Cited as Xu Bing’s most comprehensive retrospective in Beijing, Thought and Method curatorially and artistically articulates Xu’s career of over four decades and includes more than sixty works including prints, drawings, installation, film, documentary footage and archival material. On show from 21 July to 18 October 2018, it is the first exhibition that UCCA has put up after the complete restoration of their Great Hall to its original 1800-square-metre dimensions. The exhibit’s name, Thought and Method, was deliberated over UCCA’s ambition in providing a systematic overview of Xu’s corpus, methodology, and motivation surrounding his artistic exploration.
Xu’s works under consideration here have been divided into three sections, a direct reflection of the turning points in his artistic context and processes. Book from the Sky (1987-1991), Ghosts Pounding on the Wall (1990-1991), and Background Story (2004-present) allow viewers to observe the means in which Xu’s meditations on signification, textuality, and linguistic aporia have been evoked; A, B, C… (1991), Art for the People (1999) and Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present) project his explorations of hybridity, difference, and translingual practice through his works; his more recent works Tobacco Project (2000-present), Phoenix (2008-2013), Book from the Ground (2003-present) and his first feature length film Dragonfly Eyes (2017), exist as commentaries on economic and geopolitical changes that have contributed towards China’s societal evolution and the world's in the last hundred years.
From his early explorations of culture, language, and traditional knowledge systems, to his investigations into cross-cultural contact and globalization in the 90s, to recent reflections on technology and modernity in our 21st century, it is no wonder Xu Bing has made a profound impact on the history of Chinese contemporary art, and by extension it has made him one of the most influential artists on the international stage. Xu is armed with an indubitably keen sensitivity to hesitations and ironies that reside with historical periods, further allowing him to produce works that are bound closely to their social and cultural contexts, pushing viewers to reflect on the environments they are in.
Xu graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1977 where he became a brilliant technician and aesthetician of his chosen medium – printmaking. There he created works such as Shattered Jade (1977-83), exemplifying the rustic environment he was in. He then went on to establish himself as a maverick amidst China’s avant-garde movement, pushing limits of woodblock art with Five Series of Repetitions (1986-87) where he recorded the birth and obliteration of an image.
Book from the Sky (1987-91) follows suit in terms of design, hand carving and printing in provocatively painstaking manners, comprised of four thousand nonsensical characters for this magisterial work. Upon completion, this work drew vehement responses from artists and intellectuals in Beijing. Xu was denounced for “liberal heresy” and “academic stuffiness”, yet the aforementioned artists and intellectuals were ones who obsessively scrutinized the work with the hope of a single real character. This obsessive search was described as a harsh metaphor, a larger suspicion that reflected how old and cherished signifiers had lost their meanings at the genesis of post-reform China.
Xu began Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990-1991) in China and completed it in America. Moving to New York in 1990, he saw a shift in artistic expression within the emerging discourse of contemporary art. He became a key figure, witty and trenchant. The execution of this work between continents further exposes the ironies of translation and migration. Comprised of an ink rubbing of the Great Wall of China on masses of reams of paper, the ways in which it eulogizes and problematizes an “imaginary fatherland” become apparent.
The artworks that followed, such as American Silkworm Series (1994-98) and Post Testament (1992-93), point towards the joys and frustrations of émigré life as well as the perplexing experiences pertaining to transcultural contact. These notions reach their highest development in Xu’s trademark Square Word Calligraphy (1994-present), where a hybrid writing system was invented by reorganizing the English alphabet in visual coherence to the structural logic of hanzi.
Xu returned to China and his alma mater in 2007, driven with ambitions of renewing institutions that shaped his perspectives. There, his creative concerns shifted towards the economic and geo-political, reflected explicitly in Tobacco Project (1999-2011). Xu uses tobacco in this work as both a material and a subject, tracking the movements of international capital during the 20th century, connecting North Carolina to Shanghai, American cigarettes and the Chinese markets. He presents the culture of tobacco as a far-reaching system of signs and symbols that continue to provide a connective international thread in the age of globalism. Tobacco Project contains elements of sociology, history, politics and personal narratives, but is ultimately Xu’s take on tobacco – a subject that fascinates him for its history of innovation as much as for its exploitation and self-contradiction. Phoenix (2008-13) and Dragonfly Eyes (2017) further highlight Xu’s aforementioned shift towards the economic and geo-political, where the first comments on China’s breakneck development and the latter dramatizes the role of individuals within the framework of an ever-expanding surveillance network.
Balancing intricate expression with deep suspicions of how thing are simply not as they ever seem, Xu constructs works that emerge as complex, myriad forms, but never without the arbitrariness of their initial archetype. They aim to expose dexterous answers to complex issues, additionally raising new and insightful questions. Just as how Xu Bing has become a metonym for Chinese contemporary art, we cannot fault how his thoughts and methods are unmistakable.
'Xu Bing: Thought and Method' is on show from 21 July to 18 October 2018 at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing.
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