publication of the International Sculpture Center
Form - Interior Substance:
A Conversation with Xu Bing
by Glenn Harper
A B C
Ceramic blocks, 8 x 8 x 24 cm.
Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
In his native China,
Xu Bing began his career with innovations in printmaking and with some
of the first Chinese installation art, including what is perhaps his best-known
work, Book from the Sky. He
had been sent to the countryside by the Chinese government for re-education
in 1974, and his experiences in a farming community are among the threads
brought together in his subsequent work. Other important concerns in his
work include the relation of language to experience and the nature of
writing. His installations have been exhibited widely in China and the
West, including Finland, Australia, and the United States, and he was
the subject of a recent exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of
the Smithsonian Institution (reviewed in the November 2002 issue of Sculpture).
Xu now divides his time between China and New York.
Your sculpture or installation work seems to grow out of your sense
of process in drawing and printmaking: printing a calligraphic text by
carving a printing block, then presenting the printing block as sculpture.
(The original root of the word sculpture in European languages
is carving.) You also present the tools of the calligrapher
along with the scroll in Book from the Sky. Is this a conscious growth
from two-dimensional media to three-dimensional media?
Xu Bing: My
formal training as an artist was in printmaking, this is why so many of
my works are related to printing. In fact, the printing process is the
exact opposite of the sculpting process. Printmaking is about taking a
material with elevations and recesses and printing from it so that a three-dimensional
form is transposed into a two-dimensional form. It is true that the process
by which an artist prepares/carves the material to be transformed into
a print contains elements of sculpture; but in printmaking this constitutes
the mid-point rather than the end-point. Still, your observation is interestingthat
this preparatory stage of print-block carving could be seen as related
to early sculptural art.
In my exhibition
at the Sackler Gallery, the implements and materials involved in the production
process were exhibited with the artworks. But this set-up had nothing
to do with considerations of two-dimensionality versus three-dimensionality
or anything like that; it had to do with the overall concept of the show.
The Sackler is famous for showing traditional Asian art and has a specific
kind of audience. Museum officials and the curator chose me to be the
first contemporary Chinese artist to have a large-scale solo exhibition
there in part because they wanted an exhibition that would act as a kind
of bridge between traditional and contemporary art, that would show connections
between them and also create an opening for greater focus on contemporary
Asian art in general. In the planning and design stages, I thought a lot
about how to take advantage of the particular [physical and cultural]
qualities of the museum, so that the concept would include not only the
installations themselves, but also the entire staging of this kind of
art in this kind of museum. This is reflective of my work as a whole,
because in my pieces traditional crafts, techniques, and materials co-exist
with contemporary conceptualism. You could say that the traditional exterior
is a kind of costume, as in the written characters I invented whose exterior
form and interior substance are completely different.
The implements and
materials I used to create my works look like traditional cultural objects,
and they were, in fact, exhibited alongside genuine cultural artifacts
from the Sacklers collection. This enhanced their falseness and
gave rise to questions such as What is the true value of these objects?
and What makes something modern? Within these false objects,
tradition and modernity are mixed together. Thats why viewing these
works from a simplistic dialectical perspectivethat non-traditional
equals modern is to misapprehend thembecause the point is that the
and the modern/contemporary exist within a state of constant and mutual
transformationyou are within me, I am within you.
Landscape: After Yuan Jian, 2001.
Wood, PVC, acrylic paint, and Chinese landscape painting, installation
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
viewers experience Book from the Sky differently from non-Chinese
viewers (seen as text, but then apprehended as illegible), and the reverse
is true of Square Word Calligraphy (apprehended as illegible, then
becoming legible for English speakers). Does this shift reflect a change
in your thinking?
from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy have different effects
on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially
the same. In both, the invented characters have a sort of equalizing effect:
they are playing a joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not
condescend to anybody. For example, there is no one on earth who can read
and comprehend the characters in Book from the Sky, myself included.
Square Word Calligraphy,
on the other hand, exists on the borderline between two completely different
cultures. To viewers from these two cultures, the characters present equal
points of familiarity and of strangeness. A Chinese person recognizes
the characters as familiar faces but cant figure out exactly who
they are. To a Westerner, they first appear as mysterious glyphs from
Asian culture, yet ultimately they can be read and understood. When Ive
lectured on my work people have asked, Do Chinese people find it
offensive that youve restructured Chinese into English? And
Ive answered, To the contrary, Chinese people should praise
me for having restructured English into Chinese. The absurdity of
Square Word Calligraphy is that it takes two different words from
two completely unrelated language systems and fuses them together into
one entity. If you use existing concepts of Chinese or English to try
and read or interpret these characters, you wont succeed. This total
disconnection between outer appearance and inner substance places people
in a kind of shifting cultural position, an uncertain transitional state.
the characters in Book from the Sky derived from traditional calligraphy?
Top: Tools used for Book from the Sky.
Bottom: Square Word Calligraphy classroom installation.
XB: On the
surface, the false characters in Book from the Sky look very similar
to traditional Chinese logographs. I chose to pattern them after the classic
Song-style characters traditionally used in printing. This style of character
was created and refined over a period of several centuries by traditional
craftsmen, and it came to be adopted as the standard script for book printing
because it is easy to carve and extremely legible. Consequently, it also
came to be viewed as the most representative style of Han script.
Once words are printed,
they immediately gain recognition and legitimacy. These characters are
devoid of any kind of personality and thus have no concrete implication
or emotional significance. In Book from the Sky I wanted to create
a huge, empty space free of meaning and content, without giving people
any hint of specificity.
you began Book from the Sky, did you have Western ideas about language
in mind? (The work seems to Western eyes to reflect notions of language
from Nietzsche to Derrida.)
a few interpretations of Book from the Sky have made comparisons
with contemporary Western philosophers, particularly Foucault and Derrida.
In 2000, the Albany Public Library organized an exhibition called Book-Ends:
Imagining the BookThe Work of Xu Bing and arranged
for Derrida and I to lecture together, an event that attracted quite a
large audience. People said that they found it interesting to have Xu
Bing and Derrida installed in the same space. I remember saying
to Derrida: Although so many people have used your theories to interpret
Book from the Sky, I had never read any of your books at the time
I was working on it. If I had read them, maybe I wouldnt have bothered
to continue. It would have been clear that there was no point in making
anything ever again.
Book from the Sky, 198791.
Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls, and false character
blocks, installation view.
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Book from the
Sky was created in China in the mid-1980s, when information about
modern Western thought was still very fragmented. The trendier academics
would mention names such as Nietzsche in their lectures, but what they
had to say was usually pretty vague. The primary materials that influenced
my thinking were works of traditional Chinese philosophy and studies in
the cognitive sciences. Another factor was my own understanding of culture
and my reaction against the cultural fever that was sweeping
over China at the time. This was the post-Cultural Revolution period,
and a long-denied yearning for knowledge had become an intense thirst
for information. [Trans. note: The period was marked by a surge of interest
on the part of Chinese intellectuals in traditional Chinese art and philosophy
as well as in modern Western culture, as contact with both had been highly
circumscribed or forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.] My feelings
also had a lot to do with a strong identification with the Zen teaching
that words are unreliable. Actually, the ideas of Western
contemporary philosophers such as Derrida have surprising areas of similarity
with Zen philosophy.
often refer, in your texts and interviews, to Zen or Chan Buddhism, especially
in terms of its goal of upsetting habits of thinking. Is that sort of
defamiliarization (to use a term from Western philosophy of
language) your goal in your own works?
correct. 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 peoples
habitual ways of thinkingwhat I call the cognitive structures
of the mind. These obstacles derive from intentionally mixing up different
received concepts to create a sense of estrangement and unfamiliarity.
People construct concepts based on their familiarity with particular phenomena:
thus concepts are really just the product of cognitive habits. Its
convenient to use fixed symbols to communicate and to act according to
certain concepts. You could say that so-called intellectuals are just
composites of a multitude of symbols and concepts. It is just those people
with the strongest cultural concepts who have been most discomfited by
my work, and as a result the most affected by it. This discomfiture and
inability to grasp the situation force you to reorganize and readjust
your preconceived notions. Habitual ways of thinking are disrupted in
the process of seeking a new basis for interpretation and understanding.
The laziness of habitual thinking is challenged, and the result is the
opening up of a wider, untapped cognitive space in which to rediscover
long-forgotten, primary sources of cognition and understanding.
This approach is
related to a kind of Zen training of the mind to receive enlightenment.
The Zen term for it is koan [in Chinese gongan, meditation theme],
a dialogue in which an answer is given that defies logic. One famous koan
has the student asking, What is Buddha? The Zen master replies,
Three bushels of hemp. In pondering how the Buddha can possibly
be three bushels of hemp, the students thought processes
fall into a great empty space, without any kind of support or foundation.
Then one day he breaks through to enlightenment with the realization that
the essence of Buddha exists in every moment and every aspect of life.
The Zen approach to enlightenment forces you to open up your mind in the
midst of something that completely goes against logic and common sensein
this way one achieves wisdom.
Original carved printing plate from Book from the Sky.
process of making Book from the Sky seems repetitive in a way that
suggests a meditative or Buddhist approach. Is that accurate in regard
to your experience of making the work?
Book from the Sky was a process of great seriousness and commitment.
This attitude was necessary to the work, and it was also necessary to
me psychologically. From the beginning, I was very clear about the importance
of being completely serious, because when you take a pretense to the extreme,
earnestly behaving as though it were real, then true absurdity emerges
and the power of the art is enhanced. Simply speaking, Book from the
Sky is a joke, a humorous gesture. But the idea of a person putting
four years of intensive effort into constructing and completing a jokethis
act in itself constitutes the substance of the piece. Here you have years
of toil and the most intensive attention to detail going into the creation
of something that says nothing. So this work is also a contradiction:
in deconstructing and satirizing culture, it also positions culture as
something to be taken very seriously.
Carved cherry blocks racked for printing.
My personal need
to create the work was also related to a particular cultural condition
and moment, prompted in the first place by my reaction against the post-Cultural
Revolution cultural fever that I spoke of earlier. I participated
very actively in this trend: I was reading a lot and constantly engaged
in discussions, but somehow I was falling too deeply into it, getting
lost in it. I was increasingly put off and disappointed by the game of
books and culture, like a hungry man who had eaten too much too fast and
was starting to feel sick. It was as though I was stuck in some kind of
video game loop, just going around in circles without achieving anything.
My mind was confused, and I felt like I had lost something. I thought,
I need to make my own book to express my feelings toward books.
I need to stop this endless game and do a concrete piece of work. I need
to return to a calm, undistracted state of mind. And every day when
I worked on those meaningless characters, it was like having
a dialogue with nature. There was no intrusion of knowledge or of argument.
My thinking in turn became clean and clear. This was not about creating
a piece of art, but about entering the realm of meditation.
did your experience in a traditional Chinese art school (focused on established
models, drawing, and printmaking) lead you to works that focus on three-dimensional
forms and ideas of language?
the first Westerner who has asked me this question, although in China
people have often asked me about this. Thats because in Chinese
art circles people know I have a very good foundation and understanding
of traditional art and methodologies. My early works were very much built
on that foundation, so when I began to incorporate more modern ideas and
approaches, many people expressed regret because they felt I was taking
a wrong direction. But for me that kind of change is natural. From 1984
to 87 the intellectual climate in China was extremely active and
vital, yet in those years I didnt do any significant piece of work,
because nothing I did felt right. Reading books and thinking about issues
is one thing, but trying to make art is a different story. To me, creating
art is the expression of ones sensitivity toward the state of society
and culture, which leads to a redefinition or re-creation of the existing
methodologies. When society changes, thinking changes, and, naturally,
art changes as well. One doesnt have to think about issues of modernity
or whatever. Traditional Chinese painting theory expresses the idea that
the style of the ink-and-brush should change with the times.
Top: Net and Leash, 1998. Steel, wire, wood, and sheep. Leashes
and cage formed of words, installation view.
Bottom: Cultural Animal, 1994. Mannequin and pig printed with
false English and Chinese scripts, detail of installation.
As a result of my
study of printmaking, I became fascinated with the concept of repetition.
This was the subject of my masters thesis [at the Central Academy
of Fine Arts in Beijing], and I also did a series of works based on the
concept of repetition, which became the precursor to Book from the
Sky. In fact, the visual impact of Book from the Sky is very
much related to the repetitive quality of the printing process. Another
major factor that influenced the change in my artistic direction in the
mid-1980s was an exhibition of North Korean painting shown in Beijing.
Most of the works were in the style of Socialist Realism, all bright flowers
and smiling faces looking up at the Great Leader. Those works were like
a mirror clearly reflecting what our own artistic environment in China
had become. It was an opportunity to experience the realization that this
art was a lot less intelligent than the eyes that were looking at it.
I knew that I had to walk away from that kind of art and do something
new, my own kind of art. But what shape this new art might take I didnt
know. In China at that time there were no clear signs for someone who
wanted to do contemporary art. Thinking about it now, I feel that the
state I experienced of having left one place but not yet knowing the next
destination was actually a pretty good situation to be in. That unclear,
uncertain terrain has become a space where my art can grow and develop.
GH: Book from
the Sky gave at least some viewers the impression that it was political
commentary. Does this political interpretation distort your original intention,
and has your own idea of the work evolved in relation to its reception
by the public and by official institutions in China?
the first exhibition of Book from the Sky [in Beijing] in 1988 there have
been a number of interpretations, and they tend to vary according to the
times. Before the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, most readings of
the work were positive: the general thinking was that the appearance of
Book from the Sky was a sign that Chinese artists were finally beginning
to produce modern art that would allow for a dialogue with the West. But
after Tiananmen, the work became the focus of criticism. It was denounced
as being the prime example of the 10 wrong tendencies in new art.
When Book from
the Sky was first shown in the West [in 1991] most interpretations
were also from a political standpoint, but later there was more focus
on social, cultural, linguistic, and philosophical implications. As an
artist, I dont usually think about political factors when I create
a work; I am focused on more concrete issuesthe methodology I plan
to use, what techniques will work best. But at the same time I believe
that since Chinese society is such a politically charged environment,
and since I grew up in that environment, it is unavoidable that political
elements will emerge in my work.
Xu Bings original text by
Valerie. C. Doran.
Glenn Harper is
the editor of Sculpture.