A New Way to Speak

Xu Bing 1955-

Xu Bing
Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Printmaking
Born: 1955, Chongqing, China
Nationality: Chinese

Xu Bing is an artist and served as vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Best known for his talented printmaking and installation art, he is also known for his creative artistic use of language both in words and text, and how they affect our understanding of the world around us.

Xu believes there is no boundary between language and art, between written words and drawn images, nor between past and present that should not be explored. Unusual as it sounds, the relationship between calligraphy and ink drawing and painting goes back over a thousand years in Chinese traditions.

Book from the Sky, 1987. Books and scrolls printed from carved wood types, ink on paper. Eslite Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan

It is not only an investigation of the calligraphic that intrigues Xu Bing but how the tradition provides a means of communicating ideas and knowledge. In his 1988 exhibition, Book from the Sky, viewers were in awe of his dedication to carving 4000 seemingly traditional characters of text on scrolls and in books but also that the characters were completely fictional. Xu Bing has continued to exploit the viewers’ expectations by merging Roman Letters and Chinese Script as a means to create a landscape and trace the evolution from the pictographic origins of the Chinese written language to its breaking point. In doing so he is forcing the viewer to confront how meaning is generated and absorbed through language and to consider both the message and the vehicle through which it is spoken.

Along with Ai Weiwei and Gu Wenda, Xu Bing is among a generation of artists who experienced the Cultural Revolution during their youth and communicated that experience through their art. Collectively, each artist exemplifies the impact of the socio-political upheaval that transformed most aspects of Chinese culture and the widespread diaspora of artists from China in the late-20th century who sought artistic freedom during a period of censure in their homeland.

Xu is widely recognised for his manipulation of the written word, and his oeuvre exemplifies the artist’s constant exploration of socio-political concerns within his art. In his early work, Xu explored the transmission of knowledge through language, calligraphy, and traditional Chinese aesthetics that evolved into a global critique of the cross-cultural communication of the 1990s. leading Xu to explore the impact of modern technology on both the environment and the human psyche.

Xu has been affiliated with academics and avant-garde throughout his life. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, he enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts where he served as a professor while being actively involved with experimental artists of the 85 New Wave. He rose to fame as a prominent participant in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989, organized to introduce contemporary aesthetics to a wider audience. It was shut down by the government within a few days

Square Word Calligraphy, 1994 onwards. Ink on paper. Private collection

Born in Changqing in the new Communist People’s Republic of China in 1955 Xu was the third of five children. He spent his childhood in Beijing, and his parents worked at Peking University. His upbringing was in a highly intellectual environment, with his father the head of the University’s history department and his mother a Department of Library Science researcher. It was sitting in the library reading room that Xu’s love of books grew.

Xu’s father taught him traditional calligraphy in early childhood and the canon of China’s log history. Xu began painting at an early age and his early experiences were the foundation of his fascination with the written word and the physical aesthetics of paper and books

Xu’s family was caught in the turmoil of social change during the Cultural Revolution. During this time-imposed changes affected all aspects of Chinese society, especially the language. Under Chairman Mao the Chinese language and the Chinese characters were modified, simplified, and re-tooled for propaganda, including large-scale banners with utilitarian messages endorsed by the Maoist regime.

Chairman Mao began his re-education program in 1968 to bring about the mobilization of people. Xu was sent to the countryside from the city in 1974, a year after his graduation. Despite the harsh contrast to his urban upbringing Xu learned humility in hard manual labour on farms and a deep presiding sense of peace. During this time Xu continued to hone his artistic skill and was recommended for the May seventh College of Arts in Beijing.

In 1976, a year after the Cultural Revolution collapsed following the death of Chairman Mao, Xu returned to Beijing as a student in the re-instated Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Initially intent on gaining training in the Western tradition of oil painting, Xu’s reputation steered his academic path towards the more egalitarian art of printmaking. After graduating in 1981 Xu earned his MFA in printmaking in 1987 and returned to teach at CAFA in 1989.

The 1980s were a complex and divided era in Post Mao China, Unprecedented explorations of non-traditional art forms and ideas emerged on the contemporary art scene influenced by Western cultures. In 1979 the “Third Stars Art Exhibition” was the first avant-garde art to be shown in an official space held on an upper floor of the National Art Gallery. The gallery went on to exhibit leading provocateurs from the West such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, ho9wever it was a decade later before another exhibition of experimental Chinese art would be held. In 1989 the China/Avant-Garde exhibition brought non-traditional art to the state-sanctioned gallery on a grand scale, taking over the entire museum with performance and installation art given priority on the lower levels of the museum. A prominent feature of this exhibition was the ’85 New Wave movement, including Xu.

Xu exhibited his iconic installation, “Tianshu,” at the 1989 exhibition. There was some perplexity at whether to read the work as a critique or an instantiation of Chinese culture, or both, reflecting the deep differences over the future of Chinese art. The exhibition opened on the eve of the Chinese New Year and was temporarily shut down for its provocative content after three hours, reopening the next day only to be permanently closed three days later for its “bourgeois liberalism.”

Background Story Seven, 2011. Plant material, hemp fibers, and newspaper on backlit glass. British Museum, London, UK

Change seemed to be on the horizon as the artists prepared for this exhibition, however, it was not in the direction that many had anticipated. Within months of the exhibition, protestors for democracy gathered m Tiananmen Square, with a million people taking up residence in the square. The situation reached a breaking point between military forces and protestors leading to violent confrontations as troops fired upon and killed hundreds if not thousands of protestors. After the June Fourth Incident, as it is known in China, many Chinese artists, including Xu, became the subject of increased scrutiny by the government. In 1990, Xu joined the diaspora of artists leaving China and moved to the USA after receiving an invitation from the University of Wisconsin.

Xu settled in New York in 1992 where he shared a basement flat in the East Village with artist Ai Weiwei. The two artists became friends, creating the mixed media piece “Wu Street” (1993) exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. Xu attracted controversy in 1994 with his work “A Case Study of Transference”, exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum’s “Art in China after 1989: Theater of the World.” The piece, a film documentary, portrayed spectators observing a boar mating a sow, both stamped with nonsensical writing as if branded. Intended as a satirical take on Chinese artists’ obsession with Western culture during the late 1980s and early 1990s the actions of the animals overpowered the message. Described as disturbing PETA activists condemned the use of animals and called for its removal. Despite assurances the animals had been well treated Xu’s work was taken down.

Xu continued creating work exploring such themes as history, aesthetics, and linguistic constructs from the written words for the next two decades – a concept central to his personal experiences of the Cultural Revolution. In 1994 Xu began exploring fluidity within writing systems through the recreation of English words in the Chinese character style, a project entitled Square Word Calligraphy. In 1999 Xu was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his contribution to printmaking and calligraphy. This was followed by many international awards, artist residencies, and site-specific installations. International exposure, and his desire to transcend cultural and temporal distinctions, put Xu firmly on the world art stage.

In 2008 Xu returned to China to serve as Vice President at his alma mater CAFA. He had consolidated many of the cultural problems that had been close to him when leaving China in 1990. Living and working in the USA and other countries enabled him to address in full the questions of language from his youth.

Harmonization with Chinese culture has allowed Xu to react to current concerns, and to explore creativity through a wide range of materials beyond calligraphy and language. These reactions to society within China and internationally have taken the foreground in a number of his latest works. The monumental “Phoenix Project” (2010) comprised of recycled construction materials depicted his critique of labour conditions at the site of the World Financial Centre in Beijing. In the last decade, Xu has created pieces in metal, printed ‘emoticons,’ cigarette butts, and surveillance footage.

Xu’s delicate critique puts him in contrast to fellow artist and former colleague Ai Weiwei, who has a reputation as a harsh critic of the Chinese government. Ai provoked an international uproar upon being put under house arrest in 2010 for disapproval of low-standard construction materials at government-built schools, resulting in the deaths of thousands of children during the Sichuan province earthquake in 2008. Xu distanced himself when asked for his opinions on China’s actions towards Ai.

Book from the Ground, 2012. Print on paper. Eslite Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan

Xu’s international presence combined with his artistic commentary on social, cultural, and political issues has made him one of China’s best-known artists today. His work with the written word has been particularly significant for Contemporary Chinese Art for it has challenged the fundamentals of how language is conceptualized. Since 1994 with his “Square Word Calligraphy” Xu has transcended the gap between English-speaking and Chinese-speaking people, breaking down the barriers of language. Xu’s “Book from the Ground” (2012) utilized a symbolic language allowing for direct interaction across linguistic barriers.

As an artist, Xu’s significance lies not only in his harmonization of opposites but in his active efforts to promote collective learning and intercultural understanding. The integration of his philosophies – harmony, balance, and respect – into the formation of his art real Xu to be a true advocate of progression.


Reinventing Tradition in a New World: The Arts of Gu Wenda, Wang Mansheng, Xu Bing, and Zhang Hongtu by Wang Ying and Yan Sun

Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections (SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture) by Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger T Ames