Xu Bing is a merchant of confusion, and his favored commodity is language. Almost 30 years ago, the conceptual artist confounded literate audiences with his seminal work “Book From the Sky,” consisting of sprawling reams of paper printed with 4,000 convincing yet entirely fabricated Chinese characters. Then there was his “Square Word Calligraphy,” a 1994 reimagining of the English alphabet using Chinese brushstrokes, and, in 2003, “Book From the Ground,” which told the story of a person’s daily life using emojis alone.
The witty linguistic play that for many years dominated the 62-year-old’s avant-garde, mixed-media opus speaks to the place he has commanded at the crossroads of East and West and the convergence of modernity and tradition.
Born in 1955 into a family of intellectuals, Xu was one of millions of “sent-down youth” to be dispatched to the countryside to work with their rural comrades during the violently iconoclastic Cultural Revolution. Two decades later, he was living in New York, sharpening his understanding of contemporary art in the West. In 2008, he returned to China to take up the position of vice president at his alma mater, the state-run China Central Academy of Fine Arts.
It’s a life rife with fodder for social critique, and in a departure from the internationally acclaimed artist’s early focus on the world of language, Xu’s more recent art has sought more immediate inspiration from issues surrounding the environment and contemporary society. He made waves with “Background Story,” a re-creation of classical Chinese landscapes using light projected through carefully arranged plastic bags and natural debris, while his most recent film project, “Dragonfly Eyes,” is a collage of publicly available security camera footage, an undisguised commentary on the age of surveillance.
The artist spoke to Sixth Tone about his predilection for art linking the West and the East, the relationship between Chinese artistic tradition and modern civilization, and how it is up to China’s artists to forge creative opportunities out of the restrictions they encounter. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Xu Bing poses for a portrait in Beijing, April 20, 2008. Wang Jianing/VCG
Sixth Tone: Where does your fascination with the written language originate?
Xu Bing: My mother used to work in the department of library science at Peking University. When I was ill as a child and couldn’t go to school, my mom would lock me in the department’s book archive. I have an awkward relationship with Chinese characters, because I was initially immersed in their appearances. And when it came time for me to actually read, there were no books but the [anthology of Maoist teachings] “little red book,” because of the Cultural Revolution.
When my generation started school, the simplification of Chinese characters was being carried out, and the Language Reform Research Committee was experimenting in all kinds of ways. This embedded in my mind the idea that characters could be played with and altered — starkly different from the reverence with which Chinese people have traditionally viewed words.
I have always held the attitude that touching characters means touching the most fundamental parts of thought. For example, “Book From the Sky” is rooted in the cultural fever that followed the Cultural Revolution. The sudden influx of ideas, publications, and discussion made once-hungry people overfed. “Square Word Calligraphy” speaks to the problems I encountered in a foreign country. Wherever there is a problem, there is art.
Sixth Tone: But you seem to have steered away from words, turning your attention to creations using ready-made materials to reflect reality, such as the ongoing “Background Story” installations made up of plastic bags. Why the change?
Xu Bing: With the fall of the Berlin Wall and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Union, people thought the world would be better off under the rule of liberal capitalist values. But the world is actually getting worse. As an artist, no matter how oblivious you are to the outside world, as long as you care about the destiny of mankind, you are obliged to present your attitude toward the current state of affairs.
Many people can’t believe there are no actual brushstrokes in such a traditional-looking Chinese painting as “Background Story.” In an exhibition located at the Beijing Third Plastic Factory, I used plastic bags to replicate the green hills and clear waters of China. I find it particularly interesting that the re-creation of the scenery is so well-done that it appears as a warning to modern people.
Top: A front view of ‘Background Story: Ten Thousand Li of Mountains and Rivers’; bottom: a back view of the same work exhibited in Vancouver, Canada, 2014. Courtesy of Xu Bing
Sixth Tone: In what way is that a response to the current state of affairs?
Xu Bing: I am expressing my attitude toward the relationships between tradition and modernity, between West and East. Tradition and modernity are not divided, but exist in a fluid relationship. The ancient philosophy of “harmony between nature and humankind,” for example, became outdated 200 years ago, when the main focus was on industrial civilization and modernization. Now, however, the concept is much appreciated.
A bigger motivation is to explore how to use and activate our own culture for future development. It is now that human civilization is clashing most intensely with the natural world. I hope that when people view the work, they can reflect on the state of affairs of humankind today.
Sixth Tone: So is there a sense of public service to your work?
Xu Bing: I like things that suit both refined and popular tastes, not those that look down from a height or make regular people feel inferior. This has something to do with my generation’s socialist background, which gave us as children an education that promoted art for the people, art that both came from life and reflected life itself. Though it sounds outdated, this is my belief, and I will always hold it to be true.
‘Which Is Infinite,’ 2010, a work in which the title is written in the style of Chinese characters. Courtesy of Xu Bing
Sixth Tone: You must have encountered a very different kind of artistic environment in the U.S. How did your time there shape you as an artist?
Xu Bing: I went to the U.S. because I wanted to learn what contemporary art is. I had my own judgments and understandings of their system, with its unique strengths and ills. I didn’t enjoy the urbanization of their developed society. China, on the other hand, had become a country full of vitality and a place very suitable for artists to live and work in. It had energy, problems, and possibilities.
China’s artistic environment has since somewhat changed due to the concepts of political and cultural guidance. But any place has its limitations on artistic creation, only from different sources. In the West, there are all kinds of laws, like how wide a fire escape route must be. It all depends on how you utilize them, turning restrictions into something useful and unique.
Sixth Tone: On the subject of restrictions, your current film project about the world of surveillance seems to scream George Orwell’s “1984.” Was the novel the inspiration for the project?
Xu Bing: The novel was formed from our past impressions of surveillance footage. Young people today have totally different understandings compared to my generation, born during the Cold War. Instead of holding reluctant attitudes, many now use surveillance to interact with society, either by live-streaming or uploading videos online.
In general, society is shaped by new technology. Needless to say, this has challenged many of the thoughts from the Cold War period, along with a lot of philosophical, legal, and moral concepts. Transformation happens too fast, leaving no time for introspection. All we can do is follow the tide.
Editor: Owen Churchill.
(Header image: A partial view of ‘Background Story: Ten Thousand Li of Mountains and Rivers’ exhibited in Vancouver, Canada, 2014. Courtesy of Xu Bing)