Xu Bing - Biography and Legacy
Chinese Printmaker, Calligrapher, Installation Artist and Filmmaker
Biography of Xu Bing
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.
Education and Early training
During the escalation of social change during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Xu Bing's family would be caught in turmoil. The changes imposed during this period infiltrated all aspects of Chinese society, and language in particular. The biography Intellectual by Nature, Poet at Heart describes this period in the artist's life, "Under Chairman Mao, the language Xu Bing had always known was modified, simplified and re-tooled for propaganda. Something he experienced first-hand as a child, forced to lend his skills to the revolution in order to stay in school." This included work on large-scale banners with utilitarian messages of propaganda endorsed by the Maoist regime. Even at a young age, he recalls, "It allowed me to see the changes in the Chinese language and the style of Chinese characters. At that point, I realized the style of these characters actually contained deep political messages."
In 1968, Chairman Mao began his re-education program, declaring it "very necessary for educated youths to go to the countryside and learn from poor and lower-middle-class peasants [...] to bring about a mobilization." Xu Bing would himself be sent from the city in 1974, one year after graduation. Britta Erickson describes in The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning Without Words (2001), that despite the hardship, the young man found a sense of calm in the country, after the persecution of his parents at Beijing University sent his father sent to a labor camp for reformation. "Things were different in the countryside," she writes, "There, the peasants did not care about Xu Bing's bad class background. They judged a person in more tangible terms, such as how hard someone worked in the fields." Despite the hardship and contrast to his previous urban upbringing, Xu remembers his time engaged in hard manual labor on farms teaching him humility, but also providing a deep sense of peace.
This period also witnessed Xu continue to hone his artistic skills. Erickson continues, "Due to his talent and dedication, Xu was recommended for admission to the May Seventh College of Arts in Beijing, a Cultural Revolution institution created by Mao's wife Jiang Qing and incorporating the former Central Academy of Fine Arts."
Xu Bing returned to Beijing a year after the Cultural Revolution collapsed in 1976, following the death of Chairman Mao, as a student in the newly re-instated Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Although looking to gain training in the Western tradition of oil painting, his reputation steered his academic path, and thus he focused on the more egalitarian artform of printmaking. CAFA proved to be a training ground for the next generation of young artists. Xu Bing graduated in 1981, earned his MFA in printmaking in 1987, and returning to teach at the academy in 1989. During his tenure at CAFA, he produced two influential works. The first, a series of radically simple, sometimes described as "humble," images of rural homes and farms. And following graduation, he began to work on what still might be considered his most important work, Book from the Sky (1987).
The 1980s were a complex, dichotomous era in post-Mao China. The development of a contemporary art scene influenced by Western practices resulted in unprecedented exploration of non-traditional artforms and ideas by the emerging generation. The first avant-garde art shown in an official space, the Third Stars Art Exhibition, went on display in an upper floor of the National Art Gallery in 1979. Although the gallery would show leading provocateurs from the West, including Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, it would be a full decade before another exhibition of experimental Chinese art would be held, this time on a much larger scale. In 1989, the China/Avant-Garde exhibition brought non-traditional art to the state-sanctioned gallery, this time taking over the entire museum with performance and installation art given priority on the bottom levels of the museum. A key feature of this exhibition was the '85 New Wave movement, with which Xu Bing was involved. "The original purpose of the New Wave was to liberate art, by trying to copy Western art," he recalls in a 2013 interview with Jane Shilling of 1843 magazine, "But after a few years, they realized that if you only imitate other people's work, you can't move forward. So then people started to realize that you have to find inspiration from your own culture."
At the seminal 1989 exhibition, Xu Bing exhibited his sprawling and now-iconic installation, originally titled Fenxi Shijie de Shu (A book that analyzes the world), better known today as Tianshu or Book from the Sky. "The imagination and beauty of the installation, as well as Xu's serious approach, were often commended," art historian Stanley K. Abe describes in his 1998 article No Questions, No Answers: China and A Book from the Sky. "But there was also considerable perplexity over whether to read the work as a critique, or as an instantiation of Chinese culture, or as both; the debate reflected deep concerns and differences over the future direction of Chinse art." The exhibition opened on February 5, 1989 on the eve of the Chinese New Year and temporarily shut down after only three hours for provocative content. The exhibition reopened the next day only to be permanently closed just three days later, criticized for its "bourgeois liberalism."
As artists prepared for this exhibit, it seemed a sea change loomed on the horizon. Unfortunately, it was not in the direction many had eagerly anticipated. Within a few months of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, protestors for democracy gathered in Tiananmen Square, with up to a million people taking residence in the public square. By June, the situation between the government's military forces and protestors reached a breaking point, leading to a violent confrontation as troops fired upon and killed hundreds or, some estimate, several thousand protestors. Following what is known in China as the June Fourth Incident, many artists in China, including Xu Bing, became the subject of increased scrutiny by the government. It was also during this time that Xu Bing father was diagnosed with lung cancer. In 1990, Xu Bing joined the diaspora of artists leaving China ,"by choice, not necessity," and moved to the United States after receiving an invitation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
After relocating to America, Xu settled in New York in 1992, where he shared a small basement flat in the East Village with fellow artist Ai Weiwei. The two became good friends, creating the mixed-media piece Wu Street together in 1993, which was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, however, Xu Bing attracted controversy with A Case Study of Transference (1994), which was exhibited in the Guggenheim Museum's show, Art in China after 1989: Theater of the World. A documentary film, the piece showed spectators watching a boar mating a sow, both of which had their coats stamped with nonsensical writing appearing as if tattooed, or even branded, on the animal's skin. Although intended as a satirical take on Chinese artists' obsession with Western culture during the late-1980s and early-1990s, the writing on the boar appeared similar to Romanized letters, and the glyphs on the sow resembled Chinese characters, the animals' actions overwhelmed the message. The work was not well received, critics describing it as "disturbing" and PETA activists condemned the use of animals, calling for its removal. In the end, despite assurances that the animals had been well treated, Xu Bing's work was taken down. Ai Weiwei commented that "when an art institution cannot exercise its right for freedom of speech, that is tragic for a modern society." The two artists created additional artistic collaborations in the following years with the publication of Black Cover Book (1994) the first of three by Ai Weiwei that critiqued the restrictions on free speech in China.
Xu Bing continued to create work exploring the historic, aesthetic and linguistic constructs of the written word over the next two decades - a theme central to his experience of the Cultural Revolution. In 1994, in addition to his collaboration with Ai Weiwei, Xu began to explore the fluidity of writing systems through his recreation of English words in the style of Chinese characters, on ongoing project titled Square Word Calligraphy. Xu Bing was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of his contributions, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy in 1999, followed by numerous international awards, artist residencies and site-specific museum installations. This international exposure, combined with his desire to transcend cultural and temporal distinctions, placed the Xu Bing and, by extension, contemporary manifestations of Chinese art, firmly on the world stage.
Xu Bing returned to China in 2008, accepting the offer to serve as Vice President at his alma mater, CAFA. he felt that he had consolidated many of the cultural identity problems that had been so close to him upon leaving China in 1990. His experiences living and working in the USA and elsewhere had allowed him to express fully the questions of language which had arisen in his youth. He says that this period living outside of China allowed him to really see what it meant to be a contemporary artist. Commenting on the transition, he describes to Jane Shilling that he had to "change back to becoming Chinese again in this new country," which increased his appreciation for the China's culture. He continued to honor this appreciation in his teaching work at CAFA. Pressing the importance of discipline coming hand-in-hand with creativity, he aimed to teach his students this traditional, scholastic sensibility, which he has found to be crucial to his own work.
His harmonization with China's culture again has allowed Bing to respond to current concerns, and to explore creatively through a range of materials beyond calligraphy and language. His responses to modern society, both within China and internationally, have taken the foreground in many of his latest works. His monumental Phoenix Project (2010) comprised of recycled construction materials, embodied his critique of labor conditions at the site of the World Financial Center in Beijing. Moving away from traditional aesthetics, in the last ten years Bing has created works in metal, printed 'emoticons,' cigarette butts and, for his project Dragonfly Eyes (2015), surveillance footage.
Xu's delicate style of critique places him in contrast to fellow artist and former colleague Ai Weiwei, who has earned an international reputation as a harsh critic of the Chinese government. The latter provoked an international outcry upon being placed under house arrest in 2010 for his vocal disapproval of shoddy construction materials at government-built schools which resulted in the death of thousands of schoolchildren during an earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. When Xu was questioned about his opinions on China's actions towards Ai, he distanced himself, stating in a widely quoted interview with the Financial Times in 2011, "I really don't know about Ai Weiwei's situation and I'm not really interested in politics, although I'm certainly interested in the human condition in general." He has continued to exhibit around the globe, with studio in Beijing and New York, continuing to explore and bridge the dichotomies of East and West, and between his own past and present.
The Legacy of Xu Bing
Xu Bing's international presence, combined with his delicate artistic commentary of social, cultural and political issues, make him one of China's best-known artists today. Xu's work with the written word has been especially significant for Contemporary Chinese art, since he has challenged the very fundamentals of how the language is conceptualized. In his Square Word Calligraphy (from 1994 onwards), he has transcended a cultural gap between English-speaking and Chinese-speaking peoples by breaking down the barriers of language, a fundamental obstacle in understanding one another. More recently, his Book from the Ground (2012) adopted a symbol-based language allowing direct interaction across linguistic barriers.
Bing's significance as an artist lies not only in his harmonization of opposites, but also in his active efforts to promote collective learning and inter-cultural understanding. The strong interest in education is evident by his tenure at CAFA (2008-2014), and the integration of class room-style installations that accompany the many exhibitions of Square Word Calligraphy. This integration of his philosophies - those of harmony, balance and respect - into the practical formation of his art show him to be a true advocate of progression. While Xu Bing's oeuvre is rooted in an appreciation the richness of China's cultural history, his career is marked by consistent evolution and exploration of nontraditional mediums and modern technologies. "We can see in the work of the younger generation of Chinese artists a uniqueness and creative potential that could be much, much more interesting than the work of the already world-famous artists," the artist described to ARTNews in 2011. "We can see real seeds of contemporary art - a real sense of future, because China is so experimental, the most experimental place in the world."