- Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical ReflectionsOur PickBy Roger T. Ames and Hsingyuan Tsao
- The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning Without WordsBy Britta Erickson
- Reinventing Tradition in a New World: The Arts of Gu Wenda, Wang Mansheng, Xu Bing, and Zhang HongtuBy Yan Sun and Wang Yin
- Landscape Landscript: Nature as Language in the Art of Xu BingBy Xu Bing and Shelagh Vainker
- Breakout: Chinese Art Outside ChinaBy Melissa Chiu
- Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu BingBy Peter D. McDonald
- Book from the Ground: From Point to PointBy Xu Bing
- China/Avant-Garde Exhibition Catalogue
Important Art by Xu Bing
Made up of 4,000 hand-carved and printed characters, Book from the Sky remains Xu Bing's most iconic work to date. At first glance, and to anyone who cannot read Chinese script, the pages appear simply as an elegant example of traditional Chinese calligraphy, evoking the richness and sophistication of China's long literary history. However, things are not as they first seem - Book from the Sky is, in fact, a collection of meaningless glyphs, imagined characters created by the artist to trick the viewer. First realized in the form of a 604-page, 4-volume book, Xu Bing replicated its content to become an immersive installation piece. For the Chinese audience in particular, Xu's Book from the Sky is profoundly disorientating. The wall panels, hanging scrolls and books which create the space conjure an atmosphere of almost religious sanctity and safety, with the whiteness of the paper evoking a purity of spirit, and their neat rows of black print permeate an aura of authority and knowledge. However, realizing the nonsensical nature of the characters redefines this feeling of calm into bewilderment.
Through challenging common preconceptions, Book from the Sky forces the viewer to re-evaluate ideas about the authority of language. As part of cultural reform, the Maoist government simplified written Chinese, whilst also diverging from the subtlety and delicacy of its traditional use in their propaganda slogans, which were direct and aggressive. By creating a written world of nonsense in the guise of an age-old authority, he recreates his own sense of confusion when growing up through changes to language, by which he lived in two worlds, creating Maoist propaganda slogans at school, and being taught the traditional scholastic canon by his historian father at home. Kai Yin-Lo comments on this by observing that, "while well versed in tradition, and in the culture and mores of the Communist regime, Xu Bing also poses cerebral and representational challenges to their validity and values."
Upon Xu Bin's departure, Book from the Sky was not shown again in China for nearly 20 years, despite multiple international installations of the work. In 2007, as Xu Bing returned to China from the United States, the work was included with "'85 New Wave: The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art" exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. As the work was reinstalled in the fall of 2018 for a major retrospective for Xu Bing, the monumental work was described as defining the post-Mao period in China, "it evokes the doubt - that old and cherished signifiers had lost their referents - that prevailed among intellectuals in post-reform China, many of whom pored over the work, obsessively looking for a single, real character."
Bing continued to work with the written word after his move to the USA in 1990. After years of preparation, he created Square Word Calligraphy, which he often calls New English Calligraphy as he transforms English words nearly beyond recognition in the style of Chinese characters. Using traditional ink work techniques, the characters again appear to be Chinese at first glance. However, his meticulous positioning and stylistic play with the letters has rendered words into the square shapes which characterize the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy, with the works speaking "to the problems [he] encountered in a foreign country"
Still affected by the linguistic upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, Bing here explores our perception of language further, whilst incorporating his experiences with learning English. What is consistent in his work through the 1980s and 1990s is a connection with China's deeply-rooted scholastic traditions, something which he was taught by his intellectually-minded father in private, despite the external transformations of the Chinese language which were being implemented by Chairman Mao. In his youth, Bing's experience of language was one of two worlds - at home, he practiced the fine art of literati calligraphy which was so respected by Imperial Chinese values, whilst in his capacity as student and worker, he created banners and posters in the government's simplified, direct style.
However, instead of frustration with the dichotomies of language, Xu expresses a desire for harmony in his Square Word Calligraphy. Linguistically, he creates a new form of writing, which on a personal level helped him to understand English as a new lexicon, though on a larger scale could help others to dilute the perceived distances between the West and East. Culturally, he explores his identity as both Chinese and American, bridging the gap in some examples through writing out simple nursery rhymes in this format, and in others poignant slogans about freedom of expression. Concurrent with the exhibition of his Square Word Calligraphy, Xu has even taught classes in the USA on the design and creation of this invented visual language. Dan Cameron, former curator at the New Museum, explains: "the use of time-honored techniques to teach people a new way to write in English might be taken as an homage to a venerated tradition." Both following and questioning this "venerated tradition" is a constant theme throughout Xu's works up until the early 2000s, stemming from his scholastic upbringing, and his appreciation of the physicality of books and writing which he learnt through spending days on end in Peking University's library reading rooms, where his mother would send him while she worked.
In 2004, Xu Bing embarked in a new direction, moving away from his language-based works with a series, titled Background Story, of mixed-media installations. The illusionistic works challenge the viewer's perception. When approached from the front, the work appears as if the artist has mounted a large-scale monochromatic, traditional Chinese landscape painting on a light box. Using what appears to be a variety of traditional brushstroke techniques, the artist composes a scene with alum lump rocks in the foreground, with a series of rounded hills rising and receding into the distance, complete with the requisite pine trees, with a small residence tucked away, ideally on the lakeside, in the center of the image.
Approaching the five-foot-tall piece, small clues suggest that things are not as simple as they first seem; instead of the traditional ink work on paper, objects appear to visually fall behind the surface of the paper. The installation of the work allows the viewer to go behind the work and see behind the illusion. Instead of ink on paper, Xu Bing has placed plant fibers, hemp, paper and other debris against a frosted glass screen, backlit to transform these ordinary materials into something majestic. The viewer must confront and overcomes their initial assumptions over the course of experiencing this work, as the transition from the front to the rear of the piece takes us from what is known and recognizable to a wholly unexpected understanding of its essence.
In keeping with his previous work with calligraphy, which challenged the audience's preconceived ideas about their surroundings whilst maintaining a reverence of tradition, Xu Bing's Background Story series employs traditional Chinese aesthetics to promote this same inquisitive mindset. A direct response to 17th-Century painter Wang Shimin, Background Story Seven turns the mundane and the discarded into the elegance and tranquility which was so respected in Chinese landscape painting during the country's imperial past, and it is China's history that Xu Bing repeatedly connects with in his work, no matter how diverse its materials or style. He also reflects on the generational differences which have gradually de-valued materials and objects over time, stating that his mother "hesitates to throw away even the smallest things," but that now our 'throwaway culture' means much of what could be useful goes to waste. This comment relates specifically to the differences between the West and Bing's home country, which he notes maintains a penchant for frugality and recycling. This critique of modern Western behaviors lies in contrast to his later critiques of industrial China. With multiple levels of meaning attached to Background Story, Xu Bing primarily prompts us to question our surroundings, as he did in his calligraphic work, so that we are continuously aware of what is real, and what is merely a mirage - he wants us to realize that our external world, contrary to our belief, is ever-changing and transformative.