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Xu Bing

Chinese Printmaker, Calligrapher, Installation Artist and Filmmaker

Xu Bing Photo
Movements and Styles: Installation Art, Conceptual Art

Born: 1955 - Chongqing, China

"To manipulate the written word is to transform the very essence of culture."

Summary of Xu Bing

For Xu Bing there is no true boundary between language and art, between the written word and the drawn image, nor between the past and present that does not beg to be explored. This might not seem unusual, as the relationship between calligraphy and ink painting goes back well over a millennium in the Chinese tradition. However, it is not simply an investigation of the calligraphic stroke that intrigues the internationally recognized artist, but how each tradition provides a means to transmit ideas and knowledge that the artist actively investigates. When he exhibited Book from the Sky in 1988, the audience was both in awe of his dedication to the 4,000 laboriously carved, seemingly traditional characters of text on hanging scrolls and in books, and astonished to realize that characters were entirely fictional. Since then, Xu Bing has continued to exploit the viewers expectations, by merging Roman letters and Chinese Script, using characters as a means to draw the landscape, and tracing the evolution from the pictographic origins of the Chinese written language to its breaking point, in the form of Chairman Mao's Simplified Chinese characters. In doing so, the artist forces the viewer to confront how meaning is generated and consumed through language, to consider not only the message, but the vehicle through which it is disseminated.

Key Ideas

Xu Bing is among a generation of artists, including Ai Weiwei and Gu Wenda, who experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand during their youth and transmitted that experience through their art. Collectively, although quite diverse in their individual practice, each artist exemplifies the powerful impact of the socio-political upheaval which transformed nearly all aspects of Chinese culture. They also represent the widespread diaspora of contemporary artists from China in the late-20th century, who sought artistic freedom during a period of censure in their home country.
Widely recognized for his manipulation of the written word, Xu's oeuvre exemplifies the artist's constant exploration of socio-political concerns in his art. His earliest works explored the transmission of knowledge through language, calligraphy and traditional Chinese aesthetics, which evolved into a global critique of cross-cultural communication in the 1990s, and into his recent turn to the impact of modern technologies on the environment and human psyche. In the artist's words: "No matter what outer form my works take, they are all linked by a common thread, which is to construct some kind of obstacle to people's habitual ways of thinking - what I call the 'cognitive structures' of the mind."
Throughout his life, Xu has been affiliated with the academic and avant-garde. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, he enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), where he would serve as a professor, while also being active with the experimental artists collectively known as the 85 New Wave. Xu rose to fame as a prominent participant in the seminal exhibition China/Avant-Garde in 1989, an exhibition organized to introduce contemporary aesthetics to a broader audience in China, but shut down by the government within a few days of being open to the public.
Xu Bing Photo

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, in the newly-formed Communist People's Republic of China, in 1955. The third of five children, he spent his childhood years growing up in Beijing, where his parents moved to work at Peking University when he was two years old. He was raised in a highly intellectual environment, as his father was the head of the University's history department, and his mother worked as a researcher in their Department of Library Science. It was here that his love of books was born, sitting for hours in the library reading room, where his mother often sent him, looking through endless volumes. In his early childhood, his father taught him traditional calligraphy and the scholastic canon of China's long history. Xu also began painting at a very young age, which he says he never stopped because "stubbornness" kept him practicing. These early experiences formed his initial fascination with the written word, and the physicality and aesthetics of paper and books in general.

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