Xu Bing (Chinese: 徐冰 born 1955) is a Chinese-born artist who lived in the United States for eighteen years. Currently residing in Beijing, he used to serve as the vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. He is most known for his printmaking skills and installations pieces, as well as his creative artistic use of language, words, and text and how they have affected our understanding of the world.
Early works: While at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Xu Bing mastered the Socialist Realism style of art so predominant during the Maoist era. After graduating with his degree in printmaking, the artist veered away and created simple but dramatic woodcuts, such as Shattered Jade (1977) and Bustling Village on the Water (1980-81, 繁忙的水乡). In 1987, Xu Bing returned to his training in printmaking to create large and elaborate installation pieces like Book from the Sky (1987) and Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990).
Xu Bing’s Tianshu (“Book From the Sky”) is a large installation featuring precisely laid out rows of books and hanging scrolls with written “Chinese” texts. Even so, this work challenges our very approach to language because of the unique nature of the text written on the paper. First presented in Beijing in 1988, the learned élite felt slighted by the artists’ bold move to design and print over 4,000 characters that looked Chinese but were completely meaningless according to standard Mandarin. Xu Bing infuses his work with meaning by stirring confusion and discomfort in his audience, mostly due to the fact that the Chinese characters used in these texts are not “real” characters.
This piece was well received in China until 1989, Leaving China in 1991 for the political and artistic freedom of the United States, Xu Bing continued to explore and express his thoughts on deconstructing language to challenge our most “natural” cultural assumptions. His thought-provoking work enticed Western audiences, and he soon became one of the leading artists in the modern Chinese art scene.
Ghosts Pounding the Wall: Using his background in print-making, in May and June 1990 Xu Bing and a team of art students and help from local residents began a monumental project: creating a rubbing from a section of the Great Wall at Jinshanling. In order to create the rubbings, Xu Bing used entirely traditional Chinese methods and materials for stone rubbing, including rice paper and ink. Measuring 32m x 15m, the resulting installation piece consists of 29 rubbings of different sections of the Great Wall.
Square Word Calligraphy: From 1994 he began writing Chinese characters which were nonsensical to Chinese people but understandable to English speakers because they were one-block words made of English letters bent to the shape of hanzi. He called this New English Calligraphy, and gave lessons in how to write the characters.
Background Story: In his series Background Story, Xu Bing uses unusual materials in order to create a deceptively typical Chinese Scroll Painting. From the front, the piece very much resembles a traditional Shan Shui (Landscape) scroll painting, with images of mountains, trees, and rivers. However, when seen from behind, the viewer is surprised to find that the beautiful “painting” is in fact created by using the shapes and shadows of random natural plant debris. Once again, Xu Bing challenges his audience’s basic assumptions and shows them that everything is not always as it first seems.
Phoenix Project: In 2008, after returning to China to take the position at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Xu Bing was asked to create a sculpture for the atrium of the World Financial Center, which was then being developed in Beijing. He was shocked by primitive working conditions he saw at the construction site, later saying that they “made my skin quiver.” He was inspired to construct two large sculptures in the form of birds that are made largely out of construction debris and tools that he salvaged from the site.
Xu Bing’s art mostly reflects cultural issues which raged during his early life in China. Xu Bing in particular plays with the notion of the paradox between the power and fickleness of language, of what it means to be human, and of how our perceptions color our worldview.
Xu Bing plays incessantly with the role, purpose, and reality of language. Early in his life his father would make him write a page of characters a day, encouraging him to not only copy their form to perfection, but also to capture their spirit, their essence. Xu Bing experienced the constant reformation of words. This constant linguistic change influenced his art: Xu Bing emphasizes the immortality of the essence of language while vividly illustrating the impermanence and capriciousness of words themselves. In this way language becomes malleable and it can be fashioned to either liberate or control. Just as it is nigh impossible to detangle life from politics during the Cultural Revolution era (and its ramifications in decades to follow), Xu Bing also intertwines political messages into his art.
Xu Bing invested in other topics till 2008. For example, he took on environmental projects such as Forest Project, which encouraged the “uninterrupted flow of funds from developed countries to Kenya, earmarked for the planting of new trees.” Even so, his focus is always on the effect that environmental issues have on people, such as the villages in Kenya, not necessarily the effects on the landscape or on the political situation.
At the turn of the millennium, a new defining social pattern emerged after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 9/11, 2001. Tension grew between the West and the Middle East, finally exploding into what was labeled as “the War on Terror.” This situation gave rise to social themes of anxiety and hopelessness seep, which eventually have seeped into the realm of the arts. Even so, some artists like Xu Bing chose to explore the serenity found in the midst of chaos, as illustrated in his work Where does the Dust Itself Collect? (2004, 2011). For this piece, the artist gathered dust from the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York after September 11, 2001, and uses it to recreate the gray film that covered Manhattan in the weeks following the attacks. Stenciled in the dust, a Buddhist poem reads, “As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust itself collect?” Using this tragedy as an expression of the human narrative, Xu Bing contemplates the relationship between the material and the spiritual, and he explores “the complicated circumstances created by different world perspectives.”