The Mixed Media Installations of Xu Bing

Xu Bing. Photo: widewalls.ch
Xu Bing. Photo: widewalls.ch

Xu Bing is a Chinese artist and professor recognized for his skills in printmaking and his installation art. His work is connected with how the creative use of words and language has affected our understanding of the world. Born in Chongqing, China, in 1955, Bing is a pioneering contemporary Chinese artist. Additionally, he has created prestigious and moving mixed-media installations. In these he destroys the established language systems, elevating horizons and perceptions.

Bing was trained at Chan, a Chinese school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, about the relationship between meaning and words, writing, and reading. “My works are all linked by a common thread, which is to build some kind of obstacle to people’s habitual ways of thinking, what I call the ‘cognitive structures’ of the mind,” Xu Bing explained.

He is famous for having reinvented Chinese characters and the English alphabet. Turning meaningless Chinese characters and English ones into readable Chinese characters, challenging the understanding of both. In Book of Heaven (1987-91), Xu filled a gallery with scrolls and hand-printed books with 4,000 “false” Chinese characters. This was an impressive commentary on the subjectivity of language and its meaning.

Outstanding achievements

Xu Bing’s work has appeared in major Art History textbooks over the years. Including Art Past, Art Present by David Wilkins (Pearson Prentice Hall, 1997). Also the Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History by Fred S. Kleiner (Wadsworth Publishing). Bing served also as vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Phoenix (2015). 56th International Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures, Venice, Italy. Photo: xubing.com

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA) in 1981. Then he obtained his master’s degree in 1987. However, he moved to the United States in 1990 but returned to China in 2007. From 2008 to 2014, Bing served as vice president of CAFA, where he is currently a professor and director of the Academic Committee. Bing has participated in the 45th, 51st, and 56th Venice Biennials. Additionally, he has participated and the Johannesburg Biennial, among other international exhibitions. He currently lives and works in Beijing and New York.

In 1999 Bing received an award from the MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of his “ability to make a significant contribution to society. It was due to his printmaking and calligraphy. He received another award in 2003, the 14th Fukuoka Asian Culture Award for his “contribution to the development of Asian culture. In 2004, he won the first World Arts Award in Wales.

The Southern Graphics Council awarded Bing in 2006 its lifetime achievement award. This was in recognition of the fact that his “use of text, language, and books has had a significant impact on the dialogue between the worlds of print and art”. In 2015, he won the State Department’s Medal of Arts for his efforts to promote cultural understanding through his works of art.

Most important works

Book from the Sky

First presented in Beijing in 1988, Book from the Sky was not shown again in China for nearly 20 years, despite the work’s many international installations. But when Xu Bing returned to China from the United States in 2007, the work was included in “’85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Xu Bing: Book from the Sky (2016-2017). Photo: blantonmuseum.org

At first glance the pages appear as an elegant example of traditional Chinese calligraphy, evoking the richness and sophistication of China’s long literary history. However, Book from the Sky is, in fact, a collection of meaningless glyphs, imaginary characters created by the artist to deceive the viewer. Comprised of 4,000 hand-carved and printed characters, Book from the Sky remains Bing’s most iconic work to date. It was a book of 4 volumes of 604 pages.

Bing replicated its content to become an immersive installation piece. For the Chinese public, in particular, Bing’s Book from the Sky is deeply disorienting. The wall panels, hanging scrolls, and books that create the space conjure up an atmosphere of near-religious sanctity and security. By challenging common preconceptions, Book from the Sky forces the viewer to reevaluate ideas about the authority of language.

Square Word Calligraphy

Xu Bing continued to work with the written word after his move to the U.S. in 1990. Still affected by the language disorders of the Cultural Revolution, Bing explores in Square Word Calligraphy the perception of the English language while incorporating his experiences in learning English.

His work during the 1980s and 1990s was consistent in the idea that there is a connection to China’s deeply rooted scholastic traditions. This was something he learned from his father despite the external transformations of the Chinese language that Chairman Mao was undergoing.

Square Word Calligraphy Classroom on exhibit at the Wallach Gallery (2011). Photo: youtube.com

Bing’s experience with the language in his youth was in two different worlds: at home, he practiced the fine art of literary calligraphy that was so respected by the values of imperial Chinese. As a student and artist, he created banners and posters in the simplified and direct style of the government.

After years of preparation, he created the calligraphy of square words, which he often calls New English Calligraphy, as it transforms almost unrecognizable English words into the style of Chinese characters. Using traditional techniques of working with ink, the characters appear Chinese again at first sight. But due to its meticulous positioning and stylistic play with the letters it has converted the words into the square shapes that characterize the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy.

Background Story

In 2004, Xu Bing embarked on a new direction away from his language-based work. He created a series of mixed-media installations where the illusionist works challenge the viewer’s perception. When the viewer approaches the work from the front, it looks like a monochromatic painting mounted by the artist on a large scale, presenting a traditional Chinese landscape in a lightbox.

Background Story. Photo: xubing.com

Using a wide variety of traditional brushstroke techniques, Bing first composes a scene with alum rocks in the foreground. Second, a series of rounded hills rising and falling in the distance. And third, a series of pines with a small residence hidden on the shore of the lake, appear in the center of the image.

Instead of ink on paper, Xu Bing placed plant fibers, hemp, paper, and other debris against a screen of frosted glass, backlit to transform these ordinary materials into something majestic. In line with his earlier work with calligraphy, Bing’s Background Story series employs traditional Chinese aesthetics to promote this same inquisitive mindset.

Phoenix Project

Xu Bing received a commission to create a sculptural installation in 2008, for the World Financial Center in Beijing. At the time, this site was in its initial phase of construction. The developers envisioned the collaboration with the internationally renowned artist as a crowning achievement in enhancing the building’s elegant and futuristic design.

Phoenix Project. Photo: massmoca.org

However, Bing was horrified after the initial research visit. This was due to the disparity in the richness of the buildings and the working conditions of the migrant workers who worked and lived on the site. Instead of turning his back on the project, Bing used the project as a transformative opportunity to bring transformation to this site.

Bing actively encouraged worker input by using metals and debris collected from numerous sites throughout China. In doing so, they created a pair of imposing sculptures of the mythical phoenix. One is 100 feet long, and the other is 90 feet long, with a combined weight of 12 tons.

Dragonfly Eyes

Dragonfly Eyes is Xu Bing’s latest work with which he continues to create works where he exposes a rapidly changing society. But this time he went far beyond traditional artistic means. Dragonfly Eyes is a fiction thriller film created without equipment, props, or actors. It is composed instead of surveillance footage.

Adapting the story of its female protagonist Qing Ting (“dragonfly” in Mandarin), who leaves behind her life as a nun to work in a milk factory. The film follows Ting through several other urban locations while chronicling a love story between her and a former colleague.

ArtsyXu Bing 徐冰 | Dragonfly Eyes Poster (2015). Photo: Artsy

Bing created a film from pre-existing surveillance material where he takes a critical look at the power of the state. A power focused on mass surveillance, rather than propaganda or language barriers. “In general, society is shaped by new technology. Needless to say, this has challenged… many philosophical, legal, and moral concepts,” Bing observes.

In 2018, The New York Times estimated that China has some 200 million surveillance cameras using facial recognition and artificial intelligence to track 1.4 billion people. In this new phase of artistic experimentation, Bing poses a disturbing question that plagues contemporary post-industrial societies: Who is watching us? How are our actions and behavior perceived?

Important exhibitions

Xu Bing’s work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C. Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas; the British Museum, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain; the Joan Miró Foundation, Spain; the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the National Gallery of Prague, Czech Republic; and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

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