But the production quickly became politically fraught. Upon arriving at the construction site, Xu was astonished by the laborers’ outdated materials and precarious working environment. He decided to create a sculpture of a male and a female phoenix, symbols of hope rising from oppression, out of the workers’ tools and debris: hard hats, shovels, and buckets. The commissioners, worried about the message of a work that used what was essentially trash, asked Xu to create a more glamorous exterior. He refused and took his project to a factory outside the city. Phoenix, comprising two sculptures measuring 90 feet and 100 feet long, was unveiled in 2010. Despite their lowly materials, they dazzled, illuminated by small, twinkling lights. After a tour to several Asian venues and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, the pair of sculptures spent a year at the cathedral of St. John the Divine in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.
“Things Are Not What They First Appear” at SCAD brings together three recent bodies of Xu’s work. Like Phoenix, selections from the “Background Story” series, 2004–14, and “Tobacco Project” series, 1999–2011, consider histories of commercially branded materials. “Background Story” occupies a space opposite the museum’s entrance, separate from and work reveals clues regarding local and international economies of labor. Rather than a relic of a hermetic studio practice, this “Background Story” piece suggests an intersection of the studio and the institutional and commercial labor used to create it.
It also clearly highlights its own embedded layers of art historical appropriation. On an adjacent wall hangs Zhang Daqian’s The South Mountain Landscape scroll, circa 1959, described in a wall label as a “representative copy of the original traditional Chinese painting”—that is to say, Xu’s work is a copy of a copy. This body of work points to the constant recycling of images, connecting Xu to his generational peers of the 1980s Pictures Generation in the United States and the modes of digital pilfering so common to today’s cultural output.
Yet Xu anchors his practice in the Chinese culture of copying as a learning strategy for the complicated language. An animated film from 2012, The Character of Characters, finds the artist investigating language in yet another new medium. Using a long horizontal projection, the film shows the strokes composing icons of the Chinese language transforming into various motifs, from irrational traffic patterns to phalanxes of marching soldiers.
The “Tobacco Project” portion of the exhibition is the most sensorially evocative, perfuming the gallery with the leaf’s spicy-sweet scent. First developed during a residency at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 2000, the series was continued during Xu’s working stints in Shanghai and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The work draws on these three locations’ history with the tobacco industry, as well as individual associations with the crop. Xu has said that the relationship between human beings and tobacco “resembles the relationship between lovers—too close and too far at the same time.” The works on view suggest this charged emotional connection. 1st Class, 2012, the gallery’s centerpiece, is a rug composed of more than 500,000 cigarettes from the ironically named discount 1st Class brand, in the shape of a tiger’s hide. The number of cigarettes equals what one would consume if one smoked two packs a day for 35 years—perhaps an allusion to the smoking habits of Xu’s father, who died of lung cancer. From above, the piece appears like a topography of gently rolling hills that look black and white (like a zebra) from one vantage point and golden (like a tiger) from the other. Laid out on the floor, it resembles a conquered territory. Another work, Traveling Down the River, 2011, consists of a long cigarette partially burned (from right to left) across a reproduction of Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by the 12th-century artist Zhang Zeduan. A third piece on view, created in collaboration with poet René Balcer, transforms a sequence of lithographs of cigarette labels into a found-text poem intended to honor the labor of African-American women who worked in the tobacco industry. It begins with longing: “Oh my black satin dew drop/Oh my black swan queen of the east.” With these works, Xu presents a global picture where commodity, memory, and art history collide.
I asked Xu, whose works touch on so many politicized topics—the power and repression inherent in language, industry, and labor—if he considered his work in line with the political project of modern art’s avant-garde. Do content and form come together in some perfect union? After some thought he replied, “I am always trying hard to break from what I have already established myself. This is a little unlike other artists, who try to break away from the concepts of their predecessors, and then they establish something new themselves and they hold on to it.” He disparaged the lack of “creative elements in the art world,” adding, “You have to reach out to other fields to get that creativity. You need to get it outside of the so-called contemporary art world so that you can get new blood, or new inspiration, to bring to it.” It is this desire to cannibalize and refashion the world’s symbolic codes that drives his practice forward.