Superstar Chinese artist Xu Bing brings a magical fusion of cultures to Chatsworth for Sotheby’s selling exhibition Beyond Limits. Colin Gleadell takes a stroll with the artist around the grounds.
DERBYSHIRE, ENGLAND - There is a popular 5th-century Chinese fable called Tao Hua Yuan, or Peach-Blossom Spring, in which a fisherman discovers a perfect village, but, when trying to lead fellow city dwellers to it, fails to find it again. It is that notion of a Utopia found and lost that Xu Bing took as the departure point for his project for the ninth edition of Beyond Limits, the annual exhibition of outdoor sculpture organised by Sotheby’s at Chatsworth.
A slight figure with a gentle manner, but exuding a quiet authority, Xu Bing does speak English, but prefers to use an interpreter when talking about his work. It was a warm summer’s day and Xu had borrowed a sun hat from a female helper, giving him a slightly eccentric air. The installation, entitled Tao Hua Yuan: A Lost Village Utopia, surrounds the pond on the south lawn of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s private garden. Taking as its key ingredients rocks, water and flowers, the work suggests a Chinese scholar’s garden of the kind that has been used for quiet Taoist contemplation in China since the Tang dynasty. He has also arranged those elements like a traditional Chinese landscape painting, with the rocks – imported from nine different regions in China – as mountains, floral sprigs as trees and the pond as a lake. The viewer peeps over the back of a group of rocks and sees across the water more rocks that rise like peaks in the distance. The artist describes this magical world as “two-and-a-half dimensions,” like a theatre in the round. Look closer and you will see hundreds of tiny ceramic figures, houses and animals arranged among the stones, branches and flowers.
His work borrows from tradition – the scholar’s garden, the scroll, the fable – but as one might expect from a radical thinker who was one of China’s first conceptual artists of the 1980s, there is more to it than that. Trained as a printmaker, Xu (born 1955) became known for his work with Chinese calligraphy, an established art form, which he respectfully subverted by creating new characters based on the English language. He cites Andy Warhol as an early influence, particularly the Pop artist’s “concept of repeated imagery, the richness of his printmaking and the way his art related to popular culture.” Another Western influence he acknowledges is Robert Rauschenberg, whose 1985 exhibition, the first by a contemporary Western artist in Beijing for 50 years, raised issues concerning the relationship between art, government control and individual self-expression, which was groundbreaking.
In 1986, as the first post-Cultural Revolution avant-garde was taking shape in China, Xu wheeled a two-metre diameter truck tyre through the streets of Beijing as a performance, and then, in a re-interpretation of a similar, but automated work by Rauschenberg, used the tyre to create a potentially limitless supply of prints. However, such overt references to contemporary Western art are rare in his work. Of his generation of Chinese artists, Xu says: “We have been learning from the West for one hundred years and have forgotten how to learn from our own cultural history.” His major installation, Book from the Sky, 1987–91, which uses calligraphy to explore the fragile borders between language and misunderstanding, was a key exhibit in the controversial China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in 1989. It is now in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane; Xu’s work has also been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, among many others.
After Tiananmen Square, Xu left for America – for awhile he shared a studio with Ai Weiwei in New York – where he exhibited widely and continued to explore ideas about language and communication to great acclaim; in 1999, he won a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Xu also began to embark on a number of large-scale installations, such as his moving Where Does the Dust Collect, made in response to 9/11 and using dust from Lower Manhattan streets on the day of the terrorist attacks. From construction sites around Beijing, he gathered scrap metal, tools and other detritus to construct Phoenix, 2008–10, a pair of monumental bird forms measuring 90 and 100 feet. The enormously complex sculptures are currently installed in the Gothic interior of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.
In 2007 he returned to China to teach at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA), Beijing’s leading art school, where he is making subtle changes that, without replacing traditional disciplines such as drawing from life, encourage students to think about what the artist’s role should be in a fast-changing society. Having spent seven years getting the bureaucratic demands of art education under control, Xu says that now he will be expending more energy on his own work (he maintains studios in Beijing and New York). The installation at Chatsworth, he says, is one of his most ambitious yet.
In 2013, Tao Hua Yuan was first installed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. But Xu feels the country setting of Chatsworth is more appropriate to the expression of a Utopia because it is closer to nature. He likes the contrast between his asymmetrical Chinese garden and the more formal English garden and architecture of the main house. And, because the space is not enclosed, the reflections of sky and mountain-like rocks in the water are much more effective. Chatsworth has even allowed him to populate the pond with goldfish and white lillies – which was not practical at the V&A.
Talking to Xu as he puts some final touches on the installation, placing flowers and ceramic figures among the rocks with careful precision, it becomes clear that, although not autobiographical, his past and China’s past are part of the story. Brought up during the Cultural Revolution in Chongqing, his parents were academics and frowned upon by the authorities. Xu Bing toed the party line and joined a country commune to work in the fields. He remembers that, in spite of the hardship, he was happy. Life was “pure, simple and close to nature,” he says, adding that he had forgotten until recently that his father had been a keen gardener and taught him about plants. His respect for nature has been a consistent thread in his art.
As we head away from Chatsworth, a hard day’s work done, Xu explains that he is concerned with the way that modern industrialised society has lost its respect for nature, which it needs to regain in order to achieve happiness. The story of the Peach Blossom Spring, he says, is a metaphor in which the ideal world we long for seems to be so far away – a global issue for a global audience. In this sense, his installation at Chatsworth can be seen not only as an ecological rallying call, but also an offer of healing for disillusioned spirits.
Colin Gleadell is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph and other publications.