Jack Tilton Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York
Xu Bing, Taipei, 2003, p. 32, illustrated in colour (similar work from the same series)
Xu Bing occupies a unique place in the history of contemporary Chinese art. Having made his name as a young printmaker at the Central Academy of Fine Arts during the heady days of the early 1980s, he went on to shake the Chinese art world with his monumental Book from the Sky in 1988. His American phase, which began with his move to New York in 1991, was similarly distinguished, leaving him with distinctions including the MacArthur "genius" fellowship and more importantly, a full complement of works exploring the difficulties of cultural exchange at a moment when "globalization" seemed to be on everyone's mind. When he accepted his alma mater's offer last year to return to Beijing and become its deputy director, Xu Bing completed a circle that he had begun during his student days, and which only became possible as China evolved and changed over the two and a half decades for which he has been a working artist. Now ensconced in his official position, Xu has set about the work of revising the Academy's curriculum, tweaking it in order that it might continue to produce artists of his own high caliber. Constant refinement and evolution, after all, are the basis of his own distinct artistic practice.
Education and pedagogy have always been among Xu Bing's central concerns. This becomes evident immediately in the first of the five works by Xu Bing included in this sale, Eight Suns (Lot 721). A woodblock print completed in 1985, it dates to the moment in which Xu's ambitions began to expand beyond the narrow confines of the academic training at which he had so excelled. This was the period during which Xu Bing was beginning to think about Book from the Sky, a project preceded by other, perhaps simpler experiments with the woodblock form. Simultaneously with this work, he was completing Big Wheel, in which a massive truck tire becomes the vehicle for transfer printing. In 1986 he would realize Five Series of Repetitions, a long scroll in which the woodblock itself is carved entirely away - from completeness to total emptiness - as the scroll progresses. Eight Suns, completed one year earlier, is in many ways the predecessor of that work. In Eight Suns, Xu Bing prints the same scene eight times along a scroll 5.8 meters long, simply varying the position of the red "sun" in each iteration. Of course the rise and fall of a "red sun" would have carried the inevitable political connotation to a viewer at the height of the "85 New Wave," even if that is not the central concern of the work. For all of Xu Bing's outwardly conceptual experiments, he has consistently returned to works which seem simply academic, and yet are laced with layers of meaning behind their deceptively simple surfaces. This is precisely one such work.
In 1990, Xu Bing left Beijing, first for Wisconsin and later for New York. A potent combination of his own sense of cultural dislocation upon arrival in the United States and the debates surrounding multiculturalism then raging in his new country would lead him to create a number of works exploring themes of cross-cultural communication. New English Calligraphy, also called "Square Word Calligraphy," in which elements of Chinese calligraphy are used to render Western-language words into "squares" that resemble Chinese characters, is the best-known and most successful of these. While the Chinese language - and the unique brand of intentional misunderstanding it makes possible - remained key interests for him, Xu Bing set about re-envisioning his Book from the Sky for a new context. Book from the Sky, after all, was very much about subverting and destabilizing the Chinese language and thus cultural canon by paying it the paradoxical homage of "adding" to it with fake characters, an extremely fraught project at a time when Chinese intellectuals were so vigorously rethinking their country's ambiguous modern cultural and intellectual legacy. New English Calligraphy might be considered the opposite of the Book from the Sky: where Book from the Sky expands into infinite elaboration of nonexistent and thus incomprehensible characters and syllables, New English Calligraphy takes a proscribed set of calligraphic possibilities and uses them to create a system that can accommodate any word written in the Roman alphabet. The immediate effect of dislocation and incomprehension is the same in both pieces; the difference is that with the New English Calligraphy, a "key" can quickly be given to the English-speaking reader so that the characters become discernible. In this way, the work re-stages the early-modern European dream of a "clavis sinica" or "Chinese key" by which the entire language would become immediately decipherable to the outsider. There is also the added irony that a Chinese speaker with no English background (if such even exists, given the widespread nature of Romanized writing systems for Chinese characters) could be left completely confused by a script that resembles Chinese but does not function as such.
For Xu Bing, the New English Calligraphy is as much about pedagogy, indoctrination, and process as it is about the finished result of the written characters. Early on, he exhibited the project as an installation, creating classrooms where "students" (museum-goers) would sit behind desks and study this strange font using workbooks and watching instructional videos all of the artist's design. The first workbook had the student transcribe the English nursery rhyme "Little Bo Peep." For all the exquisiteness of the written forms themselves, the project is conceptually a parody of the way national education systems, while they teach students valuable knowledge, often serve to propagate a specific, state-sanctioned worldview and history. In Xu Bing's New English Calligraphy classrooms, students were being taught to write Chinese brushstrokes, but they were also being "indoctrinated" into a credo of cultural globalization and hybridity.
Xu Bing continued to experiment with and develop the New English Calligraphy for the better part of a decade. Working with a Taiwanese software company, he created an algorithm that could instantly turn any Western word into its equivalent square-word character. The exhibition viewer need only type in his name, or any word, and the computer would print a "Chinese" rendering of it. Around this time, in the late 1990s, he also began to use the script he had developed to convey substantive messages. Perhaps the best example of this is the massive banner he did for the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1999. Its characters were set against a red background, proclaiming first in smaller black characters "Chairman Mao says," and then in oversized yellow ones "ART FOR THE PEOPLE." There was no uncertain amount of irony involved in placing a quotation from the Chairman on the side of a museum that was a key cultural tool in the American anti-Communist arsenal during the Cold War, and in 1999, just ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this statement registered as mildly subversive to a New York audience.
Xu Bing is, above all, an inveterate calligrapher, and having developed this innovative script he was not content to confine it to this sort of enlarged intervention. For him, it remained of primary interest to use the New English Calligraphy to actually write large blocks of text, and that is exactly what he began to do. New English Calligraphy: Song of Myself (Lot 723) and New English Calligraphy – Quotation from Mao Tse-Tung (Lot 726) are two of examples. The previous one copies first a group of poems by the English romantics, and the latter one is excerpts from Mao Zedong's famous 1942 Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art. In this piece, the pounding rhetoric of a proletarian art in the service of social transformation contrasted with the rarified, avant-garde forms of Xu Bing's invented calligraphic language, and the loquacious diction of Mao's treatise is simultaneously elegized and satirized by the square-word forms, in which long, Marxist words need to be deciphered one by one. For Xu Bing, calligraphy is very much a daily practice, almost meditative, in which he is able to distill and refine the other concepts on which he works.
Not all of Xu Bing's experiments after moving to the U.S. involved writing in such a direct sense; animals and nature soon became major concerns. On his first trip back to China in 1993, he staged a performance called A Case Study in Transference, in which pigs tattooed with nonsense writing in both "English" and "Chinese" were set to mate in a pen littered with books. Also dubbed "cultural animals," the performance set into stark relief a perceived set of dynamics then at work in the world. The male "English" pig literally mounts the female "Chinese" pig from behind, forcibly imposing his will upon her. It is no coincidence that this work was realized in the same year Wang Guangyi began his "Great Criticism" series of paintings juxtaposing socialist iconography and Western brands. In Panda Zoo (1998), Xu Bing made a move similar to the transition from Book from the Sky to New English Calligraphy, showing a group of pigs "disguised" as pandas in a New York gallery. These pigs, in "drag," were performing a certain Chinese fantasy for a Western audience, just as the pigs in A Case Study in Transference had enacted a poignantly felt cultural dynamic for a Chinese audience. And yet for Xu Bing, animals were more than just a vehicle for political messages; as living creatures, they were half-willed supporters of the artist's intention. No project demonstrates this sensitivity better than Xu Bing's ongoing experiments with silkworms.
Beginning in the summer of 1994, shortly after he had settled in New York, Xu Bing began an annual project of raising silkworms that lasted for five years. As Xu Bing has said of this key project:
The thousands of black egg-markings create a "printed text" evoking the strange script of some mysterious, secret language. At the opening of the installation, the eggs are already very close to hatching. In the days following, as the eggs hatch the text is altered and dissipated as the black dots gradually disappear and transform into thousands of squiggling black lines (the young silkworms) that proceed to crawl out from between the pages of the books, startling the viewer confronted with these strange volumes.
The Silkworm Book (Lot 722) offered here began with the artist growing the animals alongside books, which they would eventually devour. It later evolved to include materials such as laptop computers, tobacco leaves, and plastic text panels like the ones included in Silkworm Series - The Foolish Man Who Tried to Remove the Mountain (Lot 725). This work was realized only in 2001, a full eight years after Xu Bing had begun to experiment with silkworms. Here, he has copied Mao's famous speech from 1945 inspired by the famous Chinese story of "the foolish man who removes the mountain." The original story recounts the travails of an old man in northern China, ninety years of age, who resolves to level the mountains that lie in the way of his daily walks. Repeatedly discouraged by his wife and neighbors who claimed that he lacked the strength for such a monumental effort, the old man only grew in his resolve. The key passage of the story, recounted in the Chinese classic Liezi, reads:
The Foolish Old Man of the North Mountain heaved a long sign and said, "You are so conceited that you are blind to reason. Even a widow and a child know better than you. When I die, there will be my sons, who will have their sons and grandsons. Those grandsons will have their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. But the mountains will not grow. Why is it impossible to level them?" The Wise Old Man at the River Bend could not answer him.
Mao invoked this story in a speech he gave to the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China on June 11, 1945, four years before the founding of the People's Republic of China. In that speech, he asked a communist faithful then under attack from both the Japanese and the Nationalists, "If the entire mass of Chinese people came together to dig up these two mountains, is there any way they could fail?" Xu Bing's piece restages this speech, once in the proper order and then again in reverse. The second instance is particularly revealing - a string of characters that seem almost familiar but never quite make sense, an effect familiar from his earlier character-based works. In combination with the silkworms, who spin threads around the panels that obscure and elide the text, this reversed order leads to a general sense of mediation and disorientation.
Xu Bing's interest in animals as co-creators may have led him to begin to consider questions of nature more broadly, as he does in his ongoing Landscript series, eg. Landscript – Wood, Rock and Water No.2 (Lot 724) and Untitled #2 (Small Landscript) (Lot 727). Language is never far from his mind, and there is indeed one accurate reading of the Landscript works that positions them as deconstructions of the iconographic element of Chinese characters. A rock, for example, is rendered using the character shi, which means (and somewhat resembles) a rock. Different species of trees are drawn with the respective characters for their species forming their distinctive leaves. As the artist himself has written, "The calligraphy captures the essence of the natural landscape while at the same time forcing the viewer to question the relationship between the sources of painting and the written word." He began his Landscript project, which like so many other elements in his practice he has continued for an extended period, during a trip to the Himalayas sponsored by the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki. For Xu Bing, that trip, which came just on the heals of his major success in winning the MacArthur, served as a return to his student days, when he would "paint from life" (xiesheng) in order to refine his brush technique. Sketchbook in hand, Xu Bing embarked on a rediscovery of basic draftsmanship, refining it using the insights he had picked up over nearly two decades of experimenting with Chinese characters. Landscript – Wood, Rock and Water No.2 draws on the language of traditional Chinese painting, its composition and perspective in overt homage to the Southern Song painter Qian Xuan (1235-1305), as he has "inscribed" at right in his singular New English script. Like many pieces in Xu Bing's oeuvre, it is a gesture of respect, wonder, and interrogation of a precedent from the cultural canon.
For all his intersecting trajectories, Xu Bing's art maintains a fundamental integrity, a unified feel, and a humanizing urge to the viewer, whom it asks to consider more closely the relationships inside one's own society, among cultures, and between man and nature. His is an aesthetic and historical project rare among artists anywhere for its depth, consistency, and radical novelty. Amazingly, it consistently manages to hold onto a sense of levity and bemusement with the meaning-making structures that govern our sense of the world we inhabit. To enter the world of Xu Bing is to give oneself over to a vision of what China has been and might someday become.
 Xu Bing, project description for American Silkworms Project, 1994.
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