Xu Bing's Dialogue with China's Cultural History
Xu Bing is a contemporary Chinese artist whose work often involves the use of text, and which is invariably in dialogue with the past. In Book from the Sky, a groundbreaking work that was first presented in Beijing in 1988, Xu creates a complex riddle that questions the merits of meaning, workmanship, tradition, propaganda, and cultural preconceptions. In his early 2000s series of works called Landscripts, Xu once again explores the meaning of written characters and the intersection of calligraphy and painting. A later series of installations entitled Background Story, departs from his prior interest in language and the written word, but continues to explore themes from China’s cultural past – in this instance commenting on its great tradition of landscape painting. Throughout his career, Xu Bing has been a clever critic of traditional values and his country’s cultural patrimony, while at the same time acknowledging their power through his own work.
Book from the Sky
Book from the Sky is an installation work consisting firstly of 4,000 hand-carved printing blocks with made up Chinese characters. Although the characters conform to traditional conventions regarding radicals, symmetry, structure and stroke order, they are in fact entirely invented by Xu and therefore illegible. From these blocks, Xu printed long scrolls that hang from the ceiling and cover the walls, and also bound this printed matter into finely constructed books – some with expertly crafted protective wood boxes – which are stacked upon the floor. For the Chinese viewer presented with this work, the experience is confounding. They are confronted by a room filled with text and reading formats – scroll, book, public newspaper display - which look tantalizingly familiar but ultimately frustrate. For the non-Chinese viewer, the experience can be equally mystifying. In this instance – presented with a work that looks like Chinese – the non-Chinese viewer finds amusement in being equal in understanding with a Chinese reader. Both types of viewers can feel astonishment, as well, in the supreme levels of dedication to craft that went into creating this ‘meaningless work.’ According to Xu Bing, “The artwork itself is a contradiction because it makes a parody of culture while also placing culture in a temple to be taken very seriously.” The statement proves prophetic, as parts of the work have been collected by Princeton University to complement their collection of important calligraphic works, including a letter by the ‘Sage of Calligraphy,’ Wang Xizhi.
This work is in many ways in dialogue with calligraphic conventions, while at the same time refuting them. On the one hand, both calligraphy and Book from the Sky emphasize the formal aspects of Chinese writing, and the value that is often placed on illegibility. According to Robert Harrist, Book from the Sky examines the tension
“between the perception of calligraphy as a system of lexical communication bearing semantic meaning and the perception of calligraphy as a system of pure visual forms… It was the theoretical separation of semantic content from visual form that elevated the status of calligraphy to that of a fine art. The denigration of linguistic meaning is a cornerstone of early calligraphy criticism and theory.”
Works like Wang Xhizhi’s Three Passages, in which “the lines appear to have a life of their own,” and the later work of Chen Xianzhang, with its wild expressiveness that takes no account of meaning, parallel the unintelligibility for the sake of art and beauty that is found in Xu’s work. The artist, however, claims that he “is not particularly attracted to calligraphy because it is too self-expressive, too individualistic for [his] purposes.” The paradox of this complex work’s relationship to calligraphy is that they are united both in the elevation of form over meaning, as well as in the striving to find meaning in the written word that is one of the great pleasures of Chinese scholars.
Though Xu Bing’s work deals with the questions of legibility, meaning and form that are at the heart of calligraphic writing, ultimately, the choice of printed material imbues it with even greater complexity. The characters themselves, based on “a font style from the 15th century Ming dynasty, but with references to still earlier moments in the history of Chinese printing,” – such as Song writing – reference both the stability and instability of meaning. Chinese writing styles have undergone many changes over the course of its history and Xu often speaks of his frustration at the mutability of characters during Mao’s regime. By placing this illegible text firmly in the forms of the past, Xu makes a statement on the endless river of accumulated scripts and meanings that reach back into the past, while at the same time criticizing the hidebound nature of China’s reverence for historical texts.
The formatting of the work also serves to emphasize this ambivalent relation. Everything about the printing and binding of these texts, from the level of craftsmanship to their size and details, aligns them with “important works of classical literature.” The profound relationship that the Chinese have towards the printed page is one not easily understood by Westerners. In China, a uniform system of writing unites people with disparate languages, while simultaneously creating a gap between literate and non-literate “which has long served as the single greatest social discriminator in Chinese culture.” Xu Bing is perhaps offering a commentary on the elitism of China’s traditional scholar-class by presenting a work unintelligible even to the most sophisticated viewer. Another critical aspect of this work’s lack of meaning is the direct attack it takes to the “moral as well as historical freight,” with which Chinese writing is imbued. In a historical context, Chinese writing can be understood to carry the import of the directives found in Oracle bones, the supplications to ancestral guides, the rigors of the bureaucratic testing system, and the “personal cultivation” of Confucian doctrine. In questioning the legitimacy of scholarship and tradition through unintelligibility, Xu Bing creates a profoundly subversive work that contains all the hallmarks of the highest scholarly achievement.
Xu Bing’s Landscript series continues his thematic pre-occupation with the written word and the sources of meaning. In these paintings, he arranges a composition using a pattern of repetitive Chinese characters that represent the landscape features. By their arrangement, size and the heaviness of the brushstrokes, Xu is able to denote contour and areas of light and dark within the landscape. This work relates directly to theories about the common origins of pictographic characters, calligraphy and painting. Wen Fong has written about the relationship between archaic pictographs and their influence on represented forms, particularly the three-peaked ‘mountain’ character and the character for ‘tree.’ Later painting techniques codified this relationship further. In this sense, it also offers a commentary on Chinese painting tradition, which emphasizes training in uniform brush-strokes much like writing methods. A clear precursor to Xu’s tongue-in-cheek landscape can be found in the seminal work, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, which taught artists how to create masses of foliage from repetitive character-like brushstrokes such as jie-dots. Landscripts, then, can be seen as both an abstraction of traditional painting techniques as well as an inquiry into the origins of basic brushwork.
According to Xu Bing’s account of the nature of this work, it explores many aspects of “the most fundamental elements of Chinese culture.” Underlying the concept is the inescapable subconscious power that the written word – in resembling the real-world objects that are its referents – has over Chinese thought. In Landscripts, he drives this point home by, in a sense, ‘doubling’ the meaning: the object in the painting is represented by a character that resembles (or once did) the object being painted. At play here is the gap between calligraphic representations and reality – and what that says about the Chinese mind and how it sees and interprets the world. At the most basic level of inquiring into ancient techniques, these modern landscapes function as bridges to the past. Xu Bing describes the painting process as “going back to the starting point of Chinese culture,” and realizing that at their core, calligraphy and painting are one. “[Cun] fa is a kind of writing,” which artists through the centuries have learned from guides such as the Mustard Seed Garden, as if children studying from primers. There is, in this work, both loving homage to the history of Chinese culture as well as a subtle critique about the dead-end created by treating landscape painting as something divorced from reality, and teachable through rote application of centuries-old techniques.
Xu Bing’s deceptively beautiful series of on-going installations called Background Story, move away from questions about language and writing and instead focus their critique of tradition, clearly a theme that has consistently characterized Xu Bing’s work, on the practice of Chinese landscape painting. The pieces are meant to stand apart from the gallery walls in order to be viewed from the front as well as the back. Effectively large-scale shadow boxes, from the front they present pleasing scenes in the manner of traditional landscapes – black images on a white background, simulating the various methods of ink-work and explicitly inspired by older works. From the back, the viewer is privy to the artist’s media and technique. He creates these beguiling scenes from accumulated refuse such as plant cuttings and bits of paper glued to the back of frosted glass. In his method of creating landscapes ‘in the style of’ prior masters, Xu is referring to an inviolable training tradition in Chinese art, whereby artists first directly copied prior masterpieces, then created new compositions using similar techniques, and finally became masters through their ability to synthesize ancient styles into their own unique expression. This work, in a sense carries on that tradition – it is no coincidence that the referent painting is a copy of a famous non-existent masterpiece – of supreme craftsmanship inspired by the work of the past. It is also an unquestionable critique of that tradition, which exposing the dross behind the artistically stultifying method of endless chains of copies.
Chinese culture is inseparably bound to allusions to the past. Xu Bing, in this respect, is no different from prior masters looking for inspiration in ancient works. The tension he creates between the simultaneous regard for tradition and censure of its more stifling aspects, is what gives his work the “unique power to inspire such meta-critical awareness of fundamental properties of other works of art.” These three works, embody Xu Bing’s paradoxical dialogue with the past.
 Harrist, 37 & 40
 Xu, 103
 Harrist, 25
 Harrist, 32-33
 National Palace Museum
 Leung, 89
 Link, 48
 Silbergeld, 21
 Xu, 103
 Goldberg, pg 114
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 Link, 50
 Link, 51
 The British Museum.
 Hor-Chung Lau
 Harrist, 29
Fong, Wen, Alfreda Murck, Shou-chien Shih, Pao-chen Ch'en, and Jan Stuart. Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at the Art Museum, Princeton University. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton University in Association with Princeton UP, 1984
Goldberg, Steven and Xu Bing. “Question and Answer Session.” Persistence | Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 113-118
Harper, Glenn. “SUBSTANCE: A Conversation with Xu Bing.” Xubing.com, n.d. http://www.xubing.com/index.php/site/texts/a_conversation_with_xu_bing/
Harrist, Robert E. Jr. “Book from the Sky at Princeton: Reflections on Scale Sense and Sound.” Persistence | Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 25-45
Hor-Chung Lau, Joyce. “Xu Bing: An Artist who Bridges East and West.” New York Times, May 19, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/arts/20iht-Xu20.html?pagewanted=all
Leung, Simon, Janet A. Kaplan, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay. “Pseudo-Languages: A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay.” Art Journal, Vol 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999): pp 86-99
Link, Perry. “Whose Assumptions does Xu Bing Upset, and Why?” Persistence | Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 47-57
Lui, Claire. “Being and Nothingness.” Xubing.com, n.d. http://www.xubing. com/index.php/site/texts/being_and_nothingness/
Pearlman, Ellen and Xu Bing. “Xu Bing with Ellen Pearlman.” In Art: InConversation. New York: The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture, September 2007. http://brooklynrail.org /2007/09/art/xu-bing
Reuter, Laurel. “Into the Dark Sings the Nightingale: The Work of Xu Bing.” Xubing.com, n.d. http://www.xubing.com/index.php/site/texts/into_the _dark_sings_ the_nightingale_the_works_of_xu_bing/
Schardt, Molly. “Brushstrokes: Styles and Techniques of Chinese Painting.” Edited by Richard Mellott and So Kam Ng. New York: Asian Art Museum, 1995. http://www.asianart.org/pdf/education/brushstrokes-packet.pdf
Silbergeld, Jerome. “Introduction.” Persistence | Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 19-22
“Three Passages: P’ing-an, Ho-ju and Feng-chü.” In Selections: Calligrapy. Taipei: National Palace Museum, n.d.http://www.npm.gov.tw/en/collection/ selections_02.htm?docno=130&catno=17
Xu Bing. “An Artist’s View.” Persistence | Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing. Edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Dora C. Y. Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
“Xu Bing Creates Site Specific Installation at the British Museum.” In News and Press: Press Releases. London: The British Museum, n.d. http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2011/xu_bing_at_the_british_museum.aspx
Zhang Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005.