In an earlier post (Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 2 of 2), I reported on our visit to New York City to see Xu Bing’s installation Phoenix, 2008-10. Using discarded construction materials Xu Bing created two 150 foot long phoenixes weighing in excess of 20 tons and suspended them from the ceiling of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine about 15 feet above the ground.
Xu Bing is a contemporary of Ai Weiwei (see Ai Weiwei: Art and Politics in China). Like Ai Weiwei’s, his work often speaks to contemporary social and political issues in China. Both artists have expressed concern with how China, Beijing in particular, is changing at the expense of its history and architecture. The old is being replaced with the new with little regard for neighbourhoods and communities.
Originally commissioned to create the centerpiece of a new commercial complex in Beijing, Xu Bing lost the contract when the developers realized that the raw material for the piece was being drawn from construction waste at the complex site. Using discarded materials (feathers fashioned from shovels, crowns made of hard hats and heads formed from jackhammers) Xu Bing created an intricate and elaborate depiction of a male (Feng) and female (Huang) phoenix in flight. It is a work that tells a multitude of stories.
I first saw this installation in 2013 when it was at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, along with several other seminal works by Xu Bing. One such piece, 1st Class (2011), is a visually stunning work originally created as part of a residency program at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
The faux tiger-skin carpet, measuring 40 feet in length, was constructed by using approximately 500,000 Chinese Red Strike cigarettes. By placing the filtered end of the cigarettes either up or down the effect is created.
The “sculpture”, similar to the phoenixes, represents more than it seems. A number of historical and social references are embedded in the piece, such as: the Duke family’s link to the fortunes of the tobacco industry in West Virginia in the early 1900s; the fact that Asia was a prime target for tobacco marking through Shanghai; slave labour was associated with the early days of the tobacco industry; and, the British and Chinese familiarity with the symbol of the tiger.
Another arresting installation, which is part of Xu Bing’s ongoing project Background Story (2004-present), re-creates an ancient Chinese ink drawing entitled Landscape Painted on the Double Ninth Festival, a 1705 Qing Dynasty masterpiece.
The work is presented in a light box, more than 25 feet high, depicting mountains in the clouds and detailed evergreens as part of the landscape.
Walk behind the piece and you discover that it is not an ink drawing at all but an illusion that has been intricately cobbled together by the artist from trash and plant clippings and taped to the frosted glass of the light box.
A further example of why I find the art of Xu Bing so fascinating is an ongoing project that he is working on that showcases his inventiveness from a completely different perspective. His Book from the Ground (2003-present) is part of a long-standing investigation of language and the use of signs and icons as a means to communicate. His exploration of visual communication will culminate in the publication of From Point to Point, a novel written entirely in a “language of icons”.
I plan to write on this Xu Bing project in a future post but in the meantime to pique your curiosity I have reproduced pages from Book from the Ground to test your imagination.
Of the Chinese contemporary artists whom I have been following I think Xu Bing is one of the more cerebral and a less in-your-face critic of political and social issues in China. The heavy lifting in the direct confrontation mode is definitely Ai Weiwei’s forte but I have been drawn to Xu Bing’s more subtle approach.