Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
28 February–19 May 2013
by JAN STUART, Keeper of Asia at the British Museum
His work crosses boundaries and brings together different points of reference in startling new creations that bridge the East/West cultural divide, explore the continuum between writing and pictorial art, and make us question afresh that old saw of the relationship between reality and illusion. For over two decades Xu Bing has been steadily delivering exciting breakthroughs that have been featured in major exhibitions around the world, including in China, Japan, Korea, the United States, continental Europe and the United Kingdom, where a must-see, cogently organized and well chosen, three-room exhibition, Landscape/Landscript: Nature as Language in the Art of Xu Bing, recently opened at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
As recently as 2011, Xu Bing was the focus of a solo exhibition in London at British Museum and now less than two years later, Xu Bing is back and represented in a completely different type of presentation at the Ashmolean. For the British Museum, Xu constructed an installation that consisted of a shadow box that convincingly resembled a monumental Chinese brush-and-ink landscape painting when approached, but upon walking behind shocked viewers as they discovered his artful subterfuge. The painterly effect was constructed by affixing dried plants and detritus onto a backlit, white plastic sheet without the use of a single brushstroke. This mesmerising work, Background Story 7, jolted the audience into realising how faulty their original “understanding” of the object had been. Reflection upon the intrinsic tension between “outward appearance and inner content” – Xu Bing’s own phrase – or the exploration of how the human mind processes what it sees and reconciles the duality of the material and immaterial is a leitmotif throughout his oeuvre, which covers a broad range of medium, including drawing, printmaking, and major installation works. Xu Bing is as much a philosopher as an artist.
The richly engaging display at the Ashmolean puts aside his work as “installation artist” to focus on his protean talent as one of the most thought-provoking graphic artists of our times in a selection of works on paper, mostly rendered with pencil, brush and ink, and printing techniques. Xu stands among the most innovative masters of the print medium – first coming to world attention in 1989 with Book from the Sky, an installation of book pages he suspended from the ceiling and covered a room with, all of which were sheets hand-printed from woodblocks that he had hand-cut and designed. The handsomely wrought typography beckoned visitors to get close, but they left feeling angry or bewildered by the discovery that what had at first looked convincingly like Chinese writing proved to be glyphs invented by Xu Bing that resisted any attempt to find semantic meaning. Xu’s ability to make one thing look like something else is a reoccurring theme in his art that is explored in key works in the Ashmolean display that takes a welcome departure from focusing on Book from the Sky to introduce works both earlier and later.
What Xu Bing enthusiasts have never been treated to before this eye-opening exhibition is the opportunity to witness the beginning of his engagement with art and be led on a path that offers the chance to watch how he developed the major new visual schema known as “landscript”, a picto-textual conception, which is shown from early experiments in the 1990s to its recent culmination in a brilliant work of four panels called the Suzhou Landscripts (which was eight years in gestation, just finished in 2012). The exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue by Shelagh Vainker, with revealing contributions by Xu Bing and others, offers many insights and is fully rewarding even without reading the catalogue or having any benefit of prior knowledge of Chinese art history or of the artist’s own fascinating background.
Works in the first room reveal Xu’s early prowess, much of it self-taught and then learned as a student at the Central Academy for Fine Arts in Beijing, as a draughtsman using pencil and ink, as well as his early aptitude as a printmaker, in works from the 1970s to mid 1980s. It was revelatory to see Xu Bing’s command of accurate, descriptive detail in his early portrayals of rural life – a style abandoned by the time the viewer enters the second room of the exhibition. In his early years Xu Bing was heavily influenced by the Barbizon school, especially by Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), some of whose works are on view for comparison with Xu’s own. This perspective allows us to see that although Xu Bing is proudly and thoroughly grounded in Chinese tradition, from the outset he was always aware of Western art approaches, and this long before he moved to the United States in 1989. His comfort with navigating the boundaries between Eastern and Western artistic conceptualisations is long standing.
One of the most interesting early works is a drawing by Xu Bing of the Buddhist cave-temple site of Dunhuang that is situated in the Gobi desert. He placed sand grains between the drawing board and his paper in order to create a granulated effect to evoke the eroded cliff face. This sensitivity – while very literal – to the natural world, as well as a deep sympathy for the simplicity of rural life seen in many of the early works, carries over into his later works, but transformed into a radically more conceptual form. No matter that Xu Bing excelled at direct, naturalistic description of the world around him, by the 1990s he was abandoning this approach to instead give the written word primacy as the signifier of landscape elements in his pictures. He developed a style in which word and pictorial landscape elements oscillate back and forth, one transformed into the other and back again, with the boundaries between them eliminated. In this new visual schema called “landscript”, language and nature are seamlessly combined.
This is possible because of the pictorial origin of many Chinese characters. As the written language developed, pictorial elements were retained, but often combined with ideographic and phonetic elements to create the large vocabulary needed for fully nuanced communication. Nonetheless, pictographic qualities are still endemic in modern Chinese language. Thus the written word for “tree” resembles a tree, the word for “water” looks like a flowing river, and the word for “stone” captures the appearance of a rock face or stony embankment.
Xu Bing’s belief that the “pattern of Chinese characters” is fundamental to the very shape and fabric of Chinese culture and affects “every aspect of the Chinese people” has become his passion in art. The notion that calligraphy and painting share a common origin, has been recognized for centuries in Chinese artistic practice, but no one before Xu Bing, has directly turned language into pictures. In the Suzhou Landscripts, Xu, also while picking up on another fundamental art practice in China – that of modern artists copying or following the works of early masters – created monochrome landscape paintings in the style of ancient masters that employ Chinese characters to describe the rocks, trees, and even the architecture, instead of following the descriptive brushstrokes of his model paintings. By writing the character for “tree,” repeated in clusters, Xu pictures a forest. Unlike in his earlier landscript works, here he more subtly merges or assimilates the written words into the elements being depicted, so they do not stand out too obviously, but require a journey of discovery to pick out.
One other prominent and new element in the Suzhou Landscripts is the superimposition in red of large, archaically written characters over the landscape elements. These takes us back to the origin of written language over two millennia ago and the red colour is the same used for Chinese seals that today are the main vehicle for people to see and remember the style of ancient script types. Xu Bing uses black and red ink to write different style of words in the four panels – giving us almost a history lesson in calligraphy – all the while forcing us to exercise all our mental powers. In these works written language has taken over the descriptive function of brushstrokes forcing viewers to recognize that we apprehend the natural world through the filter of human cognition represented by language, rather than through a direct, unmediated experience.
In one more play on traditional brush art, the Suzhou Landscripts carry calligraphic inscriptions, as did the antique model paintings, but here Xu offers his own mini-essay on the history of Chinese art, including reference to the classic teaching manual, The Mustard Seed Garden, that had a strong influence on him and which he used as the source for another of work in the exhibition. The real surprise with the inscriptions is not so much their content, but that despite the fact that they look ever so much like Chinese writing, including in the disposition at the tops of the panels and arrayed in vertical columns – is the thunderous realisation that they are written in English. Xu used his invented script called “square word calligraphy”, a system he devised using elegant Chinese brushstrokes to render the letters of the alphabet, which he configures in a grid pattern that is both readable as English word but in form closely imitates the shape of a Chinese character.
The stunning Suzhou Landscripts bring us up-to-date with Xu Bing’s prodigious artistry, taking us in new directions, while also encapsulating issues of key importance to him. In all regards, Xu Bing has transformed one thing into another in these panels – his antique Chinese model paintings become a brand new international vision, the written language reads as a landscape picture, the “Chinese characters” are English words, and what seem to be brush paintings are prints. If it sounds like a gimmick it is not. Xu Bing has established a new conceptual foundation, while offering the aesthetic pleasures of apprehending well-designed and crafted works of art.
The exhibition concludes with the Forest Project paintings that Xu worked on a few years ago in Kenya in a drive to raise awareness of environmental protection. The three paintings consist of Xu Bing’s versions of children’s words and pictures on the theme of nature. The spontaneity, freshness, and simplicity of these works recalls his early works and makes a fitting conclusion to the exhibition, especially by teasing out his role as a teacher and belief in the positive power of art. Today Xu Bing, who lives between New York and Beijing, spends most of his time in China, where he has been Vice Director of the Central Academy for Fine Arts since 2008. He is not only leading the next generation of talent, but his own work continues to inspire and open new mental horizons – he is a force in the modern art world to be watched and admired.